The Spierig Brothers work outside the standard conventions of horror and science fiction. They made an intriguing splash with Daybreakers, a clever vampire film with a dystopian premise (it envisions a world where vampires are so successful that blood is a scarce resource). Unfortunately, Daybreakers arrived when Twilight dominated the culture, and was subsequently disregarded. The Spierigs have do not have the same problem with Predestination, their mind-bending adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein short story. Even with a low budget, their latest is both thoughtful and sometimes gorgeous. But when they abandon a heartfelt story in favor of a complex riddle, they mistakenly believe a paradox is an adequate substitute for emotional catharsis.
It’s 1970, and a bartender (Ethan Hawke) waits on losers in a New York dive. His regulars bore him, so he’s intrigued by the arrival of a stranger (Sarah Snook). They start chatting – the stranger wants to hear a joke, except the bartender cannot think of any – so they strike an unusual bargain: the stranger will tell the bartender an extraordinary story, and if the bartender is impressed, then the stranger gets a bottle of the good stuff for free. They agree, and the stranger’s story is a doozy: it starts with life in an orphanage, includes recruitment into a shadowy government organization, and ends with both heartbreak, as well as a gnawing sense of gender dysphoria. That’s the first thing we learn early about the stranger: the bartender knows him as a man, yet the stranger began life as a woman.
Aside from the transition from one gender to another, the long flashback that defines the opening act of Predestination is an observant, albeit familiar riff on the extraordinary sci-fi hero. There are countless stories and films about a fearless, intelligent outcast who perseveres in spite of a society that imposes hardships on them. In fact, there are parallels between Predestination and Gattaca, an allegorical science fiction film from 1997 where Hawke played a similar protagonist.
What makes Predestination truly stand out, however, is Snook’s unapologetic performance, one that combines physical uneasiness with bravado and even some vulnerability. As both man and woman, Snood is wholly convincing, particularly when the character struggles to preserve gendered body language. The production values are also unique: the Spierigs envision an alternate vision the twentieth century that’s somewhere between a noir film, Blade Runner, and an ironic nightmare. There are beautifully composed shots, full of moody shadows and sharp lines. The costumes are both distinct and otherworldly, which only adds to the timelessness of their vision. Still, for all their bravado, the Sprierigs lose their grasp of the material once they leave that bar.
It is not a coincidence that the stranger finds a captive audience in the bartender: he works for a secret government organization, the same one I mentioned earlier, and needs a new recruit. The goal is to stop “The Fizzle Bomber,” a terrorist who is responsible for countless attacks throughout the world. At this point, Predestination becomes a whodunit, except the Spierigs are too cocky. They bog down the bomber’s identity with an overabundance of foreshadowing, whether it’s from voice-over, bad jokes, or a groan-inducing musical cue. Foreshadowing is not necessarily a bad thing: it is a way to leave clues for the audience, and sometimes reward multiple viewings. In the hands of the Spierigs, the foreshadowing leads to a foregone conclusion.The best clues are details that don’t seem important until much later. Overconfident by half, the clues in Predestination dare us to figure it out, then the Spierigs expect us to be surprised by the final frames, anyway.
Predestination is impossible to discuss without first addressing the dual nature of Sarah Snood’s character. There is another important theme to film, one that the title hints at and the trailer makes all too clear. If this review intrigues you or if you like to “solve” a movie before it’s over, then please do not watch the trailer. It gives away too much, to the point that it’s a disservice to what Snood, Hawke, and the Spierigs nearly accomplish. On the other hand, if you think you can “solve” the movie with this review and the trailer below, feel free to watch and guess the solution. For a while, anyway, there is psychological depth in Predestination, but when the whodunit takes over, the directors (erroneously) think they’re smarter than us.