Michael and Peter Spierig’s 2014 Predestination is an SF film based on Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “ — All You Zombies — .” Predestination stars Ethan Hawke, and Sarah Snook. Bizarrely enough, it is not a terrible film inspiring lamentations from all who see it.
Maimed trying to disarm a bomb planted by the notorious Fizzle bomber, an agent is given a new face and a new assignment in Disco-era New York. His assignment begins with an orchestrated meeting in a bar.
The agent (Hawke) strikes up a conversation with John (Snook), a regular at the bar. During the course of the conversation, John relates his tragic history.
It begins with a girl named Jane, who was abandoned as a girl. She grew up as an outcast … but a bright outcast. She set her hopes on joining the Space Corps in the 1960s. The only job for which she was qualified (as a female) was hostess. Not the best job. Indeed, it wasn’t that far removed from sanctioned prostitution. However, it would have given her access to space. She was disqualified for reasons she did not understand at the time.
Her efforts to earn her way back into the Corps were dashed when she became pregnant and her lover abandoned her.
She delivered via emergency C‑section and woke up to discover that she was now a man. Her surgeons had discovered she was intersexed. They thought her too damaged by the operation to return to being a woman so took it upon themselves to perform gender reassignment surgery (without the bother of running the idea past Jane).
Then someone kidnapped her baby.
Jane, now John, had no choice but to adapt. He became a successful writer of short stories (stories which often features unwed mothers).
It is at this point the agent reveals that this is no chance encounter. The agent works for the Temporal Agency (which in turn covertly runs the Space Corps). He can offer John an unparalleled opportunity: a trip to 1963, where John can then confront and kill the man who broke Jane’s heart. John will then replace the agent as an employee of the Temporal Agency.
This seems straightforward enough. There is, however, a monumental catch that John will comprehend only when it is far too late to renege.
Adaptations of Heinlein works to film have a long history of turning out badly, starting way back in the days of Destination Moon (which was long on special effects and short on characterization and plot). Sometimes the films fail because the person adapting the text is actively hostile to some of Heinlein’s beloved beliefs. However, it seems to me that intentions matter much less than one would expect. The people behind 1994’s The Puppet Masters set out with the best intentions, and yet one of the people involved described the result as “piss-poor terrible.”
Predestination works pretty well. The directors (the Spierigs) made a number of sensible creative decisions, not least of which is to firmly embrace the zeerust that festoons Heinlein’s fiction (the oldest of which, I point out, will turn one hundred in just twenty years.). Rather than try to upgrade Heinlein’s antiquated tale to the 21st century, they set their story decades ago.
The brothers go one step farther by setting their elegant little tale of time loops and free will in a past that never existed. Time travel, we are told, was invented in 1981 and provides access to the years between 1928 and 2034. Because this is a story tightly focused on the effort to bring the Fizzle bomber to justice, we don’t see the Agency’s other efforts … but what we do see of the 1960s and 1970s is a version of history that is both technologically advanced (there’s a Space Corps) and socially backward (women are relegated to being secretaries and hostesses and are subject to arbitrary and restrictive codes of behavior; POC aren’t much in evidence), where medicine seems little inhibited by informed consent. The setting feels like an antiquated vision from the 1950’s of a future 1965. In this, it is faithful to the source material.
The brothers also refrain from taking liberties with the central conceit of Heinlein’s time travel story. “ — All You Zombies — ” is all about a causal loop. The brothers left that in place. They did expand on the Fizzle Bomber, a madman who killed thousands of people in this version of mid-1970s New York.
Their casting choices were also canny.
The result is a tightly paced thriller faithful to the source material.
Predestination is available via your favourite purveyor of films as long as that isn’t Netflix.ca.