Both audiences and studios often look at January as a time of the year that’s a desolate wasteland full of terrible movies, and it certainly is that to a degree. While the last of the awards hopefuls open wide, there are going to be a ton of bad movies released over the next few weeks (The Wedding Ringer anyone?). But the first month of the year can also be a place where movies get dumped because no one can figure out how the hell to market them, and in 2015, one title that falls into this category is the latest from the Australian duo Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers), the time travel thriller Predestination.
Based on Robert Heinlein’s classic short story “All You Zombies,” Predestination premiered at the South by Southwest film festival last year, though it hasn’t hit theaters until now. Don’t let the timing of the opening turn you off, because what you get is an ambitious, weird, well-made sci-fi story that, while it may not blow your mind wide open, is interesting and definitely worth a watch if you’re looking for unusual genre fare. And if you’ve encountered any of the marketing, you have very little idea what you’re getting into.
Part of the problem is that the plot sounds suspiciously like things you’ve seen before. Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent, a kind of time hopping lawman who stops crimes before they happen. The first thing that pops into you mind when you hear this is probably Minority Report (Heinlein’s story appeared in 1954, predating the Philip K. Dick story used as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film by two years), and the second is like TimeCop, though with less splits (though maybe I just have a Van Damme fetish).
After a cool, neo-noir opening where Hawke’s character, who never really has a name, gets his face blown off—if you have to get a new face, you can do worse than Ethan Hawke’s—he embarks on his final case. Jumping through time has a significant physical and psychological impact. Over the years, the so-called Fizzle Bomber has been responsible for thousands of deaths, and is the one criminal who has eluded your protagonist all this time.
While this inciting incident plays a key part in the plot, that’s not the main focus of Predestination, not at all, and this only bears the most passing resemblance to those movies mentioned earlier. Most of the early part of the film is framed as a bar story between Hawke, playing a bartender, and a mysterious patron with one hell of a story to tell, played by Sarah Snook in a breakout performance that more people should definitely be talking about—she doesn’t always hit playing what amounts to multiple characters, but when she does, look out. There are a multitude of layers to dig through, stories within stories, and a timeline that loops back on itself in inventive ways.
Never what you expect, Predestination can become something of a narrative jumble, but it’s always compelling to watch, and the landscape continually shifts beneath your feet. Just when you think you have a solid grasp on what’s going on, the story changes and moves in a different direction, showing you a fresh perspective on the events. Even though the big final twist is something you see coming if, you know, you’ve ever seen a movie, the plot up to that point is a slippery bugger.
There are themes of identity, sanity, obsession, and gender—including a transgender thread the likes of which you don’t encounter often. You jump through time from the future all the way back to the 1940s—though Hawke’s home-base safe spot comfort zone is in the mid ’70. You’ve got stolen babies, a weird secret agency training young women to send into space as sex slaves for male astronauts, and the result is a twisty, pulpy, retro-future cool mystery that is occasionally flat out strange.
All in all, Predestination is an unusual, surprising picture. The measured, deliberate pace and shadowy reveals aren’t going to be for everyone. This is definitely not the movie you expect to see going in, but is one worth checking out if you’re looking for an interesting, rewarding piece of hard science fiction, especially in what otherwise looks like an otherwise bleak January. [Grade: B-]