Predestination is a recent (2014?) low-budget independent science fiction movie that released with little fanfare in my movie-watching circles. I am not even sure it had a theatrical run. It stars Ethan Hawke (and convinces me that he, like Scarlett Johansson, is secretly a nerd, because no one accidentally makes more than one philosophical SF movie) as a man who can travel through time as part of a tragedy-prevention bureau. His job is to prevent mass tragedies, not minor personal ones; you don’t risk the butterfly effect for one person. He is nearing the end of his career (a person can only make so many jumps through time before they go insane), and chooses to “retire” to a point in time where he can perhaps still catch the one criminal he was never able to stop.
If this scenario sounds like your sort of thing, I suggest you stop reading this review, go watch it, and come back here so we can talk about it, because I am about to spoil the entire thing in order to discuss the philosophical concepts it brought up and its plot structure. The movie is well made, and it uses physical effects instead of CG and gets bumped up at least half a letter grade because of that. It is small, yes, but not obviously indie in the sense of being amateurly filmed, acted, or produced with obvious monetary corners cut.
The story opens with our time traveler, whose face we cannot see, getting burned when he fails to stop the elusive bomber he was sent back to catch. A stranger helps him back to his time travel device. He awakes to a new face – Ethan Hawke. He gets an assignment, goes back to 1975 to try again on that particular bomber. Working as a bartender, he meets a man who claims to have the saddest story anyone’s ever heard: The man was born as a girl, grew up in an orphanage without any idea who her family had been, never quite fit in anywhere, got recruited into this elite training program for something like NASA, was kicked out when a routine physical revealed a disqualifying anomaly (which was not specified), met an older man who wooed her and made her fall in love with him and then abandoned her. She turned up pregnant, had a daughter via caesarean followed by a hysterectomy to save her life, and was told by the doctors upon waking up that she had been born with both male and female sexual organs and they decided since her life as a female was done to go ahead with making her into a man. Then her/his daughter was kidnapped, taken from the infant ward by a man who seemed to disappear into thin air, and he never saw the baby again. That story won the bet. Ethan Hawke offers him a job as a time traveling criminal catcher, and they begin working together.
The big reveal of Predestination – its high concept, if you go in for that sort of language – is that all the important characters involved are the same person. In order of reveals: the trangendered man, on his first assignment, meets himself as a young woman, and realizes that he was the man who seduced and abandoned her. Ethan Hawke is the man who took the baby from the nursery, and the man who pushed the time travel device toward the traveler when he’s burned by the bomb. So he recruited his past self. Okay. It keeps going. Turns out the elusive bomber? Also Ethan Hawke – when he “retired” to 1975 to try and catch the bomber without time travel, his device didn’t decommisison, so he kept working in secret, and became what he had worked against either out of madness or as a means to lure his younger self back to him (more on that in a bit). And the final kicker: Ethan Hawke stole the baby version of…himself…and deposited the infant back in time at the orphanage, thus completing the loop. As one of the characters puts it, an ouroboros, eating its own tail, forever.
Chronologically: baby becomes her own mother AND father, her own kidnapper, her own recruiter, her own savior, her own enemy, and ultimately her own death (when freshly retired Hawke kills bomber Hawke). Like I said, mindfuck.
And here is where the title of the movie becomes a red herring: almost none of these events are, in fact, predestined. Pre-determined, yes, in the sense that the older versions of that person have lived through their own past and know what happened and can therefore arrange events to make sure they happen again – but the destiny aspect only applies if you believe free will does not exist. Because at any point in the series of interactions between present self/future self, the future self could have not done the thing that had been done to him in the past. Yes, perhaps the consequence would have been death from the bureau that issued the time travel device, but he could have taken the baby anywhere besides the orphanage…told his younger self the whole story…retired to a different point in time…an infinite series of possibilities that could have broken the chain. He chose not to.
Which means that, in spite of all the suffering that he had experienced as a child, growing up without a family; as a young woman, awkward and unsuited for the female role and undesired except by one man; as a new mother, with a baby kidnapped and a new body to deal with; as a lonely, bitter man who had lost everything that ever mattered to him — he would choose that life again. With the benefit of hindsight, he believed his pain was justified by the satisfaction derived from the job, the sense of purpose it gave him. Therefore, he willfully and knowingly inflicted that suffering upon himself because he knew he would survive and ultimately find a value to having endured it, a value that he would not find without that suffering.
So what, then, do we make of the final scene with his oldest self, the one who has become the very bomber he spent his time-jumping career never quite catching up to? Did he go mad from making too many jumps, as was suggested early on, or was that a red herring, too? Did he turn destructive from boredom, from the sudden lack of purpose? Or was it, as his terrorist self suggests, done to lure his younger self back to him, because he missed him so much? Was it done from self-love, to provide that younger self a sense of purpose?
And what happens to the version of Ethan Hawke we had followed the whole movie, who ends it having killed the terrorist in 1975 and sits, alone, with an active time-travel device? Does he continue his work, jumping through time to prevent mass tragedies until he goes mad and ends up begging his past self not to shoot, telling him the only way out of the loop is love and acceptance of one another? Does he make one final jump, to a point in his own past where he can be with his past self and create a happier future for them both? Does he “close the loop” and simply commit suicide, to prevent himself from becoming his own enemy?
The movie doesn’t answer that question, and nor should it. The entire purpose of a film like this is to make you think…to make you wonder.
From a storytelling perspective, this movie is amazing, with an asterisk. In terms of pure linear narrative, it’s brilliant. Each twist and fold is revealed at exactly the right time, and has been hinted at just enough that it’s a surprise but not a shock (the girl having both male and female bits – well, what else happens when you are your own mother and father?; Ethan Hawke making the statement when he saw his new face for the first time that “my own mother wouldn’t recognize me” – meaning he didn’t recognize himself; the transgendered man telling Ethan Hawke that he’s no longer shooting blanks and then, when telling his story, commenting about his new male face “the fucked up thing is that I looked kind of like the man who had seduced me”; etc.). It is a well-plotted and well-played mindfuck. The asterisk comes in with the plot hole about it all, in the end, being his choice. If it was really all “predestined,” then the structure falls apart, because the very premise is flawed. Yes, certain events (such as the kidnapping and removal to orphanage) could be orchestrated by another individual, but others could only be done by himself, and if he does not choose to inflict them on his past self, then the entire story changes from that point on.
The philosophical concept being raised could be parsed many different ways. Is it an iteration of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, except played out over a lifetime and not a single day? Is it Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill? Is it more in line with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s suggestion that most of us would make the same choices again and again, if given the option? Or is it a play on the psychology concept of repetition compulsion?
The movie has stuck with me longer than I expected it to while I was watching it. For me the most haunting question of all is whether he ever went mad at all, or if his end-phase destruction was an act of love – one more way to give his younger self that higher purpose that made everything worthwhile. Would you become a monster to save someone you loved? If you do, are you really a monster?