Predestination

Chicken, Rooster, and Egg
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Starring: 
Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
The Setup: 
A fascinating time-travel puzzler mystery.
Discussion: 

I saw the trailer for this and thought it looked pretty neat, then POOF! It was in theaters pretty much the next day. The fact that it’s playing in one of the artsier theaters here in Chicago led me to believe it might be better than it is [it’s there because of its unusual structure], but it’s still a super-fun time-travel head-scratcher for people who like sci-fi movies where they have to stay on their toes and have their minds tickled in addition to their retinas.

This is adapted from a pretty famous short story by Robert Heinlein called “—All You Zombies—,” and it seems to be pretty faithful [I haven’t actually read it, just about it], although this movie adds ONE additional element that seemingly changes the entire feeling of the final product. That additional element is what you’ll be reading in synopses that the movie is “about:” a chase through time to prevent a bomber before he commits his most serious crime. That was apparently added on in order to get this film made at all—as serious, thoughtful sci-fi simply cannot be made for its own sake anymore—and in the final analysis, provides a fairly compelling and congruent addition to the story.

We open with a man in a fedora, whose face we pointedly do not see, trying to defuse a bomb. He is interrupted by the bomber, and is horribly burned when the bomb goes off. He is saved by someone else that we pointedly do not see, and sent forward in time. There he receives total-body plastic surgery, and in about a year or so, looks like Ethan Hawke with a mustache. He is a temporal agent, flipping through time, trying to prevent crimes before they happen. His big job is to prevent a huge explosion in 1975 New York that killed thousands of people. He is sent back in time to 1975, on his final mission… and, TITLE! …then we rejoin him as a bartender. That’s his name in the credits, “Bartender,” so we’ll just have to call him Ethan. One of the things Ethan asks his next guest is “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” which turns out to be an extremely pertinent question to this film.

Now, if you want to know absolutely nothing going in, you need to stop here. I think you’re safe with the level-one spoilers, personally, and I’ll alert you when really serious spoilers begin.

LEVEL-ONE SPOILERS > > >
In comes John, who looks like a very pretty Leonardo DiCaprio, and after a clumsy setup, tells Ethan his story. He reveals that he was born as a girl—which is a relief, as, depending on how much you’ve read about this movie or just your powers of deduction, you’re looking at Sarah Snook in drag and wondering “How long am I going to have to pretend that’s a man?” She was Jane, abandoned by her parents, and raised at an orphanage, where she was shunned by the other girls, was unusually aggressive, and extremely good at math and science. Jane is recruited by a secret space agency to be a “comfort woman” to astronauts, a whole angle that is very odd and doesn’t ultimately fit with the rest of the story as it was finally revised, but is interesting enough. Eventually Jane is suddenly dropped from the program, and goes into civilian life, where she soon meets an older man, the only person who truly understands her—and another person whose face we pointedly do not see [amazingly, your guess about who all these mystery people turn out to be WILL be right]. They have an affair, he knocks her up—then vanishes. She has the baby, but…

BIG-ASS SPOILERS NOW > > >
It turns out she’s a true hermaphrodite! That means she has both male and female sexual organs. Did you see that coming? DID YOU? But wait… turns out having the baby ruined her female organs, so they have TURNED HER INTO A MAN. That’s a bit of a surprise to wake up to, no? Kind of the last thing you expect, really—especially after having just given birth to a baby. But change is the only constant, I suppose. Well, if that wasn’t enough—someone SNATCHED THE BABY! That’s when I realized that this is some high-whack tricky twist shit. And I love it. It’s like a sci-fi tabloid. But really, I do wonder what are the odds of having your sex changed due to being intersex AND your baby snatched? I mean, I know it happened to ME, I just didn’t realize it was that common.

So thus far this movie has been pretty slow and talky, with numerous somber flashbacks, but mostly a character piece [although perhaps a highly improbable one], and John declares that all he wants is to kill the man who ruined his life! And Ethan says “What if I could put him in front of you?” and you think—wait a minute, is this movie about to shift from all talk to crazy time-cop action? Because I really HOPE SO!!—and, my friends, it is.

SPOILERS OF EPIC PROPORTIONS > > >
Ethan takes John in the back, says look, this is a time machine, and hey, want to be a temporal agent? Then BOOM, they’re back in time, and stop the motherfucking presses because John barely turns around before he meets-cute with JANE. You see, JOHN is the mysterious Mr. Right that stole Jane’s heart and ultimately FATHERED HER BABY. Let that sink in. She had a baby with herself. This is where sometimes this site is a learning experience, because it caused me to look up whether an intersex person could father their own baby, and the answer is no. Or at least it hasn’t happened yet, because usually one set of genitals doesn’t function. And with that, WHERE is all the fun? What do we have to do to get some hot intersex hole-stuffing action? But anyway, we see their romance, and same-person-separated-by-time lovemaking, and then—the moment when Ethan shows up for John again, and she leaves Jane alone… and pregnant. And if you thought that shit was fucked up beyond belief, you will need a new paragraph to absorb this one…

Ethan stole the baby, and took it back 20 years, and… THAT was the orphan that became Jane. That became John. That knocked up Jane. They’re all the same person, separated by time, and Jane is not just pregnant BY herself, she’s pregnant WITH herself. So now—back to find the killer, eh? No sense moping over the past. Ethan takes her back to stop a bombing, her first mission as a temporal agent. She, earlier had said that she was bitter because her life had no purpose, and Ethan says that being a temporal agent is lonely, sure, but it will give her life purpose.

WOULD YOU BELIEVE THERE IS STILL ANOTHER LEVEL OF SPOILERS??? > > >
And now here’s where this movie adds newness that wasn’t in the story. Ethan is retiring, and gets to chose one place in time to take up residence in. He choses 1975, just before the bombing. He finds the bomber, and—it is HIM, in the future. His future self says that he does the bombing to prevent larger catastrophes in the future. He also tells Ethan that the only way to end the pattern is NOT to kill him, but to love him. Ethan has a huge emotional scene, saying “There is no way that I will turn into you!” which is quite an emotionally powerful thing, in this context. But the bomber tells him it is in fact killing him that causes that fate. Well, Ethan can’t believe that after all he has been, he turns into THAT, and he kills his future self.

Ethan had one more illegal time jump, due to a malfunctioning time machine [don’t those just ANNOY you?] and goes back to the bombing he sent Jane on—where she bungles her mission, and we see that is Jane from the beginning who gets burned horribly, and the mysterious stranger who helps her is… Ethan. And he sends her forward in time, where she gets plastic surgery, and BECOMES ETHAN. Who then went back to meet her, as the bartender. He gives her some inspiring words, and we are to trust that he is urging her to somehow resolve the situation somewhere in the time loop—kill the bomber, or more likely, don’t kill the bomber. We’ll never know. The end!

Well, obviously we have to do a lot of the discussion while still in the spoilers. The movie doesn’t take that long to figure out—it makes sense pretty much as it’s unfolding—but you start to wonder if there was more to it or there’s some part we’re supposed to figure out. The main point of confusion is the temporal paradox [which it turns out there is a significant wiki article about] which is the whole thing about the person being his own father. Turns out it is just that—a paradox—and I think the movie acknowledges this in asking the question “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” and also invoking the image of a snake eating its own tail. The chicken or egg question is particularly pertinent because you can get caught up in… if the father, mother and baby are all the same person, where did all of this get started? Well, we’ll never know, and the movie doesn’t want to tell, it’s just the way it is, and that’s interesting enough in itself.

The part the filmmakers added, the whole thing about the bomber, and the bomber being future Ethan, is the rare addition to a work of fiction that actually works and enhances the story. It adds the entire dimension of the future to this character, and while the content of the story concentrates on the past, and how this character came to be who he is, raising all the questions of fate and predestination, the part added for the film adds the destiny of his future, and how he turns out in a way that horrifies his younger self. I think any of us past our thirties can relate to a fear of turning into someone we would be very unhappy to find ourselves as, which gives their confrontation a strange and unexpected poignancy as Ethan, anguished, says “I will never turn into you.” While we, and he, knows that he will. Then the movie flips on us that this very turn will make him end up that way. So the added part works well and gives balance to the film, as we look to the future as well as the past of this character.

Another review found it quite poignant that the only person who can truly understand Jane is her future self. So this is the nice, rare sci-fi movie that finds room for a lot of complicated emotion.

One of the things that made me interested in this film is that it was said to have somewhat of a transgender bent to it, which I thought would be fascinating in the context of a sci-fi thriller but, even though the character [there is, ultimately, only one character!] does switch genders, there’s nothing “transgender” about it. They have their gender changed against their will, and there is nothing about feeling trapped in the wrong body or having a different gender identity, and the character adjusts to having their gender changed without too much trouble… so there is no psychological component to it that would make it transgender in the way we understand it. So that whole angle is out, but it has much other interest.
< < < SPOILERS END

So, while not a perfect film, it has much to recommend it just in terms of how unusual it is [and how fun it is]. First of all, virtually the entire first half is a quiet conversation with flashbacks, then the movie takes a sudden turn closer to action territory, so it has an unusual and interesting shape. Secondly, it’s quite emotional and full of feeling for a sci-fi film. It sets out to examine predestination, its title, and does that quite well by showing how our character came to be who they are, and what could happen to make them become who they will be. And while all this is going on, it’s super-fun and full of twists that keep you thinking and on your toes. There are a few things left from the story that don’t belong [like the whole weird space academy thing], but even they help make the story strange and involving.

Should you watch it: 

If you like, interesting, intelligent sci-fi... and if you don't--GET THE FUCK OUT!

Comments

One of the problems with making films out of these Golden Age SF properties is that it becomes obvious how ridiculous many of them were. Both the "space whore" thing and the "intersection but wrecked by baby" come directly from the original story and are presented here in exactly the same way.

After it was all over and I was thinking about it, I realized how many of the lines had multiple meanings. "I had so much plastic surgery that even my own mother wouldn't recognize me" should have been a huge giveaway, but it didn't make sense until you think about the whole move. And the old guy playing the song "I'm my own grandpa" on the jukebox. (Who has that on their jukebox?)

Having just watched Daybreakers (earlier movie by the same director, also staring Ethan Hawke) I was prepared for this to be a hot mess. Really pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be a smart, fun sci-fi film. Agreed that the dumbest parts of it are in the source. Heinlein had a few, ah, interesting obsessions.

Loving Ethan Hawke's second coming as the go to leading man for B grade horror and sci-fi.