Saturday, January 3, 2015

Narcissism, Transgendered Heroes, And The Narrative Predictability Of Time Travel: Predestination!

The Good: Wonderful acting, Engaging plot, Good direction, Interesting characters
The Bad: Predictable and impossible
The Basics: 2015’s new film crop starts out strong with a holdover from 2014’s film festival circuit as Predestination explodes with smartness!

As 2015 begins, there are some interesting cinematic holdovers that are finally making their way to the big screen. Perhaps the biggest one of interest to me was Predestination, a film that has been out in virtually every other market for the better part of six months and has spent the last year on the film festival circle. Predestination stars Ethan Hawke and arguably the reason it has not opened big in the U.S. is that it has been years since Hawke opened a major blockbuster on his star power.

Fortunately, Predestination is not a film that requires Hawke’s celebrity to sell the premise. Hawke is given almost equal time as co-star Sarah Snook, a rising star who plays the transgendered protagonist of Predestination. Hawke, Snook and Noah Taylor form a triumvirate that makes the time-travel action movie grounded. In fact, for a time travel film with an ambitious premise, Predestination succeeds largely because it remains grounded in the characters. In fact, as with so many time travel stories that hinge upon mystery and reversal, there is some predictability to Predestination (it’s always the damn time travelers!), but the narrative and characters make the film well worth watching.

A man, soon revealed to be a temporal agent, works to defuse and then contain an explosive device, but he in interrupted. Burned horribly in the resulting contained explosion, the temporal agent awakens having had his whole face reconstructed. He is being tasked with one last mission in time; the temporal agent is to be sent back to stop the biggest attack which will come in March 1975. Sent to 1970, where he sets up as a bartender in New York City. There he meets the author of the column The Unwed Mother, who bets the Temporal Agent a bottle of whiskey that he has the best story the bartender has ever heard. Starting with her childhood as Jane, the Unwed Mother tells the story of her recruitment into Space Corps after a childhood of feeling different from everyone. Jane excels until the day she meets a man, gets into a fight, is expelled from Space Corps and the subsequent program she is enrolled in, due to her pregnancy. The Unwed Mother tells the bartender about how she learned after she gave birth to her daughter that she was born with both male and female genitalia. After her baby is stolen, Jane is reassigned as a male and goes through the reconstructive surgeries needed to become fully male.

The Unwed Mother has a seething anger in him and he leaps at the opportunity the bartender provides. The pair return to 1963, Cleveland College, where the author of The Unwed Mother has the chance to kill the man who knocked her up when she was still a woman. While the bartender tries again to defuse the bomb that left him scarred, the writer meets Jane. Soon, it becomes clear that Jane’s entire existence is the result of the Temporal Agent’s influence: Jane (mother and abducted daughter) and John, the man she becomes, are one and the same. Leaving John to be indoctrinated by Robertson in the ways of the Temporal Bureau, the Temporal Agent strikes out to stop the fizzle bomber in 1975.

Predestination is a smart film that seems much more daring for its willingness to spend the first fifty minutes with one character sitting and telling his story to another before actually getting started with the narrative. Predestination essentially happens in three parts: John telling the Bartender his story, John encountering Jane in the past, and Temporal Agent’s final mission. Long before the 83 minute mark when the temporal loop is explicitly closed, the fact that the unburned version of the Temporal Agent is not shown acts as a red flag to those savvy in the ways of science fiction.

That said, for such a high-concept film, Predestination manages to be a decent character story. While the film is short (oddly, the closing credits are disproportionately long in comparison to the rest of the film) and I could have easily sat through the ultimate degradation of the protagonist (it is entirely inferred in the film’s final scene with enough subtlety and smartness to be undeniable), it wraps everything up nicely. In fact, Predestination has much of the quality that I found missing from Interstellar (reviewed here!). While Interstellar went for big and spectacle-filled, Predestination opts for a more subtle, character-centered focus and the viewer comes to care about the protagonist.

Predestination is based upon a short story by Robert A. Heinlein which, admittedly, I have not read. As a result, the fundamental problem with Predestination is one that might be a fault of the story which was carried over into the film, though this is a pure review of only the film. I am one of the few people who truly enjoyed the film Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (reviewed here!) and Predestination only makes me want to actually read some of Heinlein’s books, problems and all. Ironically, the main lingering issue with Predestination is similar to the problem that resonates in Interstellar. Interstellar fails to work because, essentially, you can’t have a time traveler from the future if humanity is wiped out before the invention of the time machine. In a similar fashion, while Predestination thoroughly and compellingly tells the story of Jane/John, it is a story built without explanation for the fundamental existence of the protagonist. Jane is the very definition of a predestination paradox, but the paradox cannot exist, at least not as explained through the film Predestination. Jane, as a newborn, only exists through her birth in the future as a result of Jane (her older self) and John conceiving her. While the temporal influence used to construct baby Jane makes perfect sense, her initial existence does not. In simpler terms, without the temporal influence of The Bartender, there is never an original baby Jane innate to the timeline. Outside an abduction from an alternate universe, there is no way Jane can genetically exist. She is, literally, an impossible girl. (For those who might want to fight this point, the questions to keep asking yourself are “Where did Jane come from? Whose genes does the baby have? Where did those genes come from the first time through the timeline?”)

So, Predestination is entirely based upon a conceptual house of cards that makes absolutely no rational or scientific sense (at least as it is explained in the film). Why do I rate the film so highly? Because the story manages to be strongly character-centered, the characters are interesting, and – despite the predictability of the way everything ties together - Predestination tells the story it sets out to remarkably well. Co-writers/Co-directors Michael and Peter Spierig, who adapted Heinlein’s short story, make the film look and feel incredibly real and compelling. They make fifty minutes of backstory exposition electrifying and then push the viewer forward into a story that is engaging and clever, even if the underlying paradox makes no sense.

Noah Taylor is wonderful in the supporting role of Robertson, but it is Sarah Snook and Ethan Hawke who dominate the acting front of Predestination. Hawke relies on far more than his good looks as the Temporal Agent and his on-screen chemistry with Snook completely lands the film’s premise. Snook is articulate and compelling as both Jane and John and she navigates the complex character transformations with one of the year’s best performances. In fact, it is somewhat unfortunate how Predestination is being released in the United States; Snook should have been a contender for this year’s award season (sadly, a January release means her performance in Predestination will be all-but forgotten by Oscar voters next year!). But Sarah Snook’s star is rising, if for no other reason than Predestination proves she can perform virtually any role. Hawke is good in Predestination, but without Snook’s talents, the film probably would not land.

Predestination is unlikely to be the first big cinematic hit of 2015, but with its engaging character story, wonderful acting and the way it (largely) comes together, it deserves to be!

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Last Five Years
The Voices
Love, Rosie
The Seventh Son
Song One
American Sniper
Inherent Vice
Still Alice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
The Imitation Game


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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