The past, present, and future become intertwined in Michael and Peter Spierig’s twisty sci fi thriller Predestination. Ethan Hawke stars as our time traveling violin case carrying hero but the nature of good and evil is something that becomes increasingly difficult to define. Can you influence the future? Or is your life predestined?
Time travel as a concept isn’t always handled well in narrative cinema. There are notable exceptions like Shane Carruth’s low budget indie Primer (2004), but for every film with depth and nuance there are many more that would rather not delve into the complexities. Predestination however does explore the concept in more detail and it interrogates the paradoxes associated with this science fiction trope.
Predestination is an intricate movie full of clever scripting and detailed plotting. It follows the story of a Temporal Agent known as The Barkeep (Ethan Hawke) as he jumps from time period to time period chasing the elusive ‘Fizzle Bomber.’ Our hero’s final destination is New York in 1975 where he intends to stop this terrorist before he conducts his worst attack – it will kill tens of thousands of New Yorkers.
The narrative opens with a shoot out between The Barkeep and the Fizzle Bomber. Our hero however is left terribly scarred and his face is rendered unrecognisable. Reconstructive surgery follows and he is left with an entirely different appearance, a new voice, and a resolve to find the bomber and stop him once and for all.
His superiors inform him that he has one last shot and then he will be retired. He is told explicitly that if he fails this time it will result in his death and so The Barkeep jumps back in time (from somewhere in the early nineties) to the early seventies. There he takes up as a bar man and his every day charm ensures that he fits in easily. Hawke’s charismatic turn behind the bar prompts a young man (a waif like figure played by Sarah Snook) to spark up conversation with him.
Liquor and bar stories
This young man turns out to have an interesting past and he bets a bottle of liquor that he can tell The Barkeep the best story that he has ever heard. The Barkeep accepts the hyberbolic bet and the young man spins a great yarn. It involves shady government agencies, orphanages, lost children, and derelict futures. Hawke listens impassively and here Predestination starts to find an interesting tone – that of conspiracy theorists, ridiculous claims, and far-fetched perspectives on reality.
In terms of narrative structure then the writing implies voracity from both accounts – that of The Barkeep’s time traveling, and that of the young man’s past – but there is the underlying possibility that our narrators aren’t exactly reliable. They like to drink and their stories are of course out of the realms of current potential but just like with all great sci fi it could be true.
The young man tells The Barkeep of a terrible loss that he experienced in the past and the person that hurt him. The Barkeep then decides to tell the young man a story of his own and offers him the chance to fix his past and change his future. The young man doesn’t especially believe The Barkeep and is rightfully suspicious when he finds himself directed into a back room behind the bar. There The Barkeep grabs a violin case and tells the young man that it is a time traveling device.
Accomplices in time
This prompts the story that follows and the two men becoming time traveling accomplices. Now its worth noting that this narrative really comes into its own in the third act and it’s not worth discussing further – its better seen on the screen than read in a review. But its safe to say that it is a believable romp and it poses some interesting philosophical thoughts on the nature of time. This is a subject that fans of Hawke’s career will note that he likes to explore in narrative cinema. Pretty much all of his work with Richard Linklater revolves around the notion of time.
In terms of composition the filming is good and the editing better. Combined they ensure that the film articulates its narrative well and neither detract from the story being told. Substance and form work hand in hand to give Predestination a clear visual thrust. In fact the set design is well thought out and so are the costumes that the characters wear. This is a film that belongs to several different time periods and not just one.
It’s a sci fi movie that borrows stylistically from seventies science fiction writing. There’s a touch of the graphic novel format to the depiction of the bad guy ‘Fizzle Bomber’ and there is something in the narrative that is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s writing. Perhaps it’s in the suggestion of insanity, madness, and loss of perspective in our protagonist but thanks to Hawke’s performance we find a human heart beating in the confusion.
What does stand out however is the suggestion that our hero could be a conspiracy theorist, or perhaps schizophrenic. He records his thoughts on tape and he has loads of newspaper clippings detailing what could happen if other actions don’t. It’s hard enough for an audience to think through the questions posed by Predestination’s time jumping narrative and its harder still for our protagonist to sift through pieces and fragments of time and find any sort of cohesive whole that makes sense.
Predestination is a convincing elliptical time travel film but it stands out more for its science fiction tone. In this it delves into bigger moral and philosophical themes (as sci fi often does) and its characters ensure that the journey is believable. Hawke is a charismatic actor that picks interesting screenplays (if you’ll forgive the dull The Purge, 2013) and Predestination delivers on its conceptual promises.
Any consideration of time travel quickly uncovers paradoxical problems and in Predestination those problems are more apparent after the credits roll. It’s a film that bears thinking about and that is always something to celebrate.