Australia, 2014, 97 minutes, Colour.
Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor.
Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig.
Predestination used to be a theological term (well, it still is in religious circles). It was associated with John Calvin and his theology, of God’s grace to some predestined people, and the sign of their grace and predestination shown by their prosperity in this world. This concept developed in the United States and is part of the belief in manifest destiny that America rules unless it falls from grace and has lost its predestination – symbolised in the experience of Richard Nixon, his claiming his authority and presidency until he was exposed and lost his predestination.
This is a film with an American setting, an American consciousness, much of the action taking place in Boston. But it should be added that this is an Australian film, made in Melbourne, re-creating the American atmosphere, totally convincingly.
Some audiences may have the religious meanings of predestination in mind when they watch this film but they soon have two readjust their understanding of the word. It is used here in a secular context, a focus on human fate and destiny, and the mysteries of human nature. Because the plot entails complex time travel, this makes the challenge to understand the meaning of the film and the presentation of the characters much more interesting, even though continually puzzling.
The film is based on a short story, All You Zombies, by Robert A. Heinlein, author of such stories as Starship Troopers, The Puppet Masters. It has been adapted for the screen by twin brothers, the directors Michael and Peter Spierig. Their previous film was an arresting vampire film, Daybreakers.
They have brought the star of Daybreakers, Ethan Hawke, to be one of the two central characters in Predestination. He first appears as a bartender in the 1970s but it is revealed that he is a time traveller, an agent used by a bureaucracy for police work and the prevention of crime. His main task is to prevent a massacre in 1975 by a murderer nicknamed The Fizzle Killer. We see The Bartender moving from one time to another – and it is finally revealed that he does much more travel than we had initially expected.
The other central character whom we also meet in the bar, talking to The Bartender, is a character called in the cast list, The Unmarried Mother. This is a name which does not do justice to the complexities of the character, especially as we first see her as a man, revealing that she has had sex change surgery. And she is somehow or other involved in the quest for The Fizzle Killer.
Her time travel is portrayed in flashbacks. As a little girl, she was taken by a mysterious stranger and left at the door of an orphanage. She grows up there, as a girl, but a feisty one, especially in conflict with fellow orphans and authorities. She goes to college, falls in love, has a child (The Unmarried Mother). But then, her inner identity as male comes to the fore and she undergoes the surgery.
It must be said that The Unmarried Mother is played by Sarah Snook (Sisters of War, Not Suitable for Children, These Final Hours). It is an excellent performance (both as female and as male), totally convincing, award-worthy.
A review is not meant to be a synopsis of the film and enough indications have been given here to suggest the tone of the film rather than detail the plot. Predestination definitely needs to be seen, to be able to comprehend the meaning of the time shifts, the growing identification of The Bartender with The Unmarried Mother, the quest for The Fizzle Killer and the revelation of who the killer is.
Audiences will enjoy the relativity of times and spaces. They will be intrigued by the central characters and their interactions. And there are a lot of philosophical implications in the presentation of human nature, fate, destiny – and whatever predestination means.
1. Acclaim for the film? Cult film? The Spierig brothers and their films, interest in science fiction, science fantasy, touches of horror?
2. The American settings, filmed in Melbourne? The different time periods and their look, costumes and decor, the 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s? the different styles – and the presentation of American cities?
3. The title, its past theological overtones, interest in in fate, destiny, identity?
4. The range of locations, bars, homes, college, orphanages, hospitals, apartments, the bureau? The musical score?
5. The time shifts, the experience of the characters, briefing, the way of travel, disappearing and appearing?
6. The Bartender on the track of The Fizzle Killer? The 1970s? The murders? The date for the final massacre? Media headlines and television information? Time travel in order to stop the massacre? In the bar, the bartender’s work, meeting The Unmarried Mother, assuming he was a man (and the reaction of the audience?)? The bartender and his discussions with The Unmarried Mother, helping her?
7. Sarah’s story, her birth, the 1940s, taken to the orphanage, her life in the orphanage, feisty, clashes with the others, her prospects, as a girl, the decision to go to college, her masculinity recognised, her voice change, the advice, the surgery? Accepting it? In the bar in the 1970s, talking with the bartender? His protection?
8. Mr Robertson, his role, authority, character, advice, control? The bureau, the visuals, the suits on racks? His decisions?
9. The bartender and the effect of the experience of The Unmarried Mother? The Unmarried Mother and the effect of meeting the bartender?
10. The time complexities, of the bartender bringing the baby to the orphanage, the irony in that the child was theirs, Sarah at college, charm, in love, the revelation that it was the bartender? The Unmarried Mother’s sex change? Being taken into the future? The bartender and his role to stop the killer, the revelation of the identity of the killer? His role in the life of The Unmarried Mother, his own physical characteristics, male and female?
11. Each character being the other, in different times and places, the identity of one, masculine-feminine and the complementarity? The qualities of the identities in the one person? The theme of one human nature? The mystery of human nature?
12. The title in line in the light of the action: destiny, predestination, choice?