A film review by Craig J. Koban February 22, 2015

RANK: 20


2015, R, 99 mins.


Ethan Hawke as The Bartender  /  Sarah Snook as The Unmarried Mother  /  Noah Taylor as Mr. Robertson  /  Christopher Kirby as Agent Miles  /  Madeleine West as Mrs. Stapleton

Written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, based on the short story by Robert A. Heinlein

Okay, I’m stumped.  I have no idea how to write my review for PREDESTINATION.  I really don’t.  

How do I relay why I thought that it was a wonderfully intoxicating and mind-bending time travel sci-fi thriller without revealing some – if not many – of the film’s tantalizing and shocking secrets?  It’s fitting that PREDESTINATION is so wickedly complex; any attempt by a critic to disseminate its labyrinthine storyline – ripe with some truly unnerving WTF revelations and a full embracing of the nature of paradox – would be a fool’s errand.  All I know is that the film – directed by the Spierig Brothers (whom previously made the stylish and underrated vampire flick DAYBREAKERS) have crafted one of the most unexpectedly fascinating time travel films since LOOPER, and one that places high prominence on characters and ideas first and repetitive action and visual effects a distant second.   

PREDESTINATION is adapted rather faithfully from the 1959 Robert A. Heinlein story ALL YOU ZOMBIES (he also more famously penned the novel that was loosely adapted into the 1997 Paul Verhoven sci-fi action film STARSHIP TROOPERS).  I read the 13-page story after seeing the film version. And the Spierigs have certainly maintained the source material’s trippiness and shock value.  Of course, both the short story and film examine the complex nature of temporal travel, but unlike just about all other past similar genre effects, PREDESTINATION doesn’t timidly ignore the thorny nature of paradox, nor does it insipidly try to explain how it ultimately works (which usually is the bane of most time travel films).  No, PREDESTINATION teases us with its multiple paradoxes that slowly and unnervingly unravel as the narrative progresses.  In doing so, the film tackles a larger existential theme of free will.  What if, for one person, time fluctuates on a pre-determined course separate from the rest of us? If time predetermines one’s actions, can change ever really occur? 



The film’s initial premise is so deceptively simply that it never hints or telegraphs the limitless complexity that plot achieves later on.  We are introduced to Temporal Agents, futuristic cops that partake in missions to travel back and forth in time to prevent horrible crimes from occurring.  In the film’s sensationally effective opening we see one unnamed agent (Ethan Hawke) desperately trying to track down the Fizzle Bomber, a terrorist that has been making a mess of things in the 1970’s.  During one altercation in the past with the bomber, the agent finds himself being horrifically burned by one of the his devices going off in his face.  He manages to return back to the present (his time travel device takes the form of a violin case…kind of nifty) and gets plastic surgery done that drastically alters his appearance (in this case, he now looks just like a scarred Ethan Hawke, whom actually plays the role). 

After the exhilarating opening, PREDESTINATION winds down for its low-key middle section.  Hawke’s agent, fully recovered, has decided to venture back to the 70’s in hopes of getting more clues as to the bomber’s motives and whereabouts.  He decides to go undercover as a bartender (I will henceforth refer to his character as "The Bartender" for the purposes of simplicity here), during which time he meets and strikes up a conversation with a strange looking man that calls himself “The Unmarried Mother," mostly because he writes fake female slanted confessional stories for magazines.  As he talks more with The Bartender he makes a wager to tell the best story ever in exchange for his bar tab.  The Bartender seems game and allows his patron to partake in his story… that begins with him starting his life as a girl and being left on the doorstep of an orphanage in 1945. 


Yes, The Unmarried Mother – a man in the 70’s - was indeed born a girl named Jane (played as an adult by Sarah Snook).  She grew up being tormented by her peers, which allowed her to develop a tough mind and body.  She eventually found herself being recruited in the 60’s for a top-secret governmental space program for women, but flunks out after a violent altercation with another student.  As The Unmarried Mother progresses through her incredible past story to The Bartender, he relays how he - when she was a she - met and quickly fell for a man that later abandoned her and left her pregnant with his son.  After her caesarean childbirth, Jane learned from her doctor’s that she was born intersex (having both male and female reproductive organs) and was forced without her consent to undergo surgery that removed her female organs, essentially leaving her a man.  Worse yet, Jane’s baby was kidnapped from the orphanage.  After The Bartender collects his thoughts from extraordinary details of The Unmarried Mother’s story, he decides to reveal to him that he’s a Temporal Agent and has the ability to take him back in time to make things right…and I haven’t ever scratched the surface of the strangeness to come. 

To call PREDESTINATION intricate would be a grand understatement.  This is one of the rare breeds of sci-fi films that deserve – nay, need – to be seen multiple times to make sense of its unendingly convoluted narrative.  The Spierigs have made a film that miraculously seems straightforward in its basic concepts, but intricate enough to make even the most astute and focused viewer desperately trying to make sense of the film’s mysteries and puzzles.  Part of the fiendish joy of the film is indeed trying to maneuver through its jigsaw-like plot and put all of the pieces together…even while questioning the very paradoxical logic contained within.  The film thrusts us back and forth through multiple time lines – the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 90’s (the latter which was the future in Heinlein’s 1959 story, captivatingly preserved here)  – and, in turn, asks for a considerable amount of patience from audience members, more so that other typical multiplex fare.  The Spierig’s deserve props for making PREDESTINATION a more contemplative ideas-centric sci-fi film that unfolds slowly and leisurely and without much ostentatious pyrotechnics and obligatory action beats.  The directors feel more inclined here to embrace the film’s overt weirdness and thought-provoking themes; it’s a real head-trip of a film that trusts us enough to not answer all of the story’s head-tripping questions and conundrums. 

The performances in the film – if one considers how the two main characters inevitably relate to one another – are thanklessly brilliant.  Hawke is just the right kind of understated and stalwart actor to portray The Bartender as a man of internalized intensity and gritty determination.  He really helps ground the film’s inherent, shall we say, out-there implausibility.  Then there’s Snook, who arguably has one of the trickiest acting challenges for any performer – male or female – that I can recall.  Not only does she have to embody the heart and soul of the underlining story, but she also has to authentically play her character in multiple genders throughout the film, which – with a lesser actor – could have come off as unintentionally laughable.  One thing is certain while watching the Australian actress: she’s unmistakably convincing playing her character through multiple time periods as both a man and woman.  The sex of Jane in PREDESTINATION almost becomes a non-issue, mostly because of how empowered Snook is as a performer for relaying her character’s relatable vulnerability, flaws, and insecurities.  This is the performance of the young year thus far. 

Where do I possibly go from here?  Perhaps, in closing, I’ll say that the final sequences don’t quite work, especially with the unavoidable confrontation between Hawke’s agent and the bomber (even though the film’s blunt-force-like final reveal teases – and perhaps torments – us even more to probe the story's evolution even more while the end credits roll by).  Any more discussion of the film would lead to wanton spoilers on my part, which I will, as promised, not engage in.  Yet, PREDESTINATION is uncommonly smart, dark, warped, and perhaps more than a bit loony as far as time travel thrillers go.  It’s a work that will assuredly test the attention spans of viewers…and perhaps their tolerance for handling its potentially off-putting material.   All I know is that this is a startlingly confident, fearless, and cleverly engineered time travel flick that will stay with me for a long time and will hold up well after repeated viewings. 

  H O M E