From the Spierig Brothers (of Daybreakers fame) comes Predestination, a finely crafted sci-fi thriller about time jumping. Time travel movies sometimes get wrapped up in their paradoxes and rules to the point where the narrative suffers. (Time Crimes and Looper are both recent examples of time travel movies done right.) With Predestination, the rules are pretty fast and loose, leaving more room for the story to unfold and for the (small) cast of characters to get into one another's business. When the paradoxes start to rear their ugly heads, the audience is invested enough to give a shit.
I would've been further invested, however, if the main characters had names. Ethan Hawke stars as "The Bartender," a member of a cloak-and-dagger government agency that has the tech to jump through time. When we meet Hawke he's getting set to carry out his final mission: catch the serial fire bomber that's wreaking havoc on the city.
There's a mean little prologue where we see the fire bomber in action and from there it's full speed ahead. That is, until Hawke time jumps and finds himself behind a bar, pouring drinks for a shady writer known as "The Unmarried Mother," who pens a column for a true-confessions rag. The mother is played by Jessabelle's Sarah Snook, a beautiful young woman made unrecognizable by layers of gnarly makeup. Hawke may be the star power behind Predestination, but once Snook shows up it's all her show, and she does a remarkable job.
At the bar, Hawke coaxes Snook into telling him her painfully tragic life story. To help her, Hawke offers to give her the one thing she's always wanted (which I won't spoil here). Once their bond is formed, Hawke and Snook start a time-jumping barrage that twists down various paradoxical paths, always in an entertaining manner that builds the narrative. Even if many of the turns are predictable and wicked melodramatic at times, they're still satisfyingly pulled off. Hey, the movie is called Predestination, after all. Sometimes you can see fate coming a mile away.
My only complaint in the narrative department is that there are too many sharp twists, which leads to several minor surprises rather than one or two big “OH SHIT” moments. They all mesh well in the grand scheme of the narrative but none of them really pack an effective punch.
Predestination shares a similar aesthetic as the Spierig Brothers’ previous effort Daybreakers, with old-school clothing mixed with a sleek sci-fi edge. This one has even more throwback digs, with Hawke dressing like you’d maybe expect a traveler who’s decked out in his favorite fashions from throughout time. The film is set at an undisclosed time in the future, and the world-building is pulled off pretty well. I’d call it “soft” sci-fi, where the tech is there but it takes a backseat to the drama. One of my favorite aspects of the sci-fi angle is the time jumping, which is so simple and effective. No flashy effects or over-the-top wormholes (no disrespect to Sliders), just a straightforward and effective visual sleight of hand.
The Spierig Brothers’ Predestination isn’t groundbreaking or an envelope pusher, but what it does present it does very, very well. The craftsmanship on display is finely tuned, the bros know what the hell they’re doing, and their story is engaging, even if you can see the twists coming at times. The sheer number of twists drains a lot of the emotional wallop from the narrative, but ultimately “The Unmarried Mother’s” story is a compelling one. Anchored with battleship-solid performances (particularly from Snook), Predestination is a sci-fi thriller worth a watch. Just don’t go in expecting an sci-fi action flick – the narrative is driven by the characters’ exchanges more than anything else.