By Simon Miraudo
August 1, 2014
“Smart” movies can be dumb fun (Inception, Shutter Island), and “dumb” movies can be secretly smart (22 Jump Street, Spring Breakers), but movies about time travel… mostly just frustrate. They exist in some sort of netherworld, caught between smartness and dumbness, kind of like this sentence. They require rigorous plotting, and yet, remain utterly preposterous. If time travel movies take themselves too seriously, they invite scrutiny they cannot withstand. If they don’t take themselves seriously enough, they open themselves up to easy unraveling. (The exception is Hot Tub Time Machine, which turned “not giving a crap” into an art form.)
The best ones try. A bit. Back to the Future, Looper, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys (and La Jetee). Throw Predestination onto that pile too. Michael and Peter Spierig’s latest eschews the zombies and vampires that populated their previous flicks, and instead zeroes in on a freaky-deakie love story set within a future science-fiction universe. Not that we realise this when the feature begins, what with its Minority Report-recalling premise. It opens with Ethan Hawke – reteaming with his Daybreakers directors here – as a time-skipping assassin on the trail of a terrorist who is similarly chronologically-unstuck. Where ‘The Fizzle Bomber’ will strike next is well known by the shady government agency (led by Noah Taylor) on his case. It’s the ‘when’ that has them puzzled, with company man Hawke frantically jumping across eras to stop the maybe-inevitable leveling of New York City.
The only other major player is Sarah Snook, who solidifies her burgeoning star status with a complex, complicated performance that sees her span decades… and genders. She’s introduced early on as a man, looking, convincingly, like Dane DeHaan, for your reference. Born Jane and now going by the name of John, she drowns her sorrows at a 1970s New York pub tended by Hawke, who spurs her to spill her sob story; their individual motives mysteriously and deliciously teased out. Much of the film’s first half details Jane’s long, curious journey towards John, and Snook shines in what feels like a transgender parable tucked within a sci-fi setting. (Her subtle make-up is effective, however, it’s Snook’s understated, heart-hurt performance that makes the transformation feel truly believable.) As is revealed, Predestination is not quite that either. It’s not quite like anything else, actually.
When the Spierigs finally pull the rug out from under us, you’ll probably start to feel a light thumping feeling in the back of your head. This indicates only that you are still sane. The twist at Predestination‘s core might incite some sleepless nights amongst those who plan on picking at its few fraying threads. I’d advise against it. This thing can’t be solved. At least during the watching, the mechanics of the plot appear to make sense, and that’s all we need. More important than whether the internal logic holds up is whether or not the character beats ring true and pay off. They do. Hawke and Snook’s circuitous arcs both reach individual, moving crescendos. Actors never do their best work in silly B-movie exercises, I thought. Yet another of Predestination‘s paradoxes.
The fraternal writer-director duo – adapting Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies – drop plenty of clues in their opening sequence to prepare you for Predestination’s ultimate end; helpful hints that indicate they’re having fun, are in on the joke, and that we needn’t stress out over the increasingly accumulating impossibilities. Their fleet-footed filmmaking adds to the deliriousness of the yarn, which never really pauses long enough to allow a moment of doubt, and puts plenty of fantastical, beautifully-photographed imagery before us to keep our eyes from ever rolling.
A narrative ouroboros with no seeming beginning, middle or end, Predestination is a magnificently captivating mystery; a curly thriller that often feels like the best tall tale you’ve ever heard, and will likely send you out into the streets eager to grab someone by the lapel and relay it with breathless, “you won’t believe this” enthusiasm. (Fitting how the story proper begins with a man walking into a bar.) Shot in Melbourne, it’s a convincingly slick picture with none of the technical trappings that make other audacious Australian produce look embarrassingly out of its element. Also, not being more than 100 minutes long, it moves at a clip, and thanks to a playful Hawke, an entirely committed Snook, and a cheeky vein of dark humour, Predestination is a wildly, weirdly rollicking ride. Underestimate the Spierigs – experts at turning trashy genre excursions into fare that’s exhilarating, entertaining and profoundly thoughtful – at your own peril. The same goes for breakout star Sarah Snook now too.
Predestination played the Melbourne International Film Festival. It arrives in Australian cinemas August 28, 2014.