First Rule of Time Travel: Don’t Do It. Every time travel movie is accurate in that no good can come of it. You’re more than likely to create a paradox where you’ll interfere with your own past/future. The “confrontation” trope of time travel stories is well worn, but Predestination treats it like a fresh pair of sneakers, and then proceeds to run head first into a brick wall—it’s a stupid thing to do, but you have to appreciate the gusto. The Spierig Brothers‘ film is both painfully predictable yet excitingly bonkers in how far they’re willing to contort their story to keep firing new twists at the audience. Although the movie can hold on to broad notions of “fate” and paradoxes of human behavior, it mostly provides twists because it’s exciting to do so as opposed to serving some strong thematic purpose. But the whole production is done with such earnestness and confidence that Predestination remains commendable even at its most laughably dumb moments.
Ethan Hawke stars as a “temporal agent”, a special operative with a secretive bureau tasked with stopping catastrophic events before they happen. For his final mission, the Agent is trying to stop a terrorist the newspapers have dubbed “The Fizzle Bomber”, and whose biggest attack is set to occur at some point in March 1975. The Agent travels to the time period and poses as a barkeep, and while tending bar, he comes across a writer with an incredible tale that’s only the beginning—or perhaps the end—of the Agent’s vital mission.
Because Predestination lives on its multiple twists, it’s difficult to talk about the film without being frustratingly vague in order to avoid spoilers. The trailer is a massive bait-and-switch, and people who watch it and expect a slick, sci-fi action film will be stunned by a first half that barely includes Hawke let alone the genre they were expecting. This is not Timecop in fancier clothes. It’s a sad, somber tale of inevitability, self-destruction, and loneliness, and the mission to stop the Fizzle Bomber is an impetus for the character, but not the goal of the story.
Although the first half of Predestination is almost nothing like what the trailer led me to believe, it’s still fascinating and bizarre, and anchored by an astonishing performance from Sarah Snook. And yet this bizarre tale is but a precursor to how ludicrous the story will become. The characters mention the ourobouros more than once, but rather than a nice, clean loop, the plot’s twists and turns end up making a mess, and to not much of a larger purpose. However, these twists are so bold that they make the film captivating even if they produce morbid curiosity and unintentional hilarity in equal measure.
The film’s weaker aspects are tempered by the Spierig Brothers’ total commitment to their story. It’s one of the rare times where humor is actually unwelcome, and any joke has to be exceedingly wry like early in the film when the Agent wakes up and see two signs, one reading “Never do yesterday what should be done tomorrow,” and “If at last you do succeed, never try again.” Anything bigger would be like laughing in a beautiful library except all the books are pulp sci-fi comics riddled with misspellings. The shortcomings of the film don’t feel so harsh when the picture is adorned with Ben Nott‘s sharp cinematography and Peter Spierig‘s moody score.
Predestination has all the trappings of what good sci-fi should be—a scientific conceit used to illustrate a point about the human condition—but it’s more a sneak attack both in its marketing and in the storytelling. It’s not about the urgency to stop a terrorist. It’s not even an attempt to learn the future even though audiences will keep trying to get ahead of the movie to guess the identity of the Fizzle Bomber and the two shadowy figures who have a shootout in the film’s opening scene. The Spierigs want to keep the audience guessing, and although the answers may have you shaking your head, the film’s resolution is admirably nuts, and without a single wink towards the audience. Time travel may be a bad idea, but as Predestination proves, bad ideas can sometimes make for a wild ride.