Without dropping spoilers right and left, how do I explain that I’m completely baffled by the Spierig Brothers’ retro-futuristic thriller Predestination? So the she that’s really a he is the earlier version of the he we meet later on, and the later version of the she who shows up near the beginning? Hope I didn’t just wreck anything for anyone.
Actually, I’m pretty sure I get at least parts of Predestination, especially after reading the slender time-travel short story on which it’s based, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1958 “All You Zombies.” Heinlein’s story is elegant in its hardboiled spareness, and its brevity makes it all the more tantalizing — it’s the sort of thing you want to reread immediately, once you know the trick of it. A narrator known only as the Bartender meets a despondent young man, a writer of true-confession pulp, who goes by the pen name The Unmarried Mother. After hearing the young man’s sad, shocking story, the Bartender makes him an offer he probably should refuse. Like so much time-travel literature, “All You Zombies” isn’t 100 percent logical, but a chilly poetry hangs in the air around it. It’s mournful, and more than a little menacing.
Predestination — the third feature from the German-born writer-director team (and identical twins) Michael and Peter Spierig — tries to be all of those things and more, and succeeds only in fits and starts. Ethan Hawke is the Bartender, and in the story’s particular present, 1975, he really is a bartender, though the job is just a cover for his life as a temporal agent, a cop who goes back in time to prevent bad stuff from happening. At this point, if you truly want to watch Predestination with the innocence of a not-even-born-yet babe, you should stop reading: It’s impossible to talk about the performance of Australian actress Sarah Snook without revealing that she plays two roles, that of the Unmarried Mother, the fresh-faced but weary young man who slumps at the Bartender’s bar, and Jane, an awkward but radiant young woman who grew up in an orphanage and has never quite fit in anywhere. Jane, a whiz at science and math, would love to be a space traveler, but in Predestination’s world — or at least in one of its worlds, the 1963 one — that’s a job only for men. She hopes for the next best thing, trying out for a position as a sort of space “companion” for lonely, horny astronauts.
In this part of the story, Jane, a fetching redhead, wears an Emma Peel-style miniskirt uniform and beats the crap out of one of her fellow aspiring space-chicks. For a few sparkling minutes, Predestination springs to life in a burst of imaginative craziness. Then it’s back to more plain old sci-fi dourness, although even that would be OK if the Spierigs hadn’t overloaded the lean but sturdy skeleton of Heinlein’s story with more twisted plot bobbles than it can possibly shoulder. Hawke’s Bartender, in addition to soaking in the Unmarried Mother’s tale of woe, is hot on the trail of a crazy dude known as the Fizzle Bomber, who’s hatched a plan to blow up most of New York. Somehow, the Fizzle stuff is supposed to dovetail with the wrenching saga of the Unmarried Mother, a story with enough gender-bending intrigue to stand on its own.
But Predestination is a puzzle movie, and thus, by definition, it must be so infinitely complex that mere mortals cannot even hope to fully comprehend it. The Spierigs had the framework for something wonderful here, if only they’d trusted themselves to keep things simple. Ben Nott’s noirish cinematography, a stylish symphony of moody shadows, sets the tone for the movie that might have been. Even the low-key special effects are endearing: The time-travel sequences are a little clumsy — the characters just clatter into their new surroundings as if they’d been sent tumbling down an invisible chute — but then, time travel must be disorienting. Why slick it up?
The twisty-turny clutter of Predestination, Christopher Nolanesque in its aspirations, becomes wearisome, particularly when the Spierigs press us to believe the unbelievable. (You mean we’re supposed to buy that Ethan Hawke, even after extensive plastic surgery, could once have looked like…oh, never mind.) Worse yet, the movie’s jumbly mechanics distract us from what the actors are trying to do: Hawke makes such a gravely sympathetic listener that you find yourself reading his face for clues as to what the hell this movie is supposed to mean, but not even he can carry this story uphill all the way. And Snook is terrific, particularly as the simultaneously unworldly and otherworldly Jane: With her cautious gaze and slow-burning smile, she’s so open to the possibility of joy that her disappointments are excruciating to behold. She seems capable of pushing the movie into another dimension entirely. But the Spierigs, so obsessed with their precariously complex plot, aren’t nimble enough to follow. They strand Predestination in the here and now.