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Predestination (DVD/Blu-ray Review)




Directed by: The Spierig Brothers

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor

Released: 6th April 2015 (DVD/Blu-ray)

If you’re a time-travel movie enthusiast like me, you’d be excited to see the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination, a sci-fi thriller featuring Ethan Hawke as a time-traveling agent on a mission to intercept a notorious serial bomber.

I’ve read the short story on which it’s based – Robert A. Heinlein’s ‘All You Zombies’ written in 1958. Heinlein’s story is elegant in its laconic sparseness. It introduces a narrator known only as ‘the Bartender’ who meets a caustic young man in the bar. The dour young man is a writer of true-confession pulp stories and goes by the pen name ‘The Unmarried Mother’. The Bartender coaxes the young man into telling him his story. The story turns out to be tragic, exciting, ironic and shocking in turns, and involves an orphanage, a top-secret intelligence agency, space-travel, lost love, a broken heart… and a sex change. The Bartender cryptically asks the young man if he has found a ‘purpose in life’ and then makes him an unusual job offer. You can probably guess what the job is. In addition to taking in the ‘Unmarried Mother’s’ fascinating tale of woe, the ‘Bartender’ is on the trail of an elusive terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. He is determined to intercept the bomber before he puts into effect a plan to blow up a large chunk of New York, which will result in a huge loss of life.

The movie stays pretty true to Heinlein’s story, even going as far as using some of the dialogue as written, but the Spierig Brothers elaborate on the time-traveling escapades in the latter part of the movie. Orienting you within the movie itself would inevitably constitute a massive spoiler, so it might be best to go into it knowing as little as possible. If some reviewers have given you the impression that the movie is hard to understand or keep track of, it really, really, isn’t – you just need to pay attention. There are plenty of clues as to what the set-up is from the beginning of the movie and the motif of the serpent swallowing its own tail pretty much says it all.

There are always critics who bleat about the unscientific aspects of time-travel movies, or over-zealous geeks who try to ‘map out’ how the’ timey-wimey’ pseudo-science works, but for me that’s really not the point. Anyone who is seriously interested in appreciating fiction knows the phrase ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ – a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could convincingly infuse “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. This is just as pertinent regarding the art of storytelling within the medium of film, even though it relies on the visual image to create much of its effects, because a story still needs to be told. It is, of course, possible to stretch our credibility a little too far, and a fiction succeeds or fails by how it can negotiate these limits. Heinlein’s story and the movie do require two leaps of plausibility for the tale to work, but I think it still does. (If you don’t see what these are, then the story has done an even better job than Heinlein might have hoped – which says a lot for the skill of the storyteller).

The twisty-turny aspects of the movie Predestination are Christopher Nolanesque in their aspirations, and the premise partly recalls Rian Johnson’s Looper – but the Spierigs have enough of a handle on their source material to reveal some clues and secrets relatively early on in the film. Some elements should be obvious to anyone paying attention, while others emerge organically to still provide some gratifyingly unexpected jolts. The Spierigs — identical twins Michael and Peter (they made Daybreakers, also with Hawke) — keep things moody and intimate. Ben Nott’s cinematography is a stylish composition of dusky shadows, which sets the Noirish tone of the movie. Even the low-key special effects seem appropriate. The movie may not have car-chases or bullet-time sequences – it doesn’t present the visual impact of Inception or Looper – but one thing Predestination has got going for it is a jolly good yarn and the examination of a few quite deep and problematic questions regarding society, self-perception, fulfilment and identity.

Meanwhile, it’s nice to see that Ethan Hawke continues to make risky and interesting acting choices. Here he is understated and enigmatic, his emotions kept in check (for a good reason that will become apparent later in the movie). He generously throws the spotlight over to his principal co-star – a virtually unknown Australian actress named Sarah Snook – and Snook is terrific. She plays both genders, but is particularly impressive as the simultaneously pragmatic yet otherworldly Jane, with a wary, wounded gaze and slow, disarming smile. She treads the line between disillusioned yet still so desperately hopeful, that her trials and disappointments are heart-breaking to witness.

The Spierig brothers have fashioned an absorbing, time-looping thrill ride, and for me at least, it was a delight to fit together all of its puzzle pieces. They took a risk with casting that has paid off in spades and their work on Predestination has also left me wondering – if someone handed them a generous film budget, whether the Spierig Brothers couldn’t be a more disciplined, elegant and interesting sci-fi sibling pair then the ever-ambitious but recently rather over-excitable, and unmethodical Wachowskis? They certainly know how to handle a storyline in a more engaging way.

If you are a science-fiction fan, or just appreciate a good story well told, I’d say Predestination is a movie you should make some time for.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2015 All rights reserved.

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