Oh goody-goddamn-gumdrops, another time travel movie. You know, I’m starting to feel like time travel is the zombies of science fiction. We’ve seen it so often and in so many flavors, that even the possibility of a new, novel approach is getting slim enough that you could classify it as two-dimensional. We’ve traveled through time with ridiculous 80s cars that no one bought; we’ve done it with large blue boxes that Americans keep calling a phone booth; and we’ve even done it with small pools of hot water that can make grown men sit uncomfortably close to each other whilst semi-naked. So what then does Predestination, the time travel thriller from the Spierig have to offer? Well, it’ll probably make you feel very smart. But the problem is, it does so by treating you like you’re very dumb.
Ethan Hawke stars as an agent of a mysterious agency tasked with using time travel to do… Er, something. They never really spell it out, but the implication is that they go around Quantum Leap style, setting right what once was wrong, preventing disasters and such. After a horrible accident in which his face is burned and completely reconstructed, he travels back to the 1970s to listen to some random fella tell his sob story about how he was born a woman, but had to receive a forced sex change after a problematic birth – the result of a relationship with a mysterious stranger who promptly vanished, taking the baby along with him. And right now, you’ve probably already figured out one of the many shocking twists that Predestination has primed to throw at you, or are at the very least thinking along the right lines.
You see, Predestination has some twists. Some slightly silly, basically nonsensical, twists that will make your head hurt if you think too hard about them, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that by the time the movie finally pulls back the curtain with a look of triumph on its face, you’ve already figured out what’s behind the curtain and have to politely feign surprise. Predestination, you see, just isn’t very good at being subtle about where this is all heading, dropping enough clues and hints that all the pieces should really have fallen into place for you by about half an hour in. And I don’t think this is me being “too smart” for this movie, the problem is that Predestination doesn’t think I’m smart enough for ~it~. No really, movie, you’re telling me that there’s a connection between the abundance of mysterious men whose face we conspicuously never see? And the fact that Ethan Hawke’s face gets burned at the beginning of the film, that’s somehow relevant too? Well imagine my shock! I mean, it isn’t like you telegraphed every hit like a bad boxer.
I think part of the problem is that Predestination needed to be way more structurally ambitious than it actually ended up being. Most of the first 40 minutes are basically this big infodump as Sarah Snook’s character narrates her entire life story to Ethan Hawke, and the problem with narration in film is that if you overdo it, which Predestination does, it just feels lazy and boring. Film is a visual medium, built on the idea of telling a story with imagery, editing, mise-en-scene. Throw this much narration in, and it basically becomes an audiobook with some images that you can choose to look at, if you feel like it. And why not mix up the order a bit, feed us new pieces of information about Snook’s characters backstory as we need them by cutting back and forth between her past and her present? If the first half of your movie is one big extended sequence of blandly delivered exposition, that’s a pretty major problem. I’m not asking for Last Year at Marienbad, here, but the whole idea could have worked so much better if you told the story differently. Storytelling, like a good joke, is all in the delivery, and as far as deliveries go, Predestination is like getting the wrong pizza three hours late and upside down in the box.
And really – if we’re being honest – even if the basic idea behind the film were executed more skillfully and actually came as a surprise… It’s still kinda silly. Kinda – really – silly. Yes, I know, it’s based on a Robert Heinlein novel and Robert Heinlein was a pretty good writer, but this is basically the plot of an episode of Futurama, only sillier than the actual episode and played totally straight. And there’s totally a way to make really silly premises work, and sometimes a premise can be so silly that I can get on board and respect it for trying to pull it off… But this isn’t it.
I’m sure that one day the Spierig brothers will live up to their promise of being adventurous, risk-taking genre film makers who come up with neat ideas for movies and manage to pull them off. But a lot like their previous effort, Daybreakers, Predestination is just a flawed, badly executed movie with an admittedly original idea at its core, but not one the film can actually make work as the driving force for a narrative. Better executed, with more ambition and respect for its audience to get experimental in terms of structure and not constantly telegraph every twist, this could have been an all right, if silly little genre film. As it is, it just feel like an example of how not to do a film like this.