On his final time travelling assignment, a Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) must stop The Fizzle Bomber, the one criminal that has always managed to elude him, from killing 10,000 New Yorkers. Whilst on this mission, he seeks out a new recruit by the name of John Doe (Sarah Snook). Opening night film of the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are an awful lot of gimmick-scripts out there – a symptom, perhaps, of Hollywood’s fondness for ‘high concept’ properties, narratives which can be condensed to a brief, easily-remembered pitch. In many ways the ne plus ultra of the form remains The Sixth Sense: ‘Kid who sees dead people meets man who doesn’t know he’s dead.’ An idea so simple and so strong that its maker has never had another even half as good again.
Indeed, sci-fi and fantasy movies conform especially well to this trend, often being hung on a single, intriguing conceit (astronauts journey to re-ignite the dying Sun; a scientist develops technology to clone dinosaurs) and a whole lot of VFX. Nuances of character and context are none too gracefully set aside; the idea, not the execution, is the thing.
Based on a 1958 short story (All You Zombies) by Golden Age sci-fi master Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination turns on a similar kind of narrative sleight-of-hand – one so effective, in fact, that any attempt to render a plot synopsis will almost certainly ruin one’s experience of the film. Suffice it to say there’s a girl – an orphan, bright and brave – and a man who loves her. There is a bartender who, years later, hears her story; and a child, a daughter, whom she first has and then does not. Time-travel is involved: there is a Temporal League of agents somewhere in the future, policing (and subtly altering) the flow of history. And that while there is complexity to spare, as the narrative shuttles between past and present, there may in fact be rather less to this – in purely quantitative terms – than meets the eye.
Written and directed by Peter and Michael Spierig, who gave us the 2010 vampire-plague movie Daybreakers, it’s a thoughtful, ambitious adaptation, whose pieces finally lock into place with a satisfying, if not entirely unexpected click. One US reviewer described it, not unfairly, as a cross between Philip K. Dick and Jeffrey Eugenides. To this I would add Charles Bukowski, as the first forty minutes consist mostly of a Barfly-like two-hander between two people in a New York bar in the early 1970s, as a pulp magazine columnist (The Unmarried Mother, a close relation to Nathanial West’s Miss Lonelyhearts) spins his sorry, increasingly fantastic tale...
But for all its ouroboros-like structure, its reversals and revelations, the original story remains a kind of anecdote; to work as a drama, the film requires more. Thus, the Spierigs have constructed a parallel narrative, in the form of a mysterious terrorist, the regrettably-named ‘Fizzle Bomber’, who at some point in the future will level ten blocks of Manhattan and kill tens of thousands of civilians – and must therefore be stopped. (In the original story it was a cataclysm, not an individual – the ‘Fizzle War’ of 1963 – and so the nomenclature made a little more sense.)
With this B-story comes a particular aesthetic, appropriated from the usual sources: Dark City (mid-century modernism and film noir), The Matrix (lots of black suits and narrow ties)... But so what? Heinlein’s story itself borrowed heavily from the hard-boiled tone of Chandler and James M. Cain: "He had a load on and his face showed that he despised people even more than usual." It’s clearly been made on a budget – halfway through, all but the three principals seem to disappear from the narrative, and the action narrows to a succession of rooms and hallways – but there’s real care in its execution, and some terrific production design from Matthew Putland (who also worked on Satellite Boy).
Operating in Gattaca-mode, Ethan Hawke is very good here, especially when confronted, near the end, by an older, slightly demented version of himself. (This is not a spoiler: some things, as another character takes care to remind him, ‘are just inevitable.’) As the mysterious head of the Temporal Agency, meanwhile, Noah Taylor remains a singular screen presence, and wears his black suit well. But his role is badly underwritten, and his American accent sometimes less than convincing.
"Australian actress Sarah Snook has by far the most challenging role(s), and she rises to the challenge with élan."
But Australian actress Sarah Snook (Not Suitable for Children) has by far the most challenging role(s), and she rises to the challenge with élan. It’s an audacious performance, and a thrillingly transformative one: at first sight, she looks very much like a present-day Jodie Foster – only to morph, in the space of a single cut, into a wide-eyed ingénue. Hawke’s character might be the protagonist (it’s his diary entries we hear, in voiceover), but she carries the film.
Dialogue is not the Spierigs’ strong suit. A few of the wisecracks here have a stagey, read-from-the-page feel, and other lines, transposed directly from Heinlein’s text ("[He was] just a man, with a face-shaped face") work better in print than when spoken aloud. Likewise, a song playing on a jukebox – also taken from the original story – pretty much gives away the entire movie; it’s the kind of in-jokey detail which should have been omitted. (The Divinyls’ ‘I Touch Myself’ would have been a far better choice – and the anachronism of that track playing in a Lower East Side bar in 1970 would seem entirely appropriate in a story about an ontological paradox... And yes, that one is a spoiler.)
But they’re strong on tone and mood, and one of the film’s real strengths is its air of fated melancholy. The tale the Unmarried Mother tells is as despairing, in its way, as that of the Ancient Mariner – and as uncanny. Heinlein was essentially a Robert LeFevre-style Libertarian (one of his best novels, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, imagined a libertarian revolution in a lunar colony), and so it’s not surprising that this film’s message is an anti-determinist one: that far from being the playthings of fate, we are actually the makers (and the prisoners) of ourselves.
I read the original story when I was in my early teens; nevertheless I remember it clearly, so intriguing was its treatment of an unexpected subject. When I mentioned this particular adaptation to a friend over dinner the night before I saw it, he recalled being the same age when he’d encountered it. Which made me wonder, not so much why we came to these texts so young, devouring Asimov and Clarke and Van Vogt, and so on – but rather, why those youthful passions didn’t persist into adulthood? I’ve hardly read any sci-fi in years, though I fairly devoured it then; it seems to me a kind of adolescent passion, put aside with the arrival of adult responsibility.
And then I thought: this is what the movies – even relatively smart, carefully-crafted ones, like this – do to us. They reduce us to the level of kids, listening to a story. At its best, this speaks to a childlike sense of wonder and possibility; at worst, we’re condescended-to and treated like... well, children. This one doesn’t do that: its clarity of storytelling distinguishes it; its desire to entertain and its delight in obfuscation are held in a fine, shrewd balance. It aims higher; among recent sci-fi films, it ranks with Looper and Sound of My Voice and Upstream Color among thoughtful interrogations of genre. And if it doesn’t succeed quite as well as those movies – that final sequence ends (for me, at least) on something of a dying fall – it’s not for lack of ambition.
Sunday 18 April, 1:55am on SBS / Streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand
Genre: Thriller, Sci-Fi
Director: Michael Spierig
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor