There has been a recent push to update the sci-fi genre in varied, interesting ways. While there have certainly been a few throwbacks to the traditional rocket ships & gunfire Flash Gordon adventure epics like Guardians of the Galaxy & Edge of Tomorrow, titles like Upstream Color, Under the Skin, Coherence, The Congress, and Beyond the Black Rainbow are searching for new territory for the genre to mine. They’re all unique works that can hardly be compared to one another individually, but as a group they feel like a refreshing revitalization of a genre that can sometimes get trapped within its own tropes & clichés. No matter how much I love these movies and what they’re attempting to accomplish, however, there’s just no denying the inherent draw of the sci-fi aesthetic of yesteryear. My favorite film from last year was Interstellar, not because it carved out new sci-fi territory, but because it felt authentic to old school sci-fi pulp you could read serialized in special interest quarterlies or hear in long gone radio plays. There’s a draw to this old fashioned sci-fi aesthetic that I’m glad to see hasn’t been left by the wayside in the wake of our recent crop of experimental exercises in the genre.
With its muted noir tone & a setting that spans from the 1950s through the 70s, Predestination firmly plants itself within this brand of sci-fi throwbacks. Based off of a 1959 Robert Heinlein short story titled “All You Zombies” (which was first published in an issue Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, the exact type of old school serials I’m describing), the film has an authentically old fashioned take on sci-fi as a genre. It is undeniably cheap & trashy in the way its twists & turns are revealed to the audience (some of those reveals are not nearly as surprising as the movie seems to think they are) but that potential flaw is severely undercut by its straightforward style of storytelling. On paper the movie’s plot about time travel, secretive government agencies, and self-fulfilling paradoxes wouldn’t add up to much of value, but the way the story is framed as a drunken, embittered bar patron spinning a yarn for the barkeep is a perfect, no-nonsense approach to material that is nothing but nonsense.
There are some typical sci-fi adventure aspects to Predestination, like virtual reality helmets, “time jumps”, and young girls recruited to be male astronauts’ “companions” (an idea that reminded me of the similarly pulpy Journey to the Seventh Planet), but they’re counteracted with more concrete, noir-influenced images like trench coats, smoke-filled bars, homemade bombs, and a fedora on fire. Just as the always-tricky time travel aspect of the story starts to get overwhelmingly intricate, it also boils down to a typical action movie plot of trying to prevent a bomb from going off and catching the bad guy before he gets away. Even the story’s peculiar play with gender identity, which you would expect to mark it as a modern work, feels old fashioned & outlandish as it’s dealt with here, but straightforward performances from the two leads Ethan Hawke & Sarah Snook anchor that aspect well, just like the barroom storytelling framing device anchors the movie’s outlandish plot.
Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere pulp sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory the genre’s been exploring in recent years. I appreciate the movie the way that any audience can appreciate a great storyteller, especially a rapt audience in a late night barroom who has nothing better to do than listen to a good yarn that becomes increasingly more outlandish as it stretches on.