As a teenager, I would’ve loved the Spierig Brothers’ time travel thriller Predestination; over a decade later, I’m not as enamoured of its conceptual ambition. The film sees Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook dart and swerve through an entwined net of plot twists taken from a conceptual short story (“All You Zombies”) by Robert Heinlein. It’s a concept that could only really sing as a short story, sadly, with the cinematic medium straining under the convoluted demands of the narrative and ultimately overshadowing Predestination’s stylistic strengths and sketchy characterisation.
Teenage Dave would’ve been satisfied with the intellectual experiment that drives Predestination, especially given my obsession with the specifics of time travel (I even enrolled in a university course titled “The Philosophy of Time Travel,” and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the Spierig Brothers attended the same course). It helps that I had a brief fascination with “twist films” (Fight Club, The Usual Suspects et al), and I would’ve happily traded emotional integrity for the plethora of twists found in this screenplay.
Honestly, I’m still a sucker for a good twist. Predestination’s twists could’ve worked, but the problem is that you can’t have the carpet swept out from under you if the whole film has you clutching desperately at the carpet, ready for the yank. Right from the first frame, you’re encouraged to analyse and investigate the film in search of the next twist, and unfortunately they’re not clever enough to escape notice. I hate to be “that guy” who proudly proclaims that they saw all the twists coming, but this isn’t some attempt to establish my intellectual superiority – everyone else I’ve spoken to who’ve seen the film had the same problem. Predestination spends so much time developing its exposition that it’s nearly impossible not to see a few of its twists coming.
Still, it’s difficult to describe the plot of Predestination without hinting at these surprises, so I’ll avoid any such summary (let’s just point out it devotes 10 minutes of its runtime to “space prostitutes” for no discernable reason). Instead I’ll note that for all my griping, there’s a lot to like about Predestination. The Spierig Brothers are one of the few holdovers of the cyberpunk-tinged “cool cinema” that was so de rigeur during the late-‘90s/early-‘00s (see: anything by the Wachowskis). They do a lot with an obviously miniscule budget here, finding memorable, stylised comic-book imagery within a limited ranged of sets. There’s some laziness too; The Stooges’ “1970” is not the most inspired choice to introduce a scene set in that year (sweet song, though).
Hawke delivers the kind of barely-there performance speckled throughout his generally impressive filmography, but the real saving grace of the film is Sarah Snook. Having already distinguished herself in a small role in These Final Hours, Snook is given a near impossible character to play and succeeds with aplomb. Before the film gets consumed by its interconnected time travel paraphernalia in its last half, Snook establishes an emotional centre for the film that maintains your attention. Honestly, I would’ve been more forgiving of the film’s narrative contortions if she’d been consistently present to provide an affecting counterweight (or if the film had simply focused more on her character than all the other stuff).
Unfortunately, unlike the characters of Predestination, I can’t travel back in time to a time when I would’ve been sufficiently impressed by its narrative and conceptual ambition to forgive how those elements dominate the film. Still, I can’t entirely deny the appeal of a film that combines Snook’s commanding performance with sleek weirdness.