Predestination Review

"The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever... I know where I come from – but where did all you zombies come from?" (Robert A. Heinlein, "'All You Zombies - '"). You might well ask.

A temporal agent (Ethan Hawke) is sent back to New York City in 1970 to prevent a mysterious man called The Fizzle Bomber from committing a major terrorist atrocity five years later. Undercover as a barman, he meets a young man who has a strange story to tell. The young man is known as The Unmarried Mother, due to making a living writing confessional stories for magazines. But his story begins much earlier, when he was a baby girl, named Jane, left on the doorstep of an orphanage...

Robert A. Heinlein wrote the short story "'All You Zombies - '" in a day in 1958, and it was published the following year in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. While it escaped awards consideration (and probably would not have won that year's short fiction Hugo Award against another anointed SF classic, Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon", later expanded into a novel and filmed as Charly) it soon became a classic time paradox story. If you're not familiar with the story, it will be hard for me to proceed from here without introducing any plot spoilers, but I'll keep them to a minimum.

In the 1950s, SF writers like Philip José Farmer and Theodore Sturgeon had tackled sexual themes in SF, pushing the envelope in what was then a genre mostly published in pulp magazines and often thought one mainly for children and teenage readers, and teenage boys at that. Heinlein's story certainly follows that trend, with sex becoming a vital part of the story, and references in both story and film to the then-recent and headline examples of gender reassignment surgery, the American Christine Jorgensen and the British Roberta Cowell, earlier that decade. You do have to wonder if having sex with your younger self counts as incest or masturbation, though...

Predestination, written and directed by identical twin, German-born and Brisbane-based writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig (and it's ironic that a story and film about more than one copy of a person is made by two genetically identical people), follows the story quite closely. So closely that they've played it as a period piece, with the future being a retro future as it might have been imagined in the late 1950s. A lot of Heinlein's dialogue is retained, including the final line of the story and the quote at the head of this review. The Spierigs also keep some aspects of the original story which would not fly if written today, such as the recruitment of young women, Jane included, to provide relief for sexually-frustrated spacemen, because of course women can't themselves go into space. (Heinlein wrote the story some five years before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.) The structure is much the same, with the Unmarried Mother's relating his story of his/her life up to that point, told in flashbacks from that bar in 1970. Sarah Snook plays both the younger Jane and the Unmarried Mother, the latter under four hours' worth of makeup which makes her resemble Leonardo di Caprio somewhat. While Ethan Hawke (who had starred in the Spierigs' earlier film Daybreakers) is fine, and Noah Taylor is effectively shifty as his boss, it's Adelaide-born Sarah Snook who gives the remarkable performance here, being utterly convincing in her dual role, often involving her playing off against herself. She had a small role in Sleeping Beauty and a larger one in Not Suitable for Children, which gained her a nomination as Best Actress in that year's Australian AACTA Awards. She was nominated again for Predestination and won, against such strong competition as Essie Davis in The Babadook and Mia Wasikowska in Tracks. It's fair to say that we'll be seeing a lot more of her.

Predestination was made in Australia with two out of the principal cast of three being from that country, but is set in America with the cast speaking in appropriate accents and you'll have to dig very deep to find anything specifically Australian about it. That's both pertinent and beside the point. Clearly the Spierigs want us to see this is a smartly made genre film (with some action, mostly a fight which we get to see from two viewpoints) that can play internationally, and as such they have succeeded. Foreign actors were imported to Australia in the early days of the 1970s Film Revival - see Richard Chamberlain in the lead role of The Last Wave as one example – and producers such as Antony Ginnane were making films that aspired to be genre movies that would perform overseas (that is, in America specifically) at the same time, so there's certainly form in the Australian industry for a film like this. While you may twist your brain in knots trying to work out the time paradox at its centre (and remember that temporal agents get to rewrite history as subtly as possible, so that implies parallel and multiple timelines), it does satisfy.

As well as Sarah Snook's Best Actress nod, Predestination also won AACTAs for Ben Nott's impressive cinematography, Matt Villa's editing and Matthew Putland's production design It was nominated for its direction, its adapted screenplay and its costume design, and also Best Film, losing to a tie of The Babadook and Russell Crowe's directorial debut The Water Diviner. After a decidedly limited UK cinema release in February 2015, it is now on disc.


The Disc

Signature Entertainment release Predestination on an all-regions, dual-layered DVD (the edition supplied for review) and Blu-ray. The disc begins with trailers for two other Signature releases, Dying of the Light and Robot Overlords, which can't be skipped but can be fast-forwarded.

Predestination was digitally-captured on the Arri Alexa and shown in cinemas at a ratio of 2.40:1. This DVD is in the ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. Comparing certain shots with the equivalents in a trailer in the wider ratio (such as this one) reveals that this is in effect an open-matte transfer, with additional image top and bottom, and not cropped at the sides. That's not an excuse for not preserving the theatrical ratio (I do not know if 1.78:1 has been endorsed by the filmmakers for home viewing) but there are certainly worse aspext ratio crimes. As for the rest of it, as you would expect of a film which was digital from start to finish and never touched celluloid other than 35mm cinema prints, if there were any, it does look pristine and Nott's camerawork does come over very well, as it should for award-winning work.

There are two soundtrack options: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). It's quite an active sound mix, with directional sound effects at key moments and the subwoofer helping out with bullet impacts and explosions. The 2.0 track is mixed the louder of the two. What is regrettable is the lack of any English subtitles, so those hard of hearing may well lose out.

As for extras on this disc, other than the two trailers mentioned above, there are none.

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