A man walks into a bar and makes a bet with the bartender that his story is more remarkable than any the tender has heard. After the relaying of his painful – and definitely remarkable – tale is complete the bartender (Ethan Hawke) gives the man (Sarah Snook) the opportunity to go back in time and put right what once went wrong.
This is Predestination, the third feature from the Australian Spierig Brothers. It begins like a joke and ends like a mind-numbing existential quandary. From the bartender’s time-travel offer the tale truly ventures into sci-fi territory, but nothing excessively Minority Report.
It’s a slight story, one which gets ever slighter as the story progresses and narrative binds the loop(s) tighter, yet Predestination feels complete. Despite clocking in at roughly the average length for a movie it nonetheless feels about as close to the short story as cinema has perhaps ever come. One could be glib and remark the reason for that is simply because Predestination is an adaptation of a short story (specifically Robert A. Heinlein’s iconic —All You Zombies—), but there is more to it that that; the film feels pared down, eliminated of all extraneous elements not because of a low budget, nor scissor-happy editors, but simply because it is not required.
A retro-fitted future we only glimpse where necessary, a slim cast and few locales; the only padding to the —All You Zombies— tale is the incorporation of a terrorism-prevention mission plot-thread, one that has the potential to undermine the delicate balance of the story’s main narrative but thankfully doesn’t, providing a neat context and distraction from the melodrama of the central conflict.
Predestination is most interesting for the first act almost entirely being confined to the bar-story, and personally I feel that the film could’ve ascended to the ranks of greatness had it possessed the nerve to tell-not-show (thus ironically and perversely inverting the old cinematic maxim), and maybe even somehow refine and restrict the entire film to the two-people/one-room dramatic unity, but one can hardly blame the Spierigs and company for not following that particular path.
Low-budget sci-fi, particularly when concerned with time-travel, has a tendency to revel in its own complexity as a substitute for the lack of budget or emotional investment (looking at you, Primer), to varying degrees of success. Predestination is thankfully different – and disarmingly affecting with it too – as the place of women in the society of this alternate history is explored from both sides of this gender divide.
As is often the case with time-travel films, to say any more would be to weaken the reveals and turns, and in a review of this length there is not enough space to warrant interrogating the plot fully. It’s best to go in as blind as possible, as I did back at last year’s Mayhem Film Festival – it was the film I had been looking forward to least, and turned out one of the absolute highlights.
Elsewhere the film has been favourably compared to Christopher Nolan’s approach to filmmaking. Nonsense. With as much heart as this, and without falling over itself to congratulate its own intelligence, Predestination is far better than that.