Continuing an international year for Australian film (52 Tuesdays at Sundance and Berlin, These Final Hours and The Rover at Cannes, The Babadook at Sundance), where we’ve been thrown into the spotlight in the independent scene every few months, comes Predestination, arguably the film with the most worldwide potential. Written and directed by seasoned Australian exports the Spierig Brothers, who have already found financial success overseas with US co-pro Daybreakers (also starring Ethan Hawke), Predestination is a flawed, but ultimately entertaining genre-bender.
It starts in the 1970s. Bombings are happening in New York, with civilians rapidly leaving the city to escape an impending attack. Among the few left are a barkeep and a mysterious customer (played by Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook) and with plenty of time to burn, one tells the other “the greatest story you’ll ever hear” of an incredibly full, tragic life.
What fills the next 90-or-so minutes is a part dystopia, thriller, drama and sci-fi time-hopper (think Cloud Atlas), walking a precarious balance of planting red herrings that either lead to curiosity or solving the twists prematurely as it leaps between often fast-paced, action filled flashbacks and a comparatively quieter framing device of the bar.
On further research, this adaptation of the short story All You Zombies is pretty note-for-note – in fact, the only noticeable change that was made, the addition of the aforementioned terrorist attack side plot, certainly feels like an afterthought at adding extra runtime, introduced as a major plot point in the first ten minutes and promptly forgotten until the last ten.
In fact, it’s the first of two of these deviations, the second of which, is sadly given the same treatment. Best described as the training of women to give ‘comfort’ to astronauts (you can work out the rest yourself), this idea, which could make a while other, very interesting film in itself, is instead dealt arguably one of the best ten minute blocks in the film, only to be never mentioned again after.
Despite the weaknesses in the screenplay however, there is plenty to marvel at in Predestination. Having a fraction of the budget of many sci-fi films that grace cinemas, the production value to be found here is astonishing. In fact, it impressed me much more than many $100 million + films this year, with some truly stunning sets and costumes that, if in a megaplex blockbuster, would be entering the conversation for some major awards.
Of course, much of the praise has been heaped on the performances of Hawke and Snook, both of which are more than worthy of the attention. Hawke (who, between Richard Linklater’s September 4 opener Boyhood and this, is having a pretty great year), continues to be ever-reliable in his talents, playing a character not grounded in set-up or showy scenes subtly and excellently.
But it’s newcomer Snook, coming off a most unforgiving role in These Final Hours, who the film really belongs to. In an incredibly difficult role, requiring a great deal of versatility both physically and emotionally, Snook is like a chameleon, embodying the many difficult, emotionally charged incarnations of her character masterfully, definitely aided by a variety of excellent costuming and make up changes.
It may get slightly exhausting at points, but whether from jaw-dropping design, a twisty narrative (for at least 95% of the film) or some great performances, Predestination is an entertaining and interesting watch that will satisfy some and madden others. It’s a labyrinth that, just as you reach the last corner, flattens itself into a straight line – you’ll either have solved it before, or smile and walk out, having had fun.