Thursday, February 26, 2015

Culture Shock 02.26.15: 'Predestination' raises bar for time travel

Hollywood has never done right by Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein (1907-1988) may have been the "dean of science fiction writers" and the first of science fiction's "grand masters," but you'd never know it from the movies based on his works. "Destination Moon" (1950), which Heinlein helped adapt, was the first science fiction movie to attempt some semblance of scientific accuracy, but that's about all it has going for it. "The Puppet Masters" (1994), with Donald Sutherland, is forgettable. And Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" (1997) is a misguided satire that fails on almost every level, especially as anything like a faithful adaptation of Heinlein's novel.

Leave it to the Aussies to get Heinlein right. Written and directed by German-born Australian filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig ("Daybreakers"), "Predestination" is more than just the best Heinlein adaptation to date. It's arguably the best time travel movie to date, and it's certainly the best SF film of the past several years. Nearly flawless in execution, "Predestination" surpasses such lauded but flawed spectacles as "Interstellar" and "Gravity."

It's clich├ęd but true: "Predestination" is just too good, and probably too smart, for theatrical wide release in the U.S. But now, with the relentless hype of Hollywood's awards season finally subsided, this sleeper production arrives inconspicuously on Blu-ray and DVD.

"Predestination" is adapted — and expanded — from Heinlein's 1959 short story "All You Zombies," which thankfully has nothing to do with zombies (another played-out Hollywood favorite).

Ethan Hawke ("Boyhood") portrays a man identified in the credits as "The Barkeep." We know him to be a temporal agent — a time cop, charged with making sure history unfolds as it should.

But he's also a barkeep, and one day a man walks into his bar. It's the classic setup for a joke, only it isn't a joke. It does pack a heck of a punch line, though.

The man (Sarah Snook) was born with both male and female parts, and until giving birth to a baby girl, thought he — or, at the time, she — was a woman, if a somewhat atypical one, named Jane.

Jane has a rough childhood but grows up, as girls do, and even falls in love. Then the man she loves abandons her, and only then does she realize she is pregnant with his child.

After childbirth ruins her female parts, Jane transitions to a man, but being a father is no more in the cards than being a mother. A mysterious man slips into the hospital nursery and steals Jane's baby.

Robbed of both identity and daughter, the man who was Jane wants nothing more than revenge on the man who loved her and left her. And that's when the barkeep makes the man an offer.

That is probably the most misleading and incomplete plot synopsis I've ever written, because to tell you much more about "Predestination" would spoil the experience. I will say the story also involves time travel to four different periods and a hunt across the years to stop a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Yet even that doesn't tell you what the film is really about.

"Predestination" is a head-spinning experiment in paradox, and it's an ambitious, ambiguous meditation on what it means to be anybody. It's science fiction that does what only science fiction can do: lay bare the human condition. Yet it's also a twist-filled thriller that demands your full attention.

Working with a fraction of a Hollywood blockbuster's budget, the Spierig brothers have to be inventive. The result is some clever time travel effects that do more with off-screen leaf blowers than most directors do with millions of dollars in CGI.

Hawke gives an affecting performance as the time agent, but even his emotionally charged work is overshadowed by Snook's sensational turn in her dual-gendered role. We'll be seeing her in bigger films soon. Snook already has lined up a role in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs biopic.

Whether or not the future is set in stone, "Predestination" seems primed to attain a cult following while other, higher profile SF movies slowly recede into obscurity.

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