J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Predestination: The Spierig Brothers Take on Heinlein

If you have read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, you know Robert Heinlein was more than willing to consider unconventional relationships. Still, the strange bonds holding together the characters of his story “All You Zombies” is definitely not what one would expect from the author of military science fiction like Starship Troopers and popular juveniles such as Space Cadet. Nevertheless, the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) have faithfully adapted it for the big screen. After garnering nine Australian Academy Award nominations, the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

A man walks into a bar in the 1970s, but the bartender is actually a Temporal Agent, charged with fighting crime across time. The man is a “true confessions” columnist who writes under the pen-name “The Unmarried Mother.” It turns out, he used to be one. The agent has been assigned to recruit the writer to help catch the Fizzle Bomber, a time terrorist who will perpetrate a horrendous attack sometime in the current time period, unless they can stop him in the past. As a bonus, the writer will get the opportunity to confront the man who abandoned her, before medical circumstances forced his transformation. The agent will also take time out to save himself from the Fizzle Bomber, which he obviously does, since he is able to go back and lend himself a hand.

That is nothing compared to how complicated things get when the characters’ backstories start unraveling and intertwining. In a way, part of this explanatory set-up is not really accurate, but it would be unforgivably spoilery to be scrupulously honest. Frankly, this is a devil of a film to write up, but the Spierigs somehow keep all the interconnected balls in the air. If one domino fell out of place, the film would be a train wreck, but they maintain the complicated narrative machinery with energy and style.

Ethan Hawke also provides an invaluable assist with his unclassifiable turn as the agent. It is rather fitting Predestination is a top Australian contender while Boyhood is considered an Oscar frontrunner, since both deal with time in very different ways. In fact, his two performances could be compared and contrasted for other murkier reasons. Regardless, it is superlative genre work, as is Sarah Snook’s breakout performance as the writer and his earlier self.

There are not a lot of special effects per se in Predestination, but production designer Matthew Putland’s team and costume designer Wendy Cork do a fantastic job recreating and exaggerating the swinging 1960s and gritty, grungy 1970s New York. Clearly, this is a scrappy little film, but it looks great and it lives up to Heinlein’s big mind-blowing ideas. In fact, the Spierigs add a clever wrinkle to make it even twistier. Highly recommended, Predestination opens this Friday (1/9) in New York, which means it will have to wait for the next award season go-round here in the U.S. 

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