Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2014 (R)
“What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life. If I could guarantee that you'd get away with it, would you kill him?” The film opens with a voice-over and then shifts into a prolog in which a figure is trying to find a bomb and stop it from exploding. The theme seems to be revenge, right? Well, not exactly.
Predestination is a sci-fi, time-travel paradox of a movie that is based on a Robert Heinlein short-story, “All You Zombies.” It’s first act, after the prolog, seems to be long and lifeless, but is crucial to the narrative. Hang in there and the payoff is phenomenal.
The main players are not named here, they are simply referenced by their character. Ethan Hawke’s character is simply known as “The Barkeep.” In reality, he is a time traveling agent, a cop of sorts. He is sent back in time to stop crime before it happens. Sounds a lot like Minority Report, and that’s probably because both films are based on Heinlein stories. But this film is more cerebral and less violent. It takes more thought.
Ethan Hawke once more turns in a superb performance. He often flies beneath the radar. Yet, he has been nominated for Oscars four times for outstanding work. He got Best Supporting Actor nominations for last year’s Boyhood (he lost, but Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and for Training Day (he lost, but Denzel Washington won Best Actor). He also was nominated for screenplay honors for Before Midnight and Before Sunset, two of the three movies in Richard Linklater’s fabulous trilogy of films. And, of course, he was in the earlier sci-fi flick, Gattaca.
When we first meet Hawke he has escaped a terrible fire that has burned his body and he is scarred and bares a new visage. As he says looking into the mirror, “I doubt my own mother would recognize me,” a subtle reference to the plot paradox. When his rehabilitation is complete, he is sent on his final mission. But he is plagued by his one failure: to stop the Fizzle Bomber, person who detonated a bomb in New York City in the 70s and killed 11,000 people.
Back in the 60s, Hawke is working as the Barkeep and meets a person at the bar known only as “The Unmarried Mother”. It is here, in act one, where she tells him an unbelievable story. As he sits and listens to her, the film goes into flashback more to tell her story. When it is done, Barkeep repeats the lines from the opening, and takes her on a time jump back into her past. In doing so, he introduces her to his job and her future.
In the second half of the film, we follow these two characters and slowly the plot narratives weave together until Barkeep faces the Bomber and a tough choice befalls him. And the climax reveals a secret that left me astounded and wanting to see this movie again.
Revenge may have been posited as theme at the start but it is not even primary. We may mull over the question, thinking on those that have wounded or even ruined us. But sometimes harming them damages us. So, revenge can hurt us even when we think it is freeing us. The Bible command us to leave revenge in the hands of a knowing God (Rom. 12:19).
The culture of the film, however, is cynical throughout. As Unmarried Mother points out, “You know, sometimes I think this world deserves the s*** storm that it gets.” And the Barkeep underscores, “It's easier to hate than to love, right? It's easier to destroy something. Kill somebody.” And then she puts her finger on it: “Let's face it. Nobody's innocent. Everybody just uses everybody else to get what they want.” In her ruined eyes, we are all users, not caring about others. Love is a fiction to her.
In a sense, she is right. The apostle Paul painted a savage indictment of humanity in chapter 3 of his epistle to the Romans. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). But there is love to be found, in the all-knowing and all-loving God. And this love is enough to counteract our cynicism and depravity and bring us freedom.
But can we choose to break free of life’s paths? The movie’s title lays down the second theme: predestination. Are we trapped in a groove, like the records of the past? In the Barkeep’s career, he has tried to stop the Fizzle Bomber without success. Is it predestined that this event will happen? Can it ever be stopped? In our lives, do we have any say in the matter?
One character says to Barkeep, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” She implies we always have the potential to change ourselves and our future. Later, the Barkeep himself says,”You'll have to make tough choices. You'll influence the past. Can we change our futures?” Here is the crux, the crucial question. He doesn’t answer it.
Predestination is a much debated theme in Christian theology. Can there be free will, free choice for humans, if God is all-knowing. If he is sovereign, as is stated throughout Scripture (2 Sam. 7:22, Psa. 68:20, Acts 4:24), how can we do anything other than his will? But the Bible is also clear that we are held accountable for our choices which implies freedom to choose. We cannot be moral agents if we have no free choice.
There is tension in this apparent paradox. We can change. We do change. We can impact our futures. We can move closer to God in Jesus and change for the better. We can move away from him and change for the worse. But we are responsible for the choices we make. We are responsible for understanding who we are, where we have come from and to determine where we want to go.
At the end, Barkeep says, “The snake that eats it's own tail, forever and ever. I know where I come from. Where do all you zombies come, from?“ Apart from this reference to the Heinlein story, he has come to grips with his past and present. Have we?