Friday, February 6, 2015

Predestination - Time Travel Gets Weird

So I thought that the best way to start off 2015 posts would be with something really really weird.  Sure January brought us plenty of wretched releases, almost none of which are even worth considering.  Because, yes, they're terrible, but they are terrible in a very standard, predictable way.  Theoretically nobody sets out to fail, but when so many cinematic vessels keep crashing into the same Failure Rocks after taking the exact same obviously wrong route, you have to wonder if this wasn't somehow part of the plan.  And if they don't care where they're going, why should I even bother to steer them?  Just sail on past into the bright horizon of bizarre Australian Time Travel movies inspired by one of the most nutty science fiction writers of the 20th century.  Hey look, here's a good landing spot:  "Predestination".

"Predestination" is either a time travel action thriller as the trailer promises, or it could be framed as a stirring introspective drama:  one woman's through her memories journey to find herself and her future.  Or maybe it is simply a romantic biopic.  The unique thing about "Predestination" is that it lends itself to many different interpretations of it's storyline.  This plotline loops around again and again, each time seeming more strange and perverse than the last time you almost came to fully understand it.  Infamous SciFi author, Robert A. Heinlein wrote the original short story "-All You Zombies-" which despite being a sparse twelve page narrative, is very faithfully recreated here.  Time travel is already an unlimited license to absolute madness, and this is a film that makes the most of the weirder possibilities of the concept.

Ethan Hawke stars as a Time Cop living in the far distant future of... 1993*.  While in the 70s, his face is blown off trying to stop a terrorist known as the "Fizzle Bomber".  Now that his voice and features are so different that "even his own mother wouldn't recognize him" Hawke is sent on one last mission.  While serving as a bartender in early 70s New York he meets Jack (played by the female Sarah Snooke).  Jack is a post-op transsexual, having been transformed after a series of disasters in his former persona, Jane's life.  At this point, Hawke's nameless character recruits Jack to help him find the mad Bomber.  The Bartender/Cop and Jack/Jane then move together into the nightmare that is Heinlein's vision for their characters, discovering terrible secrets about their pasts and each other.

What I am saying here is that "Predestination" has a fantastic twist ending.  This is the kind of twist so properly fucked-up that you will spend the next week or so of your life just trying to chew over what it could possibly mean.  It has been a very long time since I have seen a film with a legitimately new twist ending.  The late-90s was this golden age of amazing cerebral films that would tear apart your brain, leaving your skull gaping open in disbelief.  "Fight Club", "The Usual Suspects", "Memento", "The Sixth Sense" all fooled you with unreliable protagonists, then slammed reality into your face.  It is not easy to pull that off anymore, because by now, everybody has seen it.

That mustache does more to sell the mood of the 70s than any art design technique.
Martin Scorsese directed a fantastic movie with "Shutter Island", Leonardo DiCarpio played a great role, but the movie will never receive much recognition because most of us called the twist in the trailer.  M. Night Shymalan's entire career was destroyed by searching for original twists when he had already exhausted his best ideas.  By the time "Identity" came up with the single dumbest twist ending in the history of cinema**, we should have known the twist was dead.  Sure there have been the minor exceptions:  "Black Swan", "Gone Girl", etc., every so often you might get a little freaked out or surprised by a plot turn, but nothing like what we used to see.   "Predestination", however, offers something that no film has given us for years:  a legitimately shocking turn on our expectations.  I don't care how many movies you've seen or how weird they report to be, you haven't seen this.

And who else to manage to surprise the 21st century but a mid-20th century SciFi writer?  What you would not know about Robert A. Heinlein (unless you've read him) is that the man is bonkers insane.  Heinlein somehow managed to support nudist hippie free-love pacifism in "Stranger in a Strange Land" while at the same time advocating that fascist militarism was the only society that could work in "Starship Troopers".  Somewhere in that brain might have been a consistent philosophy of some kind, God knows what it could have been.  Needless to say he has some very strange ideas.  Sure free-love was very radical in the 1960s, but Heinlein went further, advocating incest and pedophilia.  And even today those ideas do not get you very far.  In his own Heinlein way, he managed to mix together his fetishes into his politics, creating some kind mess of politico-sexuality even stranger than Ayn Rand's concepts of Objectivist fucking.

"Predestination" is made in that Heinlein image.  He was a very talky writer.  His books do not have plots or action, just characters sitting around a room talking.  Even "Starship Troopers", a book theoretically about space marines (a concept invented by Heinlein) fighting giant alien bugs, is actually mostly Johnny Rico sitting in a classroom being given a crash course on the wonders of fascism***.  The majority of "Predestination" is Ethan Hawke talking to Sarah Snooke at the bar, as John/Jane tells her life style.  Luckily "Predestination" takes the best of Heinlein - imagination, disturbing views of the world - and combines it with snappier dialog, well-rounded characters, and even a bit of action.  But importantly too, the movie continues to steam forward nicely towards an inevitable chilling destination.

A retro-1950s attempt at Oculus Rift.
This is Ethan Hawk's second collaboration with the Speirig Brothers, the first being the disappointing 2010 dystopian vampire film, "Daybreakers".  The Spierig Brothers are definitely creators with interesting ideas, and have greatly improved since their fairly static previous film.  "Predestination" does not have a huge budget, but manages to spread itself across three different time periods and art styles rather gracefully.  The Spierigs take us to several decades convincingly without becoming too showy about their scenery, both saving cash and narrative energy.  The 70s are simply the 70s.  Throw a yellow filter over the art design, put on ugly clothing, and move forward in the story.  The time machine is just an efficient brief case prop.  Time travel is simple editing trickery, not extravagant CG productions.   "Predestination" even includes some archaic classical SciFi elements such as space colonies in the Eisenhower Administration, without needing any reason to explain why this would be.  No need to have spaceships or flying cars, simply include little elements to show this is not the late-20th century of our memory.

Where "Daybreakers" felt oddly toothless in terms of characterization, "Predestination" is a far step forward.  Sarah Snooke is given most of the dramatic weight in the first half of the movie, where most of the running time is her life story.  Effective make-up work transforms the John/Jane character from looking like Emma Stone to looking like Dane DeHaan.  But Snooke is able to carry both the male and female versions of this character very differently.  This is not necessarily for gender reasons, anybody reading LBGT themes into this movie will not find much to work with, but for all the trauma that this character endures during it's transformation.  I still wish a male actor had been chosen to play John since make-up only can accomplish so much, but Snooke's performance leaves little to complain about.  Similarly Hawke's character is able to transition well from airs of charming masculinity to his true confused vulnerable face.  He even manages to sneak in some hammy villainous grandstanding in his final scene.

Despite the fact "Predestination" has a lot of ground to cover:  retro SciFi musing, sexual confusion, the loss of identity in aging, it unfortunately manages to to cover nearly all of it by the first hour.  That leaves about thirty-seven minutes left after the largest revelations are already concluded.  Once the film gets the characterization moments concluded it jumps through very busy and highly confusing time travel zig-zags.  It is the sort of weighty "Inception"-style head-spinning method scripting.  However this time it is mostly a smokescreen to cover that the movie really has little else to do.  By this point the Spierigs ran out of Heinlein narrative to adapt, so they try tepidly to have Hawke's character battle the Fizzle Bomber again.  But the hammer has already slammed the nail into the narrative's head, at this point the movie is just flailing around with blood gushing down it's face, eyes covered in gore, and unsure where to go.  Then it blindly slams into a wall and collapses into a final ending.

Time travel is confusing enough already, don't add beer into the mix.
Ultimately "Predestination" is a bit messy, but that's time travel for you.  Typically I would be complaining that the story makes no sense, and really it doesn't.  Patently "Predestination"'s plotline is impossible, but that it happens anyway is all the more disturbing.  These characters are trapped in a fate doomed to be repeated endlessly, yet in the same movements are causing the cycle to be born over and over again, forever.  When you realize just what Jack/Jane and even the Bartender really are, you discover that they are entirely divorced from our reality, even our physics.  Trying to wrap your head around all that will probably result in a massive stroke.

The more important thing "Predestination" is all together quality filmmaking, great performances, subtle production design, and one Hell of a warped twist to offer.  "Predestination" is the kind of movie that haunts you.  You cease watching it so creeped-out that "Predestination" essentially creates it's own word-of-mouth marketing campaign.  "So what did you watch last night, Bill?"  "Well, Frank, I saw this really fucked-up Australian film where this guy goes back in time and-"  That's the kind of buzz this movie deserves:  to be notorious, to be freaky, to be that underground movie that we film nerds saw before everybody else and can gloat about.  "Hey, Frank, you say you like weird movies, right?  I bet you haven't seen anything like this..."

Sure "Project Almanac" is in theaters everywhere and is the obvious choice for maddening time travel confusion.  But if you want a real mindbending and genderbending time travel experience, go see "Predestination".

* Heinlein wrote the story back in the 1958 and set it during what sounded futuristic at the time.  I told you this movie was faithful.

** SPOILERS:  Turns out the entire cast were actually imaginary figments living inside the brain of a fat dude.  I definitely didn't see that one coming, at least.

*** Which is why Paul Verhoeven threw the book out almost immediately when making his version, which was instead a silly and wonderful satire of 'rah, rah, rah AMERICA'.  This is why unfaithful adaptations can sometimes be a good thing.


  1. Wait the ending is what.....???? I thought the original ending was basically everyone was the same character. Now I am very curious to see how this .

    As a aside I don't think daybreakers was that bad. At the very least it had a nice art style , plus the last 30 minutes were beautifully cheesy. Characters sucked, but if its on tv ill usually watch it for a few minutes.

    Sword Of Primus

    1. As Hammurabi's Sacred Law of Internet Criticism States I cannot put spoilers in the review. (You know, as long as it isn't spoiling "Identity", an obnoxiously stupid movie only memorable for being so dumb.) The twist is everything you think it is, only with one last rather poetic final twist thrown in.

      SPOILERS: Turns out Hawke/Snooke/Bartender/John/Jane/Larry 3000 are actually the same person as the Fizzle Bomber. And this weird creature not only creates itself, it also winds up killing itself. An already disturbing narrative is made all the weirder.

    2. Bwah???

      Sword Of Primus