Doing the Impossible — in More Ways Than One
You may recall that not too long ago we celebrated the 25th anniversary of ‘Starship Troopers’, one of the goofiest (and yet most politically serious) movies of its time. The film was a very loose and irreverent adaptation of the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, reviving interest in Heinlein a good decade after his death while also having the perverse effect of spawning misconceptions about his work. Despite being a massively important author in science fiction, Heinlein (along with fellow giant Isaac Asimov) has rarely been translated to the screen — big or small. There was apparently a ‘Starship Troopers’ anime produced in the 1980s, and most recently a Japanese movie adaptation of The Door into Summer, but you can easily count the number of Heinlein adaptations on one hand.
Enter ‘Predestination’, which stands as not only the strongest of the Heinlein adaptations, but also the most faithful. Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, and based on Heinlein’s 1959 short story “‘—All You Zombies—’”, this is a time-travel movie that takes its subgenre to the logical extreme. The Spierig brothers are known mostly for directing horror movies, and not particularly good ones; while ‘Daybreakers’, their 2009 feature, is an interesting (if very flawed) vampire movie, ‘Winchester’ and ‘Jigsaw’ (the latter an entry in the ‘Saw’ series) were not received well at all. For reasons which elude me, the Spierig brothers managed to transcend themselves, and ditched the worst conventions of the horror genre by making pure science fiction; indeed, ‘Predestination’ remains their only non-horror movie. Sarah Snook stars as the Unmarried Mother, a man who makes money by selling confession pieces, and one night he strikes up a conversation with a bartender at a local bar — the bartender knowing a lot more about the Unmarried Mother’s situation than he lets on.
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Unbeknownst to the Unmarried Mother, the bartender is actually a time-traveling secret agent who is out to prevent a series of terrorist attacks before they’re supposed to happen. The man responsible for the attacks, known only as the Fizzle Bomber, is only mentioned offhandedly in Heinlein’s short story, but plays a pivotal role in the film. As it turns out, the bartender, the Unmarried Mother, and the Fizzle Bomber are all entangled together in a sort of temporal tumbleweed — or a snake eating its own tail. Ethan Hawke turns in a sturdy performance as the bartender, proving once again that he’s one of the more consistent actors currently working; however, he pales utterly in comparison to Snook, whose performance is remarkably multifaceted, given how short the movie is.
A Surprisingly Heartfelt Tale of Queerness and Alienation
Sarah Snook has the unenviable task of playing a man, both before and after transition; the Unmarried Mother is a trans man, and a good chunk (I would say a third) of the movie is dedicated to telling his backstory, from his birth to the present. The Unmarried Mother was a foundling, left on an orphanage’s doorstep, presumably by his mother — hence his chosen pen name. Despite feeling uncomfortable in his own body all the time, and despite having no real friends growing up, the Unmarried Mother proves to be quite intelligent — intelligent enough to apply for a position in the then-newfangled space program.
However, tragedy strikes when he has a one-night stand with a mysterious gentleman, becoming pregnant, despite the promise he had made to himself to make sure any child he has will have both a mother and a father. The unexpected pregnancy throws a huge wrench into his plans for the space program, but that turns out to be only the first of his problems.
We start with what would be a pretty normal (if sad) tale of regret, a coming-of-age story about a man who was betrayed by both the person he came to love most and by his own body — if not for the time-travel hijinks. The importance of time travel in ‘Predestination’ is hard to articulate without giving away big spoilers, but I will say that if you think you know what the twist is, you’re almost certainly missing part of the picture. While the bartender is the one who kickstarts the plot (no bartender, no temporal agent, no story), it’s the Unmarried Mother who anchors the whole thing and gives it any sort of meaning; buried inside what seems to be a spy thriller is actually a character study, and a particularly tragic one. There aren’t many examples of trans representation in Cinema, and even fewer are convincing and/or sympathetic, but the Unmarried Mother sticks out as an exception. If I take any issue with the Unmarried Mother’s female-to-male transition, it’s that Heinlein and the filmmakers seemed to abide the outdated logic used in Virginia Woolf’s equally queer novel Orlando, wherein a change in sex leads to a change in gender. Nobody’s perfect.
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The fact that Heinlein’s short story happens to be about a trans man while having been published in 1959 is in itself remarkable, and the film doesn’t so much diverge from the source material as add meat to its bones. “‘—All You Zombies—’” is a blistering read at 10 or 11 pages that more focuses on the mechanics of a stable time loop than the inherent queerness of its content, whereas ‘Predestination’ (partly out of necessity, given it’s a feature-length adaptation of such a short story) leans more into the Unmarried Mother’s queerness. The result is a movie about someone who does not feel at home either with his own skin or with the world; the Unmarried Mother has no parents, no friends, and is abandoned by the one man he falls for, only taking refuge in his own past self. I don’t want to give away how exactly the Unmarried Mother is able to relate to himself, but ‘Predestination’ is a contender for the most solipsistic movie ever made — in no small part thanks to Sarah Snook playing essentially two roles for the price of one.
‘Predestination’ – One of the Best Science Fiction Movies of the 2010s
As much as I love Denis Villeneuve’s rendition of ‘Dune’, not to mention more understated sci-fi blockbusters like ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, spectacle is a double-edged sword for science fiction; the genre, even at its best, is always associated with fancy special effects. The problem is that science fiction, being such a special genre, and being such a versatile genre, is not about special effects — it’s about ideas. ‘Predestination’ is a humble production, running 97 minutes long, featuring only a few prominent characters, and made on a puny budget of roughly $5 million; the effects are both sparse and unassuming. What makes both ‘Predestination’ and Heinlein’s short story great is that they use time travel to say something about the human condition, with the Unmarried Mother as a stand-in for all mankind. When Hamlet soliloquizes about whether or not he should kill himself, in the wake of his father’s murder, he is asking a universal question about the value of human life, and while ‘Predestination’ is by no means Shakespeare or Shakespearean, it too examines and empathizes with the totality of a single person’s life.
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Science fiction doesn’t always need to be about explosions and giant spaceships; it can be pretty much about anything, due to the simple fact that it is the ultimate genre. Movies and literature of any other genre, from drama to horror, are obligated to cover only a narrow spectrum of time and space — look at your hands, see how they’re positioned right now, maybe lift your index fingers, and the space between those fingers represents everything a non-science fiction story can cover. Now stretch out your arms, as widely as you can in opposite directions (I hope you have the room for this), and look at the distance between your hands: this is the space that science fiction can cover, and more. You don’t need a lot of money to make a sci-fi movie either; anyone can do it. Heck, if the Spierig brothers can do it with ‘Predestination’, then so can you — as long as you believe in yourself, and you have the imagination for it.
‘Predestination’ is currently available to stream on Tubi.
By Brian Collins
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