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Sony Pictures // R // February 10, 2015
List Price: $30.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted February 11, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Unless you're throttling a spaceship towards the gravitational pull of a celestial boy, the methods in which time travel occur in fiction will always seem more magical than scientific, no matter if it's rudimentary wired-up cockpits powered by technobabble or tricked-out Delorians and blue telephone booths. What matters is how the time-travel itself gets used, whether for bracing adventure or provoking thought through the themes of meddling with the trajectory of time. Predestination uses a violin case that operates on proximity to the device, explaining almost nothing about how it works as the characters flip the combination dials and hurdle both back and forward in time. What The Spierig Brothers end up doing with those temporal jumps is unpredictable and ludicrous, in both good ways and bad: they spin an elaborate tale of paradoxes, identities, and the lengths undertaken to set the future down a better path, where ambitious convolution turns into both its strongest asset and unswerving weakness.

Predestination adapts a short story from legendary science-fiction author Robert Heinlein, built on the concept of agents who use time-travel devices to right certain incontrovertible wrongs. The story picks up shortly after one of such nameless agents (Ethan Hawke) partially succeeds in a mission, stopping a terrorist bombing without apprehending the suspect. Following the attack, in which he has extensive reconstructive surgery due to an aggressive injury, the agent faces the prospect of the end of his career following the escape of this "Fizzle Bomber", to which his employer, Robertson (Noah Taylor), sends him on his final mission. Cut to the early-'70s where the agents takes on the identity of a Barkeep, opening up the opportunity for him to converse with a defensive, severe man (Sarah Snook) that shows up in his bar, called "The Unmarried Mother" for his pen-name in a pulpy magazine. With knowledge of the investigation into the Fizzle Bomber, The Barkeep tempts his mysterious patron into telling his life story.

The Unmarried Mother boasts that he's got the most incredible life story that The Barkeep has even heard, and Predestination delivers on that promise: his recount, which unsurprisingly starts out with him in the role of a woman, Jane, takes us through a traumatic, windy path through the eyes of an individual struggling with gender identity and a lack of purpose. Sarah Snook turns in a convincing performance as both Jane and John, presenting typical mannerisms of both genders yet never entirely comfortable in the skin of either identity. The scope of her history, which progresses through a tomboy's youth at an orphanage, a ladies' charm school, and the troubling conditions of her transition -- not quite voluntary -- while enduring the rigors of potential government service, builds into a gripping glimpse at a complex intersex character who's given little choice in the path she's forced down. While the circumstances surrounding Jane's eventual transformation are dubious, the heartrending nature of her tale draws reputable empathy and tenderness, constantly informed by the lingering suspicion of their involvement with the Fizzle Bomber.

However bizarre The Unmarried Mother's story appears once he finishes, know that it'll get infinitely more bizarre after The Barkeep drops a few bombshells, abruptly bringing time-travel back into the conversation. So starts the wild careening of events within Predestination, shifting gears from a meditative exploration of a tragic character to an elaborate temporal mystery with a scope that defies the film's limited budget, all at the flick of a lock combo on a violin case. The Spierig Brothers never undertake any time-stamped scenarios beyond their means: while most of the film takes place amid the bar's booths and pool tables as Ethan Hawke sports a choker and a patterned shirt, the past events transport characters throughout roughly forty years of commonplace and high-tech training environments, given nostalgic opulence through photographer Bill Nott's composition. Very much the work of the same directors responsible for Daybreakers, the sophisticated aesthetics bleed the past and the present into a unbalancing infusion of realism and displaced science-fiction, hinged on observing how it all ties into thwarting terrorist activity across time.

A handful of negligible snags in logic that are common with time-travel and reality-warping films wouldn't have been enough to derail Predestination, its precise craftsmanship approaching the likes of Looper and Twelve Monkeys in aspiration. That's not the case here, though: the wild descent following the telling of Jane's story ends up being far too intertwined and outlandish for its own good, operating around a loop of paradoxes that would've benefited from further contemplation on the age-old "the chicken or the egg" existential thought exercise it references. Granted, a lot of the aftershocks from the transpiring events snap together and make enough superficial sense to wrap one's brain around the vaults throughout time, so long as they can get beyond certain taboo trysts. Then, it reaches a point where figuring out the movie comes to a standstill without theorization and interpretation over irreconcilable facts, lingering in the wake of dubious -- and conveniently concealed -- revelations about the depths of Jane's identity. Some of this makes for clever sci-fi puzzle solving, but questionable narrative decisions, many of which root in Heinlein's original story, make it a futile and frustrating endeavor.

In the end, Predestination doesn't say enough within its intricate plotting to compensate for the deliberate loose ends, beyond simple ruminations on time-travel being more trouble than it's worth and that stopping events from happening might cause more damage than prevented ... even if intervention appears necessary. Staying faithful to the source without capitalizing on early thematic strengths, the Spierig Brothers bypass opportunities for more significance in its final act -- especially about the gender issues that elevate the character portrayal of Jane/John -- so that the zany plot revelations can speak for themselves. These timey-wimey machinations lead the mystery around the Fizzle Bomber into the territory of implausible psycho-drama and clinical plot dissection, both shining a spotlight on the bizarreness already there and side-stepping how internally warped these characters have become after their jumps through time. Heinlein's short story may not have needed a rooster to account for the egg, but Predestination's otherwise marvelous workmanship feels like it's dreadfully missing something without one.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Taken as a whole, Daybreakers is a darker, colder film than the Spierig Brothers' latest, but the similarities in the visual sensibilities are easy to ascertain: incisive composition, strategic dashes of vibrant color, and details that skillfully linger in the shadows. Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray presentation of Predestination continues the label's enduring reputation in stunning treatments for both their blockbuster releases and smaller, independent fare, projecting the 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode with phenomenal detail and immaculate color and contrast balance. Sure, there's a tad bit of softness and smoothness in a few areas due to the digital photography, but the vast majority of scenes offer finely-detailed delights to admire. Color temperatures vary depending on the era, from warm sepia tones in the '50s to sterile, crisp fluorescent shades in interview/training venues, yet skin tones and black levels are phenomenally responsive to the shifts, while allowing all manner of shades -- green sweaters, red lips, royal blue uniforms, metallic grays -- to really pop. Much of the film takes place in the dim atmosphere of the bar, though, which projects rich flesh tones and wood shades in the set. With an ample bitrate and stable compression, Predestination is a marvel on Blu-ray.

Just as impressive, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track contains a versatile array of sonic elements, all of which faultlessly pour through the soundstage. There isn't a broad range of full surround activity, though, with the rear channels mostly responsible for the constant, vivacious tempo of the sci-fi / thriller scoring, only intermittently interrupted by the time-jump rush or aggressive atmospheric elements . The scale of the film's scenes are simply smaller, more intimate, Most of the activity contently lingers at the front, and it's unpretentiously nuanced, from the clack of pool balls and Jane's numerous punches to the strategic pops of gunfire. Everything has incredibly satisfying weight and steadiness to it, from well-articulated dialogue with robust awareness of the film's surroundings to the general ambiance of bars, schools, and virtual-reality training simulators, with no hint of higher-end clipping or thinness. Phenomenal. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are available, along with optional English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Special Features:

Extras might appear to be in short supply, but that's only because all those resources were thrown into one comprehensive, intelligent making-of feature: All You Zombies (1:16:30). The structure and flow reminds me a lot of what Darren Aronofsky's been doing recently with the behind-the-scenes features for his films, seamlessly editing together elements from the stages of conceptualization, pre-production, principal photography, and post-production to create a fluid and insightful journey through the process. Featuring interviews with the Spierig Brothers, Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, and the rest of the crew spliced together with extensive behind-the-scenes looks at the production -- artifacts, make-up, and digital effects -- this almost feature-length documentary takes its time to really address all the nuance and love that went into this production. Ethan Hawke and the directors discuss their prior collaboration together, the makeup folks and Sarah Snook discuss transforming a stunning woman into a credible man, and how they pinpointed the right set locations for the applicable time periods. It seems slightly disjointed at the beginning of each chapter -- the actors discuss their characters in press-kit fashion about halfway through -- but it's really a brilliant, well-paced, and gorgeous look at the making of this film.

Predestination: A Journey Through Time (4:33, 16x9 HD) almost seems largely useless after watching the lengthy making-of piece, hitting traditional press-kit notes while dabbling in the film's intentions and even repeating interview content from the beefy doc. A series of Bloopers (1:37, 16x9 HD) are also available.

Final Thoughts:

Despite the skepticism near the end of the above review, Predestination still ends up being quality, substantive science-fiction that appreciates the potential of its premise. As it should be, being based off a short story from one of the genre's most renowned authors, Robert Heinlein, about the complexities of time-travel and the duties in preserving -- and purifying -- the chronology of events. The Spierig Brothers clearly value the genre, too, seen in how reputably they tackle the temporal idiosyncrasies created by attempting to control both the past and the future, telling an emotionally complex story through the implausibility of a time-travel device tucked away in a violin case. A fierce, contemplative performance from Sarah Snook in dual gender roles gives the events the reputable weight they need, supplemented by a fine turn from Ethan Hawke, and a clever eye for artistic production design gives the film a convincing aesthetic that far exceeds expectations for such a low budget. The problem, however, lies in the bizarre turn of events and unruly paradoxes created by Predestination's time-meddling, intentional or not, constricted by some bizarre choices and contrived hidden details that sap the film of some of its thematic promise. It's worth two looks, though, once fresh and again with knowledge of the twists and turns to come, and Sony's Blu-ray is a wonderful piece of work that'll make each screening of the unorthodox film well worth the time. Mildly Recommended, though some will get what they require from the film with a rental.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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