The new time travel thriller, Predestination is both an encouraging a depressing start for cinema in 2015. It’s encouraging because it’s a damn fine movie, one with loads of ideas and a great deal of humanity. The fact that it’s a good movie released in January is close to a miracle. The cinematic wasteland of the first month of the year rarely offers up anything better than mediocre but Predestination is a rare diamond in a sea of shit. Like a diamond though, it’s imperfect and flawed which only makes me want to applaud its ambition even more. I’d rather watch a movie shoot for the stars and sort of miss the mark than one that is content to keep its feet planted firmly on the ground.
What’s depressing is the fact that hardly anyone will see this movie. It’s playing in a few theaters across the country but will most definitely not get a wide release. It’s available to rent on streaming services such as Amazon Instant, Itunes, and On Demand. So it’s actually more readily available to you than Taken 3 since you don’t even have to leave your house to sit through it. You wont though will you? Despite more and more movies being released simultaneously in select theaters and on VOD, many people still view these films as subpar. People assume that a movie that doesn’t make it into theaters is automatically bad and to a certain extent I can’t say I blame them. That used to be the case. Remember going to Blockbuster and looking at all those direct-to-video releases featuring washed up movie stars? Films with titles like Hidden Assassin or Death Machine? Those were terrible yes, but as much as we like to wax nostalgic, the 90’s are long gone. Box office sales are down and less and less people are going to the movie theater. VOD is the only way for small movies and independent studios to make a profit. I’m glad these movies are getting a chance to be seen but pissed as hell that dreck like The Woman in Black 2 is playing on hundreds of screens across the country while Predestination is playing on five. I hate to wring my hands together and whine, “it isn’t fair”, but you know what? It isn’t fucking fair. This is a film worthy of a wide release. It would look great on the big screen, suck the entire audience in with it’s bizarre and touching narrative, and leave people with a lot to talk about as they exit the theater whether they hated or loved it. But no, it’s on VOD and that must mean it’s bad so people won’t watch it, while Taken 3 will be seen by millions. Like the movie itself, it’s one hell of a paradox.
Most time travel movies fall apart when you think about them too much. Predestination is no different but what elevates it is the the way it embraces the plot holes and makes them the crucial element of its story. This is a movie predicated on paradoxes. Remember in Looper when Bruce Willis told his younger self that they could get stuck talking about time travel for hours? Predestination is that conversation only presented through actions and events rather than long winded dialogue. No character wastes much time discussing the intricacies and head scratching elements of time travel. They simply accept them for what they are while acknowledging how frustrating they can be.
If it sounds like I’m keeping things vague, that’s only because I have to. This is a movie best viewed with little to no foreknowledge. If you do decide to give it a chance, I encourage you to read nothing about it. Don’t watch the trailer, don’t check reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s ‘certified fresh’ okay?), don’t even read the Wikipedia page. Obviously, if you’ve read the short story that it’s based on, All You Zombies, by Robert A. Heilein, you’ll know what to expect. But if you haven’t, go in cold. You’ll thank me for it.
Written and directed by the Spierig Brothers, a pair of genre filmmakers from Australia who previously gave us the derivative zombie movie Undead and the surprisingly entertaining vampire flick Daybreakers, Predestination is their best film to date. Their influences are steeped in 40’s and 50’s noir. Not the noir personified by people like Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, or Raymond Chandler though. Their movies channel the spirit of the comic books that populated the stands for a brief decade. I imagine they grew up reading things like Shock SuspenStories, Weird Tales, Weird Science, and The Crypt of Terror. The images they create jump off the screen in bright colors, the camera sets up shots like panels off the page, men wear sharp suits and fedoras while women wear slightly futuristic dresses that still belong in the 1950’s. The period details reflect the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s accurately but in a manner that is slightly off kilter, like the way a 50’s comic book writer imagined the future of the 70’s. The ideas they play with, and the ones outlined by Heinlein in his story, are big, strange, and oddly progressive even by today’s standards. It’s not every time travel thriller that features a transgendered person as one of its main characters.
I’m not going to describe the brief prologue that sets up the time travel element except to say ‘there’s a brief prologue that sets up the time travel element’. Got it? Good. After that , we move to a seedy 1970’s bar. The place doesn’t have many customers and the barkeep (Ethan Hawke) seems like he’s waiting for something. In walks a strange looking individual (Sarah Snook) whose androgynous physique earns her scornful looks from the other patrons. Hawke is kind to her though even as she snaps at every comment he makes. The two eventually get to talking and she promises that she can tell him the best story he’s ever heard. Hawke scoffs and tells her that he’s heard it all but she insists that her story takes the cake. They make a bet over it, settle down with drinks and cigarettes, and she begins her tale.
This takes up the bulk of the movie with the narrative shifting back and forth between the stages of Snook’s life and Hawke’s reactions in the bar. Her life story is a strange one. Raised in an orphanage and forever an outsider–she doesn’t connect with the other girls, gets into a lot of fights, and is much smarter than all of her peers–she consistently pines for something more. She gets her chance when a mysterious stranger (Noah Hawley) arrives at the orphanage and offers her a chance to join the Space Corps. Women aren’t allowed to be astronauts yet but the space program has finally realized that their men need some, shall we say ‘companionship’ as they travel across the cosmos. Snook has no desire to be a ‘space whore’ (my term, not the film’s) but is so eager for a chance to see the stars, she agrees anyway. It was at this point in the movie that I realized it takes place in no reality that I am familiar with. It recalls the 50’s belief that man was going to travel across the stars for all time and that space was our final conquest. So many science fiction films and comics of that era imagined a world where space travel was the norm. Predestination exists in that world and imagines it with consistent clarity of vision.
You may be wondering where time travel comes into the story and indeed so was I. Snook’s narrative takes up nearly an hour of screen time in 105 minute movie. There are some hints of time travel throughout but they’re sprinkled in with a subtle hand. It’s not until she’s done and Hawke is allowed to speak that the film jumps headfirst into the rabbit hole of paradoxes. It’s a fun, twisty ride that wastes no time but to say any more about it would be to give the whole game away. Also, entertaining as it is, Snook’s story is the real heart of the movie. It’s a very affecting, moving portrait of a woman trying to make a difference in a world that has no interest in her. Some of what happens to her could be considered melodramatic but Snook sells every moment. Hawke is fine and all (he’s sort of become Hollywood’s go to guy for B-movies) but this is Snook’s movie. She’s terrific whether she’s playing the idealistic young woman or the embittered man in the bar. It’s not a spoiler to tell you she undergoes a sex change operation halfway through her life but the reasons for such an operation are harrowing and shocking. It’s also a necessary element of the plot and you’re just gonna have to trust me on that one.
The idea of being able to go back into your past and fix your problems is so appealing that I’m sure everyone has thought about it at some point. If we could just tell our younger selves to not take that car ride or to tell that new boyfriend/girlfriend to fuck off, everything would be better right? Maybe not though. Maybe those events have to happen and trying to change them only cements them further. Maybe those moments define us for better or worse. Also, don’t a lot of us miss our younger selves and pine for days gone by? Maybe if we met them, we’d just want to hang out with them for as long as we could, if only to admire the way they look at the world with eyes that aren’t jaded yet. These are the kinds of thoughts the characters have during Predestination and the movie works best because we care about Snook and Hawke, not because we’re waiting for the next twist. As for the twists, some of them are predictable, particularly the final one. That’s where I was a little disappointed. I guessed the last big reveal with about a half hour to go but thought the flick knew I had guessed it. The final montage treats it like a grand, shocking final punch to the gut though and that’s why the film isn’t quite the masterpiece it could have been. Still, Predestination is not about the twists. It’s about the human element, about what we would really do if we ever met our younger selves, about the dangers of discovering the truth of your own history, and about accepting our own fate. I might add that the conclusion it comes to about fate is a bit grim but, in a movie based off the writings of a Cold War era science fiction writer, that’s only appropriate.
So please, skip Taken 3, stay inside, make yourself a nice hot drink, go over to Amazon Instant, and watch a damn good movie about time travel. Put aside your preconceived notions about VOD releases and give it a shot. Hell, maybe if enough people start watching these flicks, they’ll start putting them in theaters again. That’d be a pretty cool paradox wouldn’t it?