Mark Reviews Movies

Predestination

PREDESTINATION

3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 1/9/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 8, 2015

There was a time when I would watch a movie featuring time travel and feel my brain fighting against the inevitable paradoxes that would result from the story. That still happens, of course. I have discovered, though, that it's best to accept time travel for the gimmick that it is, and I will maintain that stance on the subject until the paradoxes in a future movie featuring time travel become the subject of consternation. One moment, time-travel paradoxes are fine, and the next, they aren't. That kind of finicky stance-taking is the prerogative of the critic.

The trouble with time-travel narratives is not the resulting paradoxes. It is that time travel itself is a paradox, or at least it is in the way we observe and experience time. We see it as a line. On that line, there is a point that is the present moment. Behind it is the past, and ahead of it is the future. We know that our observation and experience of time is limited. Consider that the point of the present moves in the bigger picture but that it is unchanging from our perspective. We are never in the past or in the future. We are always in the present. Predestination kind of ingeniously forces us to look at time from a different perspective.

The best way to describe the way the plot of the film operates is to call upon our line again. This time, though, picture the line that represents time and turn it 90 degrees on the z-axis (As a reminder, that's the one used to graph in three dimensions). If we look at the rotated line from our original point of view now, it has become a single point. The line, of course, is still there, but we no longer see it that way. From this perspective, all of time exists as one. The past, future, and present have no meaning. All of time is happening at once.

It's a quite simple and rather elegant solution to the problem—or at least part of it. The part is causation, the tricky thing that always gets these plots tied up in confusion. Cause and effect, though, have no meaning in the film's model, either. Early in the film, two characters bring up the chicken-and-egg dilemma. That both characters treat it as a joke is telling, but even more telling is that writers/directors Michael and Peter Spierig (credited as "the Spierig Brothers") create a world of time travel where the chicken and the egg come into being simultaneously.

It's fated that both the chicken and the egg come into existence. Does it really matter which one came first.

It's heady stuff, but the Spierigs have crafted a screenplay (based on the short story "—All You Zombies—" by Robert A. Heinlein) that follows its characters' stories in a straight line, even as they jump through time physically and, through a series of flashbacks, mentally. The story is a coming-of-age tale, a mystery about the questionable origins of its main characters, and a thriller about stopping a serial bomber who will kill thousands of people. It's set in an alternate history of advanced technology in the 1960s and in which time travel was invented in 1981.

The central figures are a barkeep played by Ethan Hawke and the writer of trashy "confessional" stories for magazines who calls himself "The Unmarried Mother." That character is played by Sarah Snook, and yes, the fact that a woman is playing the male writer is fairly obvious, although that's the first and least important of the film's various and myriad twists. They all make sense, more or less. They make more sense the less one thinks about them and the more one allows them to unravel to a single thread of what the barkeep would call "inevitability."

These two meet—and not by chance—in 1970. They make small talk about life and the actions of "the Fizzle Bomber," who has left New York City in a state of terror. Soon, the writer and the barkeep make a bet about whether the writer's story will be the most interesting one the barkeep has ever heard. The writer's story starts when he was a baby girl left at an orphanage in the 1940s, moves through an attempt to become womanly "pressure relief" for astronauts in a program run by Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), tells of first-and-only love with an enigmatic stranger, and brings it around to how a woman unknowingly became the man at the bar tonight.

All of this is just the warm-up act for when the barkeep reveals his role as "temporal agent," which is established in an opening sequence of him attempting to stop the Fizzle Bomber. The leaps in time are no longer of a storyteller recalling his life but of a more real variety. The crisp editing by Matt Villa guarantees that we're not lost as the characters separate to go about their business of revenge, justice, and what turns out to be the purest form of narcissism.

The editing also ensures that we gain that alternative perception of time, with events in one period coexisting through cross-cuts with events a decade in the future. Predestination doesn't have much to say about the issues of identity that it raises (although the gimmicky story of the writer is told with enough sympathy that it feels less gimmicky as it progresses), but it's more about the experience than the ramifications. That experience is of watching a puzzle box slowly open to reveal—impossibly but inevitably—an exact duplicate of itself. It's a neat trick.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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