The time-travel thriller Predestination, is already gaining a cult status, and it's easy to see why. This movie takes the most famous story about time paradoxes and elevates it to a great psychological study. And it features one of the most powerful performances we've seen in ages.
Predestination is very closely based on the short story "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein, which is probably the most emblematic story of time-travel-related causal loops ever written. In "All You Zombies," a bartender meets a younger man who recounts a bizarre story of tragic romance, involving a mysterious stranger, a missing baby and an involuntary gender reassignment surgery. And it just gets stranger from there.
In a nutshell, the core idea of Heinlein's story is, "What if someone was their own mother and father?" And Heinlein goes through a lot of amusingly weird plot gyrations to make this premise work, creating a story that closes its own loop with no loose ends.
The movie version, written and directed by the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers), hews very close to the Heinlein story, while adding a brand new subplot and a whole lot of thriller-movie tropes. But more importantly, the movie adds a lot more emotional realism and connective tissue to Heinlein's zany tale, and features powerful performances by Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.
The movie version picks up the absurdity of Heinlein's story and adds a lot of weight to it, creating an ultimately tragic and bitter portrait of someone who is trapped inside a cosmic joke. The freedom to move through time, and navigate history the way regular people walk down the street, actually forms the bars of this person's prison, and the temporal paradox at the center of the film doesn't just remove John/Jane's free will, it also turns his/her life into an inescapable trap.
Anybody who's interested in seeing time-travel done well, with a great deal of internal consistency and cleverness, should definitely make time for Predestination. And fans of Heinlein will be over the moon.
But those aren't the main reasons to watch Predestination — the main reason is that Sarah Snook, who plays both male and female versions of the same character, is absolutely captivating and lends a poignancy to every scene she's in. (Check out our interview with Snook about the unique challenges of this film.) Snook constantly seems on the edge of insane rage, even before her character becomes the victim of a cruel twist of fate.
And Snook really gets to the heart of the violence that's done to her character, who's subjected to incredibly unethical surgery without her consent. (The non-consensual genital surgery and consequent reassignment of her character from female to male put me in mind of John Colapinto's book As Nature Made Him. In real life, these things don't tend to turn out very well.)
What's more, playing a character who could easily have seemed a lifeless tool of the plot, Snook does the near-impossible: take a character who's got no free will, and give him/her a sense of agency.
That said, this might be the rare case where a movie is actually too close to the source material. Heinlein's original story is a brilliant proof of concept, but it also feels like he's tossing out a bunch of amusing ideas at top speed, not all of which land that well. (Heinlein famously wrote "All You Zombies" in a single day.)
It's a similar situation to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which is basically just Fitzgerald saying "Wouldn't it be funny if a guy aged backwards?" and then tossing in a bunch of funny gags along the way. The screenwriters of the Benjamin Button movie kept Fitzgerald's basic concept, along with a few key details, and then crafted a brand new take on the idea. But the Spierig Bros., faced with a similarly sketchy tale from another great writer, are reverent, preserving every last detail.
So, for example, Heinlein's story includes a 1970s space program that sends male astronauts into deep space for months at a time. And then he adds a bizarrely unlikely initiative, where the space agency recruits female sex workers — who are required to be virgins — to relieve these male astronauts' sexual frustration on their long journeys.
It's an incongruous, credulity-stretching idea, that adds almost nothing to an already overstuffed story, and it could easily have been dropped from the movie. But it's in there. And so are a few other things that Heinlein brings up in his story, has fun with for a paragraph or two, and then never mentions again. (If we had a well-known program sending people into deep space for months-long journeys in the 1970s, a lot of things would inevitably have been very different.)
The other problem with Predestination is that the Spierig Bros., trying to impose a more conventional tone on Heinlein's off-beat storytelling, lean heavily on the "thriller" aspect. There are dark hallways, fistfights, men in suits, ominous conversations, wheels inside wheels, terrorism, and One Last Mission. The thriller stuff feels somewhat dull and rote, especially when juxtaposed with all the elements of the insanely quirky and silly Heinlein story.
At the same time, the main subplot that the movie adds to Heinlein's story does pay off prety well — adding a final note of insane darkness to a already dark story.
The best time-travel stories usually have an element of existential bleakness, as their characters try to create meaning in a universe where things are essentially meaningless or pre-determined. And Predestination captures that sense of existential bleakness very well, while creating something that's both strikingly absurd and emotionally powerful. Despite some flaws, this is already a strong candidate for most mind-blowing film of the year.