Predestination (2014)

Predestination first published by Sight & Sound, March 2015

Review: In Greek mythology, it is precisely Oedipus’ attempts to avoid murdering his own father and marrying his own mother that drive him to fulfil that predicted fate. Yet in dramatising this clash of free will and determinism, the ancients had only the divine machinery of prophecy to fix the future of their narratives. Set in a more secular age, this film from Australian genre-loving brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (Undead, 2003; Daybreakers, 2009) concerns a bureau that uses privileged prescience to stop crimes (specifically terrorist bombings) before they can ever be committed; yet it replaces the oracles of ancient myth – and the ‘precogs’ of Steven Spielberg’s similar Minority Report (2002) – with the speculative fiction of time travel, even if it is still exploring the same age-old questions of how much we are prisoners of our own biology and psychology, our genetic heritage and environmental circumstance. Here characters keep being confronted with choices that have been massaged and manipulated earlier (often decades earlier) to ensure that only one outcome is truly possible. With one of its characters a true hermaphrodite, Predestination is as much concerned with issues of gender destiny as with the intertwined dynamics of terrorism and counterterrorism – but it handles both with a timely economy.

“See, you’ll find out that time has a very different meaning for people like us,” suggests the Bartender/Temporal Agent at the centre of Predestination. He is played by Ethan Hawke, star of Daybreakers and seasoned time traveler (of a different kind) in Richard Linklater’s long-game Before… trilogy (1995-2013) and Boyhood (2014). Time here works in a complicated manner, undermining conventional causality, confounding identities (professional, sexual, familial), and engendering a scenario that is, even for those viewers who imagine they know what is coming, remarkably singular. In keeping with these temporal convolutions, key events taking place in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties are all at once projected as a strange, not quite recognisable future (All You Zombies, Robert Heinlein’s short story from which this is faithfully expanded, was penned in 1958), and tinged with an alternative-reality nostalgia. Criss-crossing multiple time periods, the film carefully elaborates its ingeniously looping paradox “that can’t be paradoctored”, as the worldweary Bartender and a younger loquacious customer (Sarah Snook, astonishingly versatile) struggle to turn damaged pasts into bright futures, and end up chasing their own tails.

This is a noirish world full of tough bastards and sons of bitches – but it is also closed, almost solipsistic, with very few characters (“I don’t get out and meet a lot of new people,” as one of them puts it). The screenplay is tightly constructed, its hidden Sophoclean ironies best appreciated with more than one viewing – but for all the high-concept twists and turns, there are next to no special effects (the time machine, charmingly, looks like a violin case), as this remains very much a tragedy, rooted in personae who must learn through suffering, face incestuous home truths and grapple heroically with the inevitable.

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Synopsis: Spoiler Alert!!! Armed with a time machine, an agent hopes to stop the elusive Fizzle Bomber before he can commit a massive terrorist attack on New York in 1975. Given a new face after his containment of an earlier bomb leaves him disfigured, the agent is sent back to 1970 New York, on his final mission. There, working undercover as a bartender, he listens to a younger man tell his hardluck story. This man, born a woman, was abandoned as a baby at a Cleveland orphanage in 1945. Intelligent and aggressive, 18-year-old Jane was recruited in her teens by Robertson to try out for a (fake) programme to provide female company for male astronauts. Impregnated and abandoned by a stranger, Jane lost her female sex organs during a difficult childbirth and, learning that she was hermaphroditic, underwent surgery to become a man. Her baby girl was abducted from the nursery. Bitter, ‘John’ moved to New York.

The agent offers John the opportunity to confront his child’s abductor, in return for joining the Temporal Bureau. He takes John to 1963, where John meets, and falls for, the younger Jane. The agent abducts Jane’s baby in 1964 and leaves her at a Cleveland orphanage in 1945, before picking up John in 1963 and taking him from his beloved Jane to sign up with Robertson at the Bureau in 1985 for a long agency career. The agent retires to 1971, and realising that the Fizzle Bomber is his older self, shoots him dead.

Anton Bitel