I’m not the biggest fan of predestination paradox time travel yarns. I’m even less a fan of time travel tales requiring their protagonists to undertake key acts in order to fulfil the causal loop of a bootstrap paradox. Both require some pretty hefty pre-designated rules that don’t readily apply themselves to scrutiny or internal plausibility (breaking down to, “Because the writer says it’s so”). Since Predestination immerses itself in both these narrative conceits then, I really ought to have come out less than impressed. However, its eccentric mystery mostly flies for the sheer verve with which the Spierig brothers embrace the predestination theme of Robert A Heinlein’s 1958 short story All You Zombies; this isn’t just a case of a Terminator-style twist to top things off. Each event in their intricate screenplay rests against each successive event so as to infuse a Russian doll of paradoxes. More than that, though, Predestination pulls off a (for the most part) touching character study taking in themes of alienation, loneliness and determinism.
Indeed, it’s the opening fifty minutes, a sad tale told in 1970 by John (Sarah Snook) to Ethan Hawke’s time-travelling barman from 1985 that really seals the movie, rather than the convoluted series of reveals that comprise the last half. Hawke is employed by the Temporal Agency, on the trail of the Fizzle Bomber. We are told that, in a more elaborate version of Minority Report, “We prevent crime before it happens”, but so far, he has been unable to stop the Bomber killing 11,000 people in New York in 1975. This is as prelude, however. It’s evident John will be the primary suspect as Hawke wouldn’t be indulging his tale for so long as a mere red herring. As a result, the clues leading to the actual reveals and twists (the burnt face of Hawke’s former identity, the unseen suitor of Jane, John’s former identity) are slightly undermined by the filmmakers’ tendency to elaboration; by the time we are granted a montage sequence in the final minutes “explaining” what has long been evidenced, it suggests a lack of faith in the audience.
It’s fairly commendable to have a told tale occupy the bulk of a movie the way this does, though. One might argue it’s all about the payoff but, as elaborate as that is in its preposterous employment of time-travel theory, it’s the emotional sway of Snook’s phenomenally assured performance that raises the Spierigs’ movie another level. John is abandoned outside an orphanage as a baby Jane in 1945. She dreams of becoming an astronaut but is rejected by the Space Corps (the picture’s unheralded alt-history is one of its most winning aspects) when her intersex status is discovered. After an affair with a man who suddenly ups and leaves her, she gives birth to a child who is stolen from the nursery. On top of that, the caesarean operation leads to the removal of Jane’s ovaries and uterus, giving an enthusiastic doctor the chance to initiate an unsanctioned creation of a male urinary tract; Jane had no choice but to submit to a full gender reassignment. As John, he takes up writing true confession articles for a glossy magazine as The Unmarried Mother.
Even (or especially, depending on how one views the second half’s conceits) leaving out the crucial fateful interventions that dictate Jane/John’s life, Snook makes this narrated account utterly compelling. So much so, one is willing to forgive the slight leaps in motivation (it’s never so much portrayed as told that she hates the mysterious lover enough to kill him). Snook’s John has a touch of the DiCaprio in appearance, and she navigates Jane and John with such instinctively refined modulation that Hawke is really only required to show up and take notes.
So the second half of the picture reveals how all this falls into place. Hawke is, of course, John after facial reconstructive surgery. He follows a careful series of instructions to ensure his own life follows its predestined course. It’s John who is Jane’s mysterious lover (taken to 1963 to “murder” the lover, it is love at first sight when he meets Jane; forget about retroactive abortions, this takes the biscuit with its proto-narcissistic feats), it’s Hawke who snatches baby Jane from the nursery and delivers her to 1945. And it’s Hawke who pops to 1975 (“unauthorised”) to ensure John makes it to 1985 to have the surgery on his extensive burns. It’s also an older Hawke who turns out to be the Fizzle Bomber, his illicit jumps fostering the onset of psychosis and dementia.
The problem with all this is that it requires a rigorous rulebook to be even vaguely tenable. The paradox, of course, isn’t. It’s a loop with no prescribed beginning, bootstrap style, but taken to such an absurdist extreme that it’s nigh-on irresistible. Since such theories make no sense, Heinlein/the Spierigs go for broke with it: “The snake that eats its own tale, forever and ever”.
More than that, while there are significant sections of the picture where one or other of the protagonists is led in his/her course of action (either by John/Hawke or Noah Taylor’s Temporal Agency boss Mr Robertson), there are others that require this predestined loop to be tackled head-on. It appears the only way the rules here work is for everything to be preordained, and so John/Jane, and by extension the Temporal Agency have no say in what happens; they are cogs in a machine that must play out in the same cyclic manner. No one can actually change its course (as such, one must assume the newspaper headlines we see attesting to its mutability are either manufactured to manipulate or confabulations of the mind), so any fanciful notion of free will over the events is an illusion.
If there’s a problem with this approach (assuming you’re willing to run with it in the first place), it’s that it really needs to be challenged at some point. Time Crimes (curiously, both films utilised bandaged protagonists as a means of concealing the central twist) irritates because it rather ludicrously has its protagonist choose halfway through to undertake the acts inflicted upon him during the first half of the picture; the very awareness of his involvement would change the minutiae of those events, unless he became a “zombie” compelled by the timeline to enact his experiences just so.
The Spierigs also fail to address this concern directly. They make a fist of it with John not recognising himself as the lover who spurned Jane, when he first sees himself in the mirror (part of him could only see the bastard who ruined her life), but the actual relationship with her requires more than falling head over heels to avoid questions of “Why does he go through with hurting herself?” and “Wouldn’t he want to tell her his true identity?” It probably wouldn’t have taken much to cover this; simply having Hawke attempt to shoot himself in the head but failing, after killing his older self would have addressed the point. But without it, the Spierigs must rely only on the philosophy of predestination rather than exploring the detail of how they see it working.
This isn’t a deal breaker, though, as underlying all this (much more so due to Snook than Hawke’s reliable but unremarkable showing) is a desperate, hopeless sense of the strictures of fate and yet, simultaneously, our own responsibility for our actions (in the context of the story Jane/John, cruelly, has “no one but her/himself to blame”). The All You Zombies title itself appears to comment on our automatic, conditioned responses to lives we only think we have a say in.
I enjoyed the Spierig’s previous (also Hawke starring) Daybreakers, although it didn’t wow me. That was relatively low budget, but this cost a fraction of that picture and looks great, thanks to Ben Nott’s cinematography and Matthew Putland’s design work. That the brothers are willing to take structural risks (the front-ended tale told) makes the formally much more familiar second half a slight comedown, but there’s still a satisfying exactness to following through with the premise. It just can’t quite pay off the emotional wallop of Snook confronting herself by having Hawke confront himself. If she isn’t on the road to the next big thing as a result of Predestination, she deserves to be.