dir: The Spierig Brothers
Predestination is the third film by the Queenslander Spierig Brothers that I’ve seen, or that they’ve made, and the first one that I can recall reviewing.
The reasons are… well, it’s not polite to say why. This will probably, hopefully for them, be their most successful film. Saying it’s their best film is damning with faint praise. Undead was half an okay movie (zombies), and half unwatchable (sci fi crap and a high pitched screaming cop that I wanted to murder more than the other characters did). Daybreakers was terrible, so terrible, such a terrible take on the vampire genre. Daybreakers took a bunch of actors I liked and made me hate them all, at least for a while.
Predestination is a different beast. It’s actually competently made. It may be complicated, but they take steps to try to explain everything that’s going on. The acting, especially the central performances by Sarah Snook and Ethan Hawke is fine, in Snook’s case great, perhaps.
The problem is… the problem is that after the central ‘questions’ of who is who and who they came to be or why is answered, as far as the flick is concerned, we, the viewers, aren’t really sure why it matters. Predestination is a film I would argue is almost impossible to review or discuss without spoiling, but I’m going to give it a damn good try, because while I thought it ultimately failed, there’s a lot to like along the way.
It’s a title that’s a bit irritating. Something that’s “predestined” is going to happen no matter what, by definition. But that’s not, to get all semantic and such, not the same as ‘inevitable’. Something that’s inevitable is surely going to happen anyway, but that could be because of a lot of different factors: if you fall out of a plane without a parachute, it’s inevitable that you’re going to kiss the ground at terminal velocity after several seconds, because Gravity. Predestination would seem to imply a script written by whoever that forces you to walk a path independent of whether you choose to or not, or whether it's entertaining or not.
It’s inevitably a religious concept, I’d think, since part of the word derives from ‘destiny’. You are destined to die in a shack: drunk, choking on deep fried chicken out of a tub, many ex-girlfriends have bellowed at me in the past, and they may be right.
If it were to happen, though, would it be because it was going to happen, because an entire array of factors and ex-girlfriends conspired to make it so, or because I couldn’t come up with a different path for myself?
That might seem to be a prelude to explaining what goes on in this flick, but it’s not even close. The origins of the ‘characters’ we see here is so convoluted, so beyond involution that I can barely express to you how complicated it is.
As the film starts, a figure is walking with purpose through a building. In one hand a brief case, in the other a violin case. Jeez, I was really hoping to hear some Paganini or some such screeching out on the violin.
Wait a second, I recognise that building. It’s in Melbourne! So from then on I pretty much played “I know that place!” endlessly, ignoring whatever might be going on. That’s the unfortunate thing as a Melbournian watching a film made mostly in Melbournia.
There’s a place near where I live affectionately known as the Convent. It’s probably also known unaffectionately and legally as the Convent, because it’s an actual convent. Whatever bits and pieces of the flick weren’t filmed there were either filmed at the studios at Docklands or at that weird building RMIT with all those thousands of glass circles on its façade built on Swanston Street celebrating its own innovativeness. Just like this flick.
So every time a scene was set at the convent, my partner and I were either whispering or yelling out loud “That’s the Convent!” no matter how many times it happened. After a while, we were surprised when we couldn’t see all the deadbeats and crusties queuing up to get a cheap (or free) feed at Lentil as Anything, or over-priced food from the bakery. Coffees are better at Cam’s café, just saying.
Yes, these are all distractions from the cause. It’s true that I was distracted. I was distracted by all the Australians doing mostly passable American accents. I was distracted by Noah Taylor not doing a passable accent. I was distracted by a distracting story where stuff is deliberately kept from us just so it can be ‘revealed’ later on, which it does in a really obvious way. I know that’s a contradiction in terms: how can you be obviously hiding something?
The purposeful strider at the beginning walks into a boiler room. We can’t see this person’s face. Someone is also in the room with them. A bomb is ticking down as a shootout ensues. The bomb is almost taken care of, but whoever the person is that was trying to stop it, comes off horribly the worse for wear.
Face covering bandages. A surly attitude. A changed voice. Horrible scars and suture marks. And then it’s Ethan Hawke’s face peering out at us in the mirror.
That’s got to be scary: you get into a horribly disfiguring accident and come out of it looking like Ethan Hawke. If you started out looking like Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston, then it’s probably a step down: if you started out looking like me then it’s a definite step up.
For reasons that make no sense to us, though they’re supposed to make some kind of sense at the end of the film, a recovered Ethan Hawke starts blathering on about how the one guy he tried to stop but never could was the Fizzle Bomber.
I have no freaking idea what he was talking about. I had no fucking idea either. Fizzle Bomber? 1975? Who what where how?
Next thing I know, wherever Ethan Hawke was before, he’s now somehow in the 1970s, working in a bar. Not very convincingly either. The way he poured a particular beer proves Ethan Hawke has never poured a beer in his life.
A guy comes in. My partner was at first convinced this chap was Leonardo DiCaprio. Then, she was convinced it had to be Jodie Foster. I would have settled for the bastard love child of Leonardo and Jodie, maybe called Leodie, but I suspected it was neither.
Instead, it was a guy, called John, who has a really hard luck story to tell.
The next however long period of time is made up of John telling his ‘unbelievable’ story to the bartender.
Next thing we know, there’s a baby being dropped off at an orphanage in the 1940s, and we’re watching an angry, lonely girl called Jane (Sarah Snook) dealing with a world in which she might be exceptional, but everything just keeps going wrong for her.
That’s about all I can say. Anything more spoils an already disappointing resolution, where we’re told one particular version of a story, knowing that because of all the obvious stuff being left out, the revelations to follow aren’t going to be particularly revelatory.
In fact, they’re going to be actively infuriating. It keeps seeming to be building to something, as in, it really does eventually appear as if John is going to achieve the meaning and the acceptance, after telling his dreary story, that he’s craved all his life, and then an additional layer is added to the story, in which time travel plays a major part. John, you see, is uniquely suited somehow to being a Temporal Agent: someone who flits through time stopping the kinds of things we saw at the beginning of the flick: big explosions. No-one wants big explosions fucking up their day.
It’s just that, other than there being some emotional aspects to John and Jane’s existences, the convoluted origins of who they are and how they came to be, at least as far as I could discern, the why of it is never answered. Every character, from Jane, to John, to the bartender guy, to the Fizzle Bomber, all have an origin, but I never really grasped why we should care. The way time travel is used here is so arbitrary, so unnecessarily “you can do this, but not that” seemed to exist for no other reason than to make things follow a path we couldn’t avoid, just like they couldn’t.
The problem with time travel stories often is more than just the potential plot holes that arise. I’m not going to whine about plot holes, that would just be silly, since if there were any plotholes, I didn’t notice or care, which is probably worse. The problem is that they can end up being a loop, a somewhat empty loop, leaving you with an explanation, but not much of a reason to give a damn.
The notion, at the end, that we were going to be surprised as to the identity of the Fizzle Bomb, as if it mattered, as if it was capable of being a surprise considering the explanations for everyone else’s identity, was just very optimistic, let’s just say.
Look, it looked okay, the Abbotsford Convent looked great, and it kept my interest for some of the flick’s length, it’s just that it didn’t pay off for me at all. The Fizzle Bomber stuff fizzled out, for me. We never got a sense that it was an important part of the story, and huge slabs of story would unspool without any reference to that overarching, allegedly important plot point, but I just kept wanting it to be over.
There are huge slabs of stuff the bartender character / Ethan Hawke does that make sense in a roundabout Moebius strip way, and I can appreciate them, but there are a fair few things that didn’t seem to make sense (like the opening lines, repeated as a challenge / potential wish-fulfilment to John later on) in the scheme of things. He does try really hard though, gods love him.
Sarah Snook is great and incredibly versatile in this, and this should be a calling card for her, in terms of future roles, in the same way that elements of the movie will be a calling card for future work for the Spierig Brothers. Now that the Wachowski Brothers aren’t the Wachowski Brothers anymore, maybe the Spierig Brothers can take their place and make a trilogy that starts out great but ends up awful.
Something to aim for.
5 times it takes an hour and a half for Predestination to get nowhere out of 10
“The only thing that I know for sure, is that you are the best thing that's ever happened to me.” – I think I’ve forgotten how to spell ‘irony’ - Predestination