Time-travel fiction is logically concerned with a regretful, despairing urge to escape the specifics of the present, featuring characters who find that urge to be so out of reach as to assume they require nothing less than a miracle to realize it. These stories are often metaphors for depression, or, more specifically, for feeling hopelessly weighed downed by the constrictions of society. Time travel, as a dramatic device, is usually a way of rendering divine intervention palatable for a sci-fi audience that might scoff at undisguised religiosity. Predestination, at its best, is surprisingly aware of this hunger for transcendent intervention, featuring a hero, billed simply as the Bartender (Ethan Hawke), who’s stuck in a cycle that’s spinning perpetually from his many interlinked journeys to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These journeys involve the recruitment of a woman, usually referred to as Jane (Sarah Snook), to serve in a time-traveling law-enforcement society, and the hunt for a bomber who always manages to elude the Bartender despite his advantage of hindsight.
Unstuck in time, the Bartender is an outsider, a science-enabled guardian angel to Jane, who, for being born with female and male reproductive organs, is also stuck feeling forever divorced from conventional society’s apparent pleasures of love, friendship, acceptance, and communion. The Bartender is proof that the escape with which Jane fantasizes, which is really a fantasy of finding the love she deems beyond her, is just another trap. Perpetual escape is another kind of stasis. The broaching of intersex themes is surprising for a film that initially presents itself as just another time-hopping action thriller, and directors Michael and Peter Spierig handle the subject of Jane’s gender with a remarkable casualness (which is loyal to the film’s source material, Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies) and a sense of empathy that’s bracing. And a little startling, as Predestination reminds us that gender-identity issues are normally only acknowledged by movies that are marketed as “issue films,” as if to give the audience a moment to steel themselves for the content beforehand.
Predestination isn’t really a thriller. The hunt for the bomber, invented by the filmmakers to presumably perk the story up for American cinemas, is quickly understood to be immaterial to a prolonged two-hander between the Bartender and Jane, who spend a large section of the film discussing the latter’s backstory. Fans of this sort of genre film will anticipate many of the paradoxical twists that the Spierigs spring, but these developments remain poignant for the actors, particularly Snook, who has memorably large, expressive eyes that convey a wealth of resentment and pain. One plot turn is worth divulging because it intensifies the film’s theme of social estrangement (spoilers herein): The man Jane describes from her past, the one man who understood her, is revealed to be herself from the future after she’s undergone a sex change. There’s obviously a kinky element, as Jane has sex with herself, but the true emotional takeaway is heartbreaking and reminiscent of the similarly themed +1. Jane’s paranoid suspicions that no one is capable of understanding or appreciating her, except her, are ultimately and perversely confirmed with little in the way of a redemptive chaser to soften the blow. Predestination is visually under-imagined, overly reliant on dialogue to express its themes, but it effectively underlines the one undertaking that time-travel fantasies can never truly allow: escape from ourselves.