PREDESTINATION is the latest in the line of Ethan Hawke genre movies I am as of this moment dubbing “Hawkesploitation.” These movies are not always good, but they usually have at least a few interesting ideas and they always benefit from his efforts. He doesn’t phone it in. Here he brings his likability and goodwill from BOYHOOD to an attempt at movie-fying a weird Robert A. Heinlein short story called “All You Zombies.” The writer-directors are Michael and Peter Spierig, the Australian twin brothers who previously directed Hawke in the unheralded gem DAYBREAKERS. So I was excited to see this, knowing nothing else about it.
Turns out it’s a Timecop story. Hawke plays some kind of agent for some kind of agency who’s traveling through time (using a device disguised as a violin case) trying to stop a bomber responsible for attacks more deadly than 9-11. They don’t specify that, but they say how many people died, and that this guy is the only one to evade them. So we can assume 9-11 has already been erased.
But this Timecop gets blown up and his face gets burned off and when he’s healed up enough for his next mission he’s pretending he’s a bartender in 1975.
Most of the first half of the movie takes the form of a long conversation at a bar. He talks to an unhappy customer who bets him a bottle of Dewar’s he can tell the most incredible story he’s ever heard. And we see the story of childhood and not fitting in and being recruited for a secret program and falling in love and facing tragedy, but it keeps going back to these two in a mostly empty bar, and keeps a sense of intimacy.
It’s an intriguing story, with a nice mix of futurism inside a period piece. But I gotta say upfront that it’s all built around plot twists that I think most people will predict immediately, just like I did. The first one is early and obvious enough that it’s hardly even a spoiler: this dude at the bar is clearly played by a woman (Sarah Snook). So it’s awkward when he says “It started when I was a little girl,” and Hawke practically does a spit take. Later it’s verified that he was faking it, he knew all along, but that’s after a whole lot of making me think “Are you kidding me? I’m not supposed to notice this is a lady?”
From what I understand this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the story, but in prose you can play tricks that you can’t in images. They don’t even try much in the way of misdirection or red herrings. So every time they introduced a character and only showed the back of their head or had their face covered in shadow or something I couldn’t help but think “What are they hiding? Oh, I guess it must be–” and it turns out I guessed right in every case.
One part that they might’ve been able to hide they just give you for free. It’s exciting when, halfway through, Hawke admits he’s not a bartender and recruits his customer to help in the mission. But why were we tipped off to this in the opening scene? It seems a little DARK CITY-theatrical-cut-y to me. Shouldn’t we get the same surprise as the character? Then it would be kind of a one-upsmanship. Oh, you think you’re telling me a story that’s gonna shock me, well what about this here? I’m from the future. And we might not have figured out the ending already if the movie didn’t start out with the guy in the hospital being told his skin grafts and vocal cord damage make him unrecognizable. It might as well just start out with a title card that says “Okay guys, there is going to be a surprise about the identity of this character, go ahead and start coming up with theories.” It wouldn’t be as obvious if that information was held onto until later.
Those are some major storytelling weaknesses in my opinion, or maybe I just suffer from Early Predictor Syndrome, which caused me to figure out the major scam in MATCHSTICK MEN the moment Nic Cage gave Alison Lohman a ride home. But otherwise it’s good enough that I can still respect it. The Spierigs still have an excellent visual sense and cleverly create a timeline that’s both recognizable as our ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and as a future as imagined by Heinlein in 1958. And it’s fun to watch Snook tackle multiple ages and genders CLOUD ATLAS style.
I considered the possibility that I just think I’m 2 steps ahead of the movie and actually these Australians are 3 steps ahead of the step that I think they’re at. That what seemed to me like a mistake was actually intentionally leaving it out in the open because they know we’re gonna figure it out anyway. After all, the part where Hawke randomly sings a particular novelty tune seems like way too much of a tip-off. That and the joke he tells. But I swear, the end treats the reveal of this stuff like a Keyser Soze type shock. Being so far ahead of the game sort of deflated it for me, like guessing the punchline two words into a long joke. Still, I like the crazy concept enough that I still got something out of it. I believe Heinlein came up with it and worked backwards, saying “How the hell could I explain something like that?” And that’s not a bad way to come up with a nice little Twilight Zone type story like this.
By the way, the main characters are called “Barkeep” (or “Violin Man” according to the English subtitles for the hearing impaired), “Unmarried Mother” and “The Fizzle Bomber.” Three of those names I’m okay with. The other one all the characters keep complaining about being a stupid name. I guess it was easier to write that than to come up with a good name.
Like most Hawkesploitation movies, as far back as GATTACA and as recently as THE PURGE, it’s got some ideas under the surface, some subtext jammed in there somewhere, if you’re interested. BIG PLOT TWIST SPOILERS NOW. I like how it illustrates the idea that you can’t really understand someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. This woman spends much of her life hating this guy who she says ruined her life, then literally becomes that person when she’s older and, from that perspective, is trying to do the right thing. You just don’t know until you’ve been there. That person you hate and are trying to kill is probly in some ways just like you. Or in this case actually is you.