For the most part, the month of January is a cinematic graveyard. Major studios dump their weakest, most derivative movies there so they can be immediately forgotten. If a movie gets bumped from a prime fall release date—like say in November or December—to January, it’s usually not a good sign. Occasionally, however, a movie will come along with loftier aspirations. “Predestination,”—written and directed by Peter and Michael Spierig—is one of those movies; in fact its twisty time travel premise makes it one of the more ambitious January releases in recent years. At the same time, that’s not saying very much. Ultimately “Predestination” suffers from some glaring storytelling issues and a plot that gets increasingly more silly and messy.
Ethan Hawke plays a Temporal Agent—aka a time traveling special agent—who goes back in time to stop crime before it can happen. For his last mission he must travel back to the 70’s and stop the Fizzle Bomber, the one criminal who’s evaded him throughout time. While posing as a bartender he runs into a young “woman” (Sarah Snook) who tells him her long, woeful life story. Being abandoned by her parents as a baby and having to grow up in an orphanage, not fitting in anywhere, as well as finding out that she’s a hermaphrodite. Something that further alienates him/her from the rest of society.
Not surprisingly, “Predestination” gets more complicated and messy as it goes on, eventually leading to a major twist-- involving the identities of our two characters as well as the identity of the Fizzle Bomber—that’s clever but also pretty ridiculous to say the least. The more you think about it afterwards, the more you think about how the movie gets to that end point, the more ridiculous it becomes. In fact it verges on comedic; a tone I’m not sure the sibling directors intended. I wish I could say more but I would spoil the entire ending.
With that said, the movie is competently made and acted. Hawke and Snook are both solid, playing people that haven’t exactly lived fulfilling lives. Hawke’s Temporal Agent is haunted by his inability to catch the Fizzle Bomber after all these years, preventing him from retiring. Hawke continues to show off his ability to play likable Average Joe’s and relative newcomer Snook gives a quietly powerful performance as someone who hasn’t been able to catch a break his/her entire life. “Predestination” may be one of the first sci-fi movies to feature a hermaphroditic main character, whose “condition” fits prominently into the rest of the story.
For being a high concept, time travel movie “Predestination” feels surprisingly small scale. This is most likely the result of a low budget. While it does create a level of intimacy, the narrative also feels constricted. At times you get the impression that the movie wants to be as big as its concepts. Outside of Hawke, Snook and Noah Taylor as the head of the Temporal Agency, there aren’t any other noticeable characters. Overall I think the movie could have benefitted from a few more set pieces and characters, to add scale and nuance. Not only that, “Predestination” gets bogged down by some lazy storytelling devices; namely the use of flashbacks when Snook’s character recounts his/her life story to Hawke. In general flashbacks should be avoided, or used very sparingly. In the case of “Predestination” a rather large chunk of its running time is devoted to these flashbacks. Now yes, the flashbacks do contain important information—some of which will come into play at the end—but to have this person tell their life story in one sitting gets to be incredibly exhausting for the audience members. And even worse, when the flashback portion finally concludes the movie settles into its home stretch. Considering that the movie is trying to be clever, you’d think the writer-director siblings could find a better way to relay this information. It sort of puts a damper on the movie’s gutsier and more unique attributes.
All in all, “Predestination” isn’t a great movie—if it was it wouldn’t be released in January—but I commend the Spierig brothers for trying to make a dense and ambitious picture. Sure, it’s kind of a mess and I wish so much of it didn’t consist of one character telling another their life story. But it’s an interesting movie nonetheless, which usually isn’t the case with January releases.