There's a wonderful metaphor underlying Predestination, the third feature from the Australian siblings Michael and Peter Spierig: story-telling as shaping everything we do and choose, the stories we write for and tell ourselves as the key to understanding ourselves and the world around us. That's where the film twists the knife deeper in and takes the idea further, by blending that idea with that of the freak outsider seeking revenge for a slight or for a bad hand dealt him by fate - and doing so within an airtight and tightly wound sci-fi brain-teaser.
Adapting very faithfully a classic 1958 short story by Robert A. Heinlein, Predestination is a sort of Möbius strip, a temporal loop that eats its own tail like the mythical Ouroboros snake, as it shifts back and forth in time along with one of a handful of top-secret "temporal agents" charged with smoothing over wrinkles in time. The film begins with one of those agents returning to "the future", seriously injured, and undergoing plastic surgery to become Ethan Hawke; sent back in time to 1970 to try and stop a mysterious mass bomber, he passes himself as a barman in a seedy NYC joint and gets to meet a mysterious man with a strange past, who tells him the story of a young woman raised in an orphanage (Sarah Snook) and promised things she was not given...
From hereon, all bets are off, as the Spierigs, following pretty closely the short story's plot, painstaking set up a series of events that can only be fully understood once the third act gets underway. Exemplary in the way it maximizes its very obvious low-budget without sacrificing style or creativity in its high concept, Predestination is a magnificent riot of retro-futuristic design (the film's future, set in the 1990s, suggests an alternate, slighly askew modern world), harnessed by a complex, thought-provoking story that plays with multiple time frames and interlocked narratives to great effect.
The key to making the film work is very simple: the original story is so good you leave it as intact as possible, and that's exactly what they do, requiring no extraordinary special effects other than a couple of good, committed actors. Sarah Snook, in a rather demanding part that asks of her to actually be more than just one character, is excellent and more than holds her own against the ever-reliable Mr. Hawke, in a return visit to the Spierigs after their first collaboration in 2008's impressively ingenious vampire-with-a-twist drama Daybreakers. Plus, it's all done with no Hollywood money whatsoever - here's hoping the brothers can continue trotting out nifty, smart little B-movies like Predestination without having to cross over to the "dark side".
Cast Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor
Directors and screenwriters Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig; based on the short story "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein; cinematographer Ben Nott (widescreen); composer Peter Spierig; designer Matthew Putland; costumes Wendy Cork; editor Matt Villa; make-up designer Steve Boyle; producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig; production companies Screen Australia, Blacklab Entertainment and Wolfhound Pictures in association with Screen Queensland
screened July 22nd 2015, Lisbon, DVD