As we become hardened and less vulnerable to cinema, there is often a desire to walk into a film with no expectations whatsoever. I can appreciate that, but I write movie news. Just like you, chances are I’m gonna know more than the average moviegoer about any movie I’m walking into. And I don’t mind, really. I think it’s okay to want things from movies, even before the movie can establish its goals on its own. That sounds unfair, but that’s how this business works. Marketing is designed to give you expectations, to establish wants in potential ticket buyers.
I do a lot of thinking about what we want from movies. I used to think all we wanted was to enjoy them, but it ain’t that simple. Movies expose a lot of the inherent contradictions and peculiarities clinking around in the human brain. We want movies to establish, set up, and foreshadow with grace and subtlety, but we also need things to be obvious. Then, we want movies to deliver on their promises; to stick their landings. We want movies to be smart, but not over our heads. But we also don’t want to feel that we are smarter than movies. We want to know where a story is going, but we also want to be in the dark. You might think it’s not easy to please a critic, but I don’t think it’s easy to please anyone with a movie, really. Making good movies is really fucking hard.
So the audience has its many wants. But let’s not forget that movies have wants, too. In the case of Predestination, it would seem that the film wants to be a heady mind bender, like Inception meets Looper meets Minority Report. Ethan Hawke’s character is an agent tasked with using a portable time machine (and a six-shooter, usually) to stop crimes before they happen. For his final mission before mandatory retirement, our hero travels to 1970s New York City to thwart a deadly bombing. His cover identity is that of a local bartender, and when an odd bar customer piques his curiosity, the grand story begins to unfold. Predestination wants to construct an effective mystery, and for a considerable portion of its running time, it does so. But before I tell you any more, let’s talk about what I want for you.
If you’re at all spoiler-averse, what I want is for you to just go watch the fuckin’ thing. It’s available on VOD right now. Hawke is great, the whole thing looks beautiful, the score is like John Carpenter meets Hans Zimmer, and the film deals with some very sensitive, weird, and complex subjects in admirably direct and brutal ways. It’s straight-faced in a Chris Nolan way, and it kinda looks like a Nolan film, but it’s based on a Heinlein story, so there’s a vein of real-fuckin’-strange running through it. But really, just go, because the things I didn’t like about the movie are nigh impossible to explain without ruining some of the fun. With that said, I’ll include a big ol’ spoiler warning when I start digging deep.
The Spierig brothers have already established themselves as strong genre filmmakers, but the straighter tone they’re working with reveals that they’re strong filmmakers, period. Director of photography Ben Nott did Daybreakers with them, and it’s obvious that in the gap between the two films, they’ve all evolved. This is a beautiful film to behold, with knockout composition and lighting. The props (particularly a briefcase that can contain a bomb blast) are really inspired, and will surely be coveted by replica prop makers. The sets and locations bristle with character, even though the bulk of the film takes place in smaller interiors. The costumes really sell the many time periods of the film; they serve as strong visual cues to let us know when and where we are. Sarah Snook’s character runs the whole gamut of cool costumes, especially when her character is recruited into a private space program.
Now that we’re on the topic of Sarah Snook, let’s talk about her performance. She’s a co-lead, at times making Ethan Hawke seem like second fiddle. Her role is a difficult one, almost a Cloud Atlas-style multi-role involving makeup, prosthetics, wigs, height changes, and so on. While Ms. Snook is a brave and more-than-capable performer, the role demands so much at times (from her and the audience) that I’m not sure if anyone could have done it as perfectly as it appeared in Robert Heinlein’s brain. A large part of her role involves a distinct change in her voice, and it never fully works. It sounds too forced. She’s even given a line to acknowledge it: “Never could get it right, though.” The Spierigs are smart enough to predict where the audience will have trouble with the odder bits of their film, and they hang lampshades accordingly. This all ties in with wants. We want to feel that the filmmakers are in control, that they’re a step ahead. And that brings us to my big problem with Predestination. Be aware that from here on down, you’re in spoiler territory. Highlight the invis-o-text to read at your own risk.
I mentioned earlier that we want movies to stick the landing. We like to judge films on how well they accomplish their goals. Based on the setup we get in the film, it would seem that the film, above all, wants to be a mystery. It wants you to be a step behind. What I found so disappointing is that by the halfway mark, the film completely ruins any chance of accomplishing that goal. The answer to the central mystery is telegraphed long before the film goes for the big reveal. For way too long, I was a BIG step ahead. The film really goes for that landing, too, complete with a Saw-franchise style montage that — in case your dumb ass didn’t get it — spells everything out.
It feels like a studio demand, something forced upon the film by people who wanted to make sure that audience members who happened into an unexpected spelunking trip during their mid-movie pee break could still understand the movie. It feels like something the Spierig brothers are too smart, too savvy to do. The way it stands now, Predestination confidently believes it sticks the landing, but it lands squarely on its ass when it comes to the mystery. The impact of this is felt in other payoffs, turning potential gasps into eye-rolls. It’s a really disappointing turn in an otherwise beautiful, skillfully crafted and brazenly weird genre film. Like I said, making good movies is fucking hard, and The Spierig brothers already have a few good movies under their belts. Predestination is one of them, and it makes me think that The Spierigs are capable of something great. As audience members, we should all want that.
Travis’ [Rating: 3.5]