Monday, January 12, 2015

In Theaters/On VOD: PREDESTINATION (2015)

(Australia - 2014; US release 2015)

Written and directed by The Spierig Brothers. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Olivia Sprague, Monique Heath, Christopher Kirby, Christopher Summers, Christopher Bunworth, Freya Stafford. (R, 97 mins)

Robert A. Heinlein's classic 1959 short story "All You Zombies" gets the big-screen treatment by Australian twin siblings The Spierig Brothers, their third effort after the 2003 cult zombie movie UNDEAD (released in the US in 2005) and the underrated dystopian vampire film DAYBREAKERS (2010). The brothers--Micheal and Peter--reunite with DAYBREAKERS star Ethan Hawke for this time-travel saga that marks their most ambitious project yet. Taking place from 1945 to 1992 and jumping back and forth through the decades, PREDESTINATION belongs to that same mindbender genre that's home to the likes of Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION and Terry Gilliam's 12 MONKEYS. It does so with a much smaller budget, though the Spierigs work wonders with what they've got, maintaining a very DIY attitude throughout--they also handle the digital effects and matte work and Peter is credited with composing the score. It's a terrific-looking film, as was DAYBREAKERS (I wasn't as taken with UNDEAD as most genre fans were), but PREDESTINATION suffers from the brothers being far too antsy about getting to the story's big twist. They telegraph it in the most unsubtle ways possible, at times bordering on clumsy and comedic, and one character's singing of an old country ditty stops just short of him wearing a sandwich board announcing the surprise ending. I've never read "All You Zombies," but about a third of the way into the film, I jotted down what I predicted to be the twist.  And I was right. Put it this way: if the Spierigs made THE USUAL SUSPECTS, they'd open it with Kevin Spacey limping into Chazz Palminteri's office and introducing himself as Keyser Soze.  If the Spierigs made PSYCHO, they'd have Janet Leigh arriving at the Bates Motel and walking into the office to find Anthony Perkins sitting at the desk dressed as Mother.

As it is, PREDESTINATION has a nifty premise and is so well-made on a technical level that it's a shame the Spierigs couldn't keep their pants zipped a little longer and avoid blowing their wad with self-sabotaging spoilers. Even if I mention the clues--debates about the chicken or the egg; talk of Christine Jorgensen and the snake eating itself by the tail; characters having plastic surgery; characters' faces being deliberately obscured in certain time jumps; another singing a certain 1948 novelty hit--and, in defense of the Spierigs, that song does apparently does figure prominently in Heinlein's story--the outcome will be obvious to anyone who's seen a time-travel movie. While the twist is far too easy to call, it's still somewhat interesting to see how it plays out. Visually and stylistically, PREDESTINATION is top-notch, but if the Spierigs want to be in the big leagues, then they need to work on their poker faces. The film opens with a "Temporal Agent"--a government time traveler whose job is jumping through time to prevent crime before it happens--being horrifically burned in a bomb blast. After plastic surgery, the agent (Hawke), who has spent an untold number of years unsuccessfully tracking a terrorist known as "The Fizzle Bomber," lands in NYC in 1970, where he knows the Bomber will set off an explosive in March of 1975 that kills 11,000 New Yorkers. The agent is working as a bartender when into the dive walks an androgynous man with whom the agent/barkeep strikes up a conversation. Calling himself "The Unmarried Mother," the man (played by Sarah Snook) tells his story. He began life as an orphan girl in Cleveland named Jane. Shy and awkward, Jane excelled in classes, brawled with other girls, had no friends, and was never adopted. In her teens, she was contacted by Mr. Robinson (Noah Taylor), an operative for a secret NASA program that supplied female company for astronauts on long space missions. Around this time, she meets and falls in love with a man who leaves her without warning after a whirlwind romance. He also left her pregnant, and after delivering the baby via C-section, Jane is bounced from the NASA program when doctors discover partially-formed male genitalia in the makeup of her sex organs. Her female reproductive system is so damaged by the difficult birth that doctors perform a hysterectomy and put her through a transgender surgery that turns her into "John." Soon after, her baby, named Jane, is kidnapped from the hospital and John lives his life alone, rejected by NASA after applying to the space program, and instead making ends meet by writing a hack "confessionals" syndicated magazine column.

What does any of this have to do with the Agent/Barkeep's search for The Fizzle Bomber? Does the Fizzle Bomber have a connection to the Agent/Barkeep or The Unmarried Mother/John? And how exactly does the Agent/Barkeep really know The Unmarried Mother/John and why is he so eager to find the man who left Jane an unmarried mother?  And who took Baby Jane from the hospital?  And since the Spierigs invented the whole Fizzle Bomber element of the plot, why couldn't they come up with a more intimidating name than "The Fizzle Bomber"? If the Spierigs could've just contained themselves and held off on all the blatantly in-your-face clues that go way beyond the acceptable limits of foreshadowing (that probably worked better on the page), they really could've had an INCEPTION or a 12 MONKEYS here. Instead, the whole thing is practically spelled out in great detail even before the climactic montage that shows how it all fits together. PREDESTINATION is a wildly inventive and intelligent story presented in a way that dumbs it down as much as the filmmakers possibly can. Fortunately, they get a great performance in a very difficult role from Australian actress Snook. Even though she isn't initially the most convincing-looking man, Snook does her best to vanish into the role of "John," and in a matter of minutes, she's sold you on the idea (as John, Snook bears a striking resemblance to a young Simon Ward). The Unmarried Mother/John's story more or less dominates the first half of the film, and Snook is required to run the gamut of emotions as both a man and a woman, and you can almost see Hawke marveling at getting a front-row seat to what should be a star-making performance. There's so many intriguing and fascinating things in PREDESTINATION's story, its style, and in Snook's performance (Hawke is very good as well) that it just makes the Spierigs' inept handling of the key revelations all the more frustrating. It's surprising that Sony, via their B-movie wing Stage 6 Films, didn't roll PREDESTINATION out nationwide, given the thoroughly generic poster art with a nonsensical tagline that has almost nothing to do with the movie. It seems like the kind of January dump-job that has a huge opening weekend until word of mouth gets around. Instead, it's been given a very limited release and scuttled off to VOD in the US after its release in Australia last summer. Cold feet over the transgender story focus maybe not going over well with Joe Multiplex? There's still a lot to appreciate, but PREDESTINATION really could've been a legitimately great little B-movie.

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