'Predestination' Captivating, But Marred by Lack of Prudence

Directed by: The Spierig Brothers; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade B-

Unless you're throttling a spaceship towards the gravitational pull of a celestial boy, the methods in which time travel occur in fiction will always seem more magical than scientific, no matter if it's rudimentary wired-up cockpits powered by technobabble or tricked-out Delorians and blue telephone booths. What matters is how the time-travel itself gets used, whether for bracing adventure or provoking thought through the themes of meddling with the trajectory of time. Predestination uses a violin case that operates on proximity to the device, explaining almost nothing about how it works as the characters flip the combination dials and hurdle both back and forward in time. What The Spierig Brothers end up doing with those temporal jumps is unpredictable and ludicrous, in both good ways and bad: they spin an elaborate tale of paradoxes, identities, and the lengths undertaken to set the future down a better path, where ambitious convolution turns into both its strongest asset and unswerving weakness.

Predestination adapts a short story from legendary science-fiction author Robert Heinlein, built on the concept of agents who use time-travel devices to right certain incontrovertible wrongs. The story picks up shortly after one of such nameless agents (Ethan Hawke) partially succeeds in a mission, stopping a terrorist bombing without apprehending the suspect. Following the attack, in which he has extensive reconstructive surgery due to an aggressive injury, the agent faces the prospect of the end of his career following the escape of this "Fizzle Bomber", to which his employer, Robertson (Noah Taylor), sends him on his final mission. Cut to the early-'70s where the agents takes on the identity of a Bartender, opening up the opportunity for him to converse with a defensive, severe man (Sarah Snook) that shows up in his bar, called "The Unmarried Mother" for his pen-name in a pulpy magazine. With knowledge of the investigation into the Fizzle Bomber, The Bartender tempts his mysterious patron into telling his life story.

The Unmarried Mother boasts that he's got the most incredible life story that The Bartender has even heard, and Predestination delivers on that promise: his recount, which unsurprisingly starts out with him in the role of a woman, Jane, takes us through a traumatic, windy path through the eyes of an individual struggling with gender identity and a lack of purpose. Sarah Snook turns in a convincing performance as both Jane and John, presenting typical mannerisms of both genders yet never entirely comfortable in the skin of either identity. The scope of her history, which progresses through a tomboy's youth at an orphanage, a ladies' charm school, and the troubling conditions of her transition -- not quite voluntary -- while enduring the rigors of potential government service, builds into a gripping glimpse at a complex intersex character who's given little choice in the path she's forced down. While the circumstances surrounding Jane's eventual transformation are dubious, the heartrending nature of her tale draws reputable empathy and tenderness, constantly informed by the lingering suspicion of their involvement with the Fizzle Bomber.

However bizarre The Unmarried Mother's story appears once he finishes, know that it'll get infinitely more bizarre after The Bartender drops a few bombshells, abruptly bringing time-travel back into the conversation. So starts the wild careening of events within Predestination, shifting gears from a meditative exploration of a tragic character to an elaborate temporal mystery with a scope that defies the film's limited budget, all at the flick of a lock combo on a violin case. The Spierig Brothers never undertake any time-stamped scenarios beyond their means: while most of the film takes place amid the bar's booths and pool tables as Ethan Hawke sports a choker and a patterned shirt, the past events transport characters throughout roughly forty years of commonplace and high-tech training environments, given nostalgic opulence through photographer Bill Nott's composition. Very much the work of the same directors responsible for Daybreakers, the sophisticated aesthetics bleed the past and the present into a unbalancing infusion of realism and displaced science-fiction, hinged on observing how it all ties into thwarting terrorist activity across time.

A handful of negligible snags in logic that are common with time-travel and reality-warping films wouldn't have been enough to derail Predestination, its precise craftsmanship approaching the likes of Looper and Twelve Monkeys in aspiration. That's not the case here, though: the wild descent following the telling of Jane's story ends up being far too intertwined and outlandish for its own good, operating around a loop of paradoxes that would've benefited from further contemplation on the age-old "the chicken or the egg" existential thought exercise it references. Granted, a lot of the aftershocks from the transpiring events snap together and make enough superficial sense to wrap one's brain around the vaults throughout time, so long as they can get beyond certain taboo trysts. Then, it reaches a point where figuring out the movie comes to a standstill without theorization and interpretation over irreconcilable facts, lingering in the wake of dubious -- and conveniently concealed -- revelations about the depths of Jane's identity. Some of this makes for clever sci-fi puzzle solving, but questionable narrative decisions, many of which root in Heinlein's original story, make it a futile and frustrating endeavor.

In the end, Predestination doesn't say enough within its intricate plotting to compensate for the deliberate loose ends, beyond simple ruminations on time-travel being more trouble than it's worth and that stopping events from happening might cause more damage than prevented ... even if intervention appears necessary. Staying faithful to the source without capitalizing on early thematic strengths, the Spierig Brothers bypass opportunities for more significance in its final act -- especially about the gender issues that elevate the character portrayal of Jane/John -- so that the zany plot revelations can speak for themselves. These timey-wimey machinations lead the mystery around the Fizzle Bomber into the territory of implausible psycho-drama and clinical plot dissection, both shining a spotlight on the bizarreness already there and side-stepping how internally warped these characters have become after their jumps through time. Heinlein's short story may not have needed a rooster to account for the egg, but Predestination's otherwise marvelous workmanship feels like it's dreadfully missing something without one.

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