Never do yesterday what you should do tomorrow, reads a sign in the early minutes of The Spierig Brothers’ delightfully loopy new film. Another reads, If at last you don’t succeed never try again. There are many of these twisted bon-mots lifted verbatim from Robert Heinlein’s short story, “All You Zombies” and scattered throughout its film adaptation, Predestination. Here is the thing about time travel movies: much time is in fact spent waiting around for things to catch up, even if it is only for that moment when Doc Brown sends his dog Einstein 60 seconds into the future. It leaves plenty of time to read the signs.
Starting in the middle, (or end, or beginning, as these things go) Ethan Hawke plays an unnamed G-man in the time travel bureau. Rushing through a labyrinthine industrial complex and multitasking to diffuse a bomb whilst in the middle of a gun-fight with his nemesis, a mysterious man we soon find out is called “The Fizzle Bomber,” this particular agent’s principle case-file. Things do not go well and he is horribly burned in the blast just before he jumps back to his temporal handler. A smart-suited bureaucrat played Noah Taylor, who, by the way pretty much the market for this role cornered (see: Edge of Tomorrow, Vanilla Sky and The Double), he signs off on some serious reconstructive surgery, and sends the still unnamed agent back to the field; specifically to the 1970s to gets a job as a bartender, to do that waiting thing, not on tables, on time.
With little to cling to only scant minutes into the movie, we are invited to start theorizing what this whole movie is on about, and we get to settle into the dimly lit, wood-paneled watering hole as a new character, possibly the fizzle bomber, takes a seat at the bar. This new fellow, played by Sarah Snook made up to look like cross between David Bowie and Jodie Foster, is a thirsty pulp writer who, after meticulously rolling a cigarette, engages both the agent cum bartender (and by extension, us) with a little banter, and a couple of bad jokes (again, signage) before settling into a lengthy autobiography that will contort into its own kind of ludicrously incestuous logic. Things are convoluted enough that it might just put a fork in the whole business of making puzzle-box time-movies for good. Subtly referencing may of the big ones that came before this, the cutest being the ‘zero-point’ of time travel in this universe is about the same time of that successful test of a certain DeLorean in August 1985. There are others, generously free of clever-for-cleverness-sake, never getting in the way of the story. They are also best left unspoilt here to be discovered or ignored.
If Predestination is a satire of the paradox sub-genre (from La Jetee to Looper) it is probably unintentional, it is still shockingly effective and infectious and a damned fine yarn. Look around at your fellow audience members if you happen to catch this in a cinema of strangers or in the company of friends, and try to guess where they are in terms of catching up with the films bag of tricks. If you cannot spot the sucker in the room, well, then…
Michael and Peter Spierig have a talent for making glossy science-fiction pictures with richly detailed worlds on (relatively) low budgets. They trade image and narrative propulsion over emotion or empathy, but these are sacrifices made for the simple joys of their own brand of robust entertainment. From Undead (Zombies) to Daybreakers (Bloodsuckers) to Predestination, they get better with each outing, and become more…er…Spierig. That is to say, their films are empty calories in terms of any real empathy or allegory, but tilting towards a sugary caffeinated rush. And even if you get a bit giddy racing ahead of a certain temporal field agent who is increasingly swallowed by the wake of his own butterfly flaps and clean-up efforts, take a moment to admire the clockwork and consider this, Mr. Heinlein’s final signpost: “There is no paradox that cannot be Paradoctored.”