A man walks into a bar …
No, this is not the beginning of one of those tired old jokes you have heard a thousand times before, and to which there an equal number of groan-inducing punchlines, but the essential starting point for one of the most wildly ambitious, entertaining and cleverly-conceived and executed sci-fi romps of recent times, Predestination, the latest movie from wunderkind Australian writing and directing duo the Spierig brothers.
Based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1960 short story ”All You Zombies”, whose twisty-turny narrative provides the bedrock narrative for this engrossing time travel tale, Predestination takes an inventive look at questions of fate, choice and whether in the end we are captives of pre-ordained events or their masters, able to change those parts of our destiny not to our liking.
It accomplishes this with a Churchillian storyline that is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma folded into a mystery and tucked inside a Rubik’s cube, with threads that wind into and onto themselves such that you have to keep your wits about you to fully appreciate the complexity of the story unfolding you.
However, for all its complexity (and if you’re paying attention it all makes beautifully-constructed, elegant sense), it is at heart the simple tale of one person’s quest to be appreciated, known and loved for who they are, with Australian actress Sarah Snook anchoring the film as The Unmarried Mother, an androgynous-looking writer of “confessional” tales for pulp magazines, who wanders into a bar in 1970 where the barkeeper played by Ethan Hawke appears unusually ready to listen to what his customer promises will be “the best story you ever heard.”
Quite why he is so eager to listen to the strange but compelling taciturn man’s tale becomes clear as the film’s multi-layered, “snake eating its tail” narrative coterminously unfurls and knits together, although at first you are led to believe that it purely has to do with a covert mission that the barkeeper, in reality a Temporal Agent charged with moving through time to prevent wrongdoing, is on to thwart the destructive reign of terror of the curiously-named “Fizzle” Bomber in early ’70s new York.
It’s while the tale is being told, of a then young girl named Jane who is left on the steps of an orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio in 1945, and grows up, blindingly intelligent and too tomboy-ish and independent to win the affection of her judgemental peers, or gain employment with the mysterious ’60s-era Space Corp, helmed by the kindly but enigmatic Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor), that the film comes most alive with the humanity that sustains it throughout.
Snook perfectly conveys the angst and anger, frustration and deep sadness of an intersex, who is both male and female, mentally, emotionally and physically, perpetually operating on the fringes of societal acceptability who, through, no fault of her won, fails to subscribe to the conformative norms of society upon which her much-longed dreams of friendship, love and acceptance rest.
And it’s well night impossible in the intimately-set first half of the film, which only temporarily leaves the wood panelled, warmly lit bar to showcase seemingly unconnected events that occur between 1945 and 1993 – you are only able to travel 50 years either side of 1985, the year in which time travel was invented – to tear yourself away from The Unmarried Mother’s quietly-told, engrossing tale of a life lived in the shadows of expectation and held tight by what feels like inescapable fate.
That it is both escapable, and yet cruelly not, is brought forth in the louder, more energetic second half of the film in which all the dangling threads of the film’s quiet first half are neatly and engagingly brought together to create an astonishingly satisfying whole that will surprise and delight in equal measure.
Unlike many time travel opuses which leave you scratching your head at the brain-exploding paradox nature of it all, Predestination, much like Looper before it, does bring its various puzzle pieces together in a series of “A-HA!” and “Oh my god!” moments, proving it is as substantial as it is thematically and visually spectacular.
The overwhelming film noir feel of the piece is given life by cinematographer Ben Nott, who suffuses the entire film with subdued but never dull or lifeless lighting which matches the mood and tone of The Unmarried Mother’s extraordinary tale, and in turn complements the era-specific sets and costuming which are realised with impressive accuracy and evocative feel by Matthew Putland and Wendy Cork respectively.
Predestination is likely many things depending on your point of view – a deeply affecting tale of one person’s dislocation from society and the sense they can never correct this injustice, even if they have to come to begrudgingly accept it, a polemic on deftly-explored ideas of fate and free will, and a dissertation on the repressiveness of society and its unwillingness to bend to accommodate anyone outside the pre-set norms.
But thanks to a tautly-written script by the Spierig brothers, Snook’s deeply moving, entrancingly-realised portrayal of a lost soul seeking an existentially happy place to call home, and Ethan Hawke’s counterbalancing role as the Temporal Agent with a complex connection to the not-so-unknown stranger that walks into his bar, it is ultimately an exploration of what it means to be loved and accepted and to find meaning exactly as you are, themes that anyone with a beating heart can readily and wholeheartedly identify with, regardless of whether you find the sci-fi conceit of the piece compelling or not.