A surly stranger walks into a bar, confrontational and challenging, but the bartender finds them interesting; conversation ensues. The stranger reveals to the bartender they’re a writer who uses the pseudonym “the unmarried mother;” the bartender expresses surprise, knowing the column well. Rather than continuing to run up a tab, the stranger makes a suggestion: a full bottle for the best story you ever heard.
It is in fact strange that it has taken so long for this story to be told, for certainly within the science fiction community it is one of the touchstone tales of time paradox, Robert A Heinlein’s legendary “-All You Zombies-,” first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine in March 1959 and subsequently collected in The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.
That it has taken over half a century to be adapted to the screen speaks not of flaws within the plot, which functions with the inescapable efficiency of a clockwork mechanism, nor of the premise, which even after decades of Doctor Who and Time Tunnel and their ilk remains unique.
Rather it is that, having originally been refused for publication by even Playboy, the story could be seen by many as essentially unfilmable, yet written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig it perhaps the most literal and faithful translation of any of Heinlein’s works to reach to the big screen.
Relative newcomer Sarah Snook is “the unmarried mother,” and she tells the bartender that she was a foundling, left as a newborn on the steps of the City of Cleveland Orphanage in 1945. Given the name Jane, as in the anonymity of Jane Doe, she grew up in those walls, tougher than even the boys, always top of the class in every subject, with all the commensurate unpopularity among her peers which is the province of those who are different.
Without resentment, she tells the bartender she knew she would never be adopted for the same reason she knew she would never be married. “People want to adopt a little golden haired moron. And later on, the boys, they want big tits and pouty lips.” Unwilling to compromise and unable to assimiliate into the mainstream, she pushed herself to be the best in a world which rejected her from birth.
Her chance comes when she is recruited by the mysterious Mr Robertson (Game of Thrones‘ Noah Taylor) to be a “pleasure woman” for Space Corps, to be sent on interplanetary missions to attend to the needs of the male astronauts, but fate intervenes, first in a fight with a fellow cadet, then in a chance encounter with a man who quite literally leaves her “a ruined woman.”
But the bartender offers his guest more than a free bottle of liquor; his is a game of second chances. He is a temporal agent who will offer the former Jane Doe a chance to revisit the past and attempt to set it right if she will then assist him in his own assignment, to track down and stop the deadly Fizzle Bomber, who history recorded levelled ten blocks of New York City in March 1975, killing thousands, but that offer hides an even more shocking agenda.
Narrating the changes of her life in calm and accepting tones, Snook is both mesmerising and heartbreaking, giving a fearless performance both physically and emotionally. Grasping for the stars in the retro-cool of a future which is denied her despite her supremacy in the endurance tests, the spectre of Gattaca hangs close over Predestination, aided by the reliable presence of Ethan Hawke, the star of that modern science fiction classic, as the temporal agent who doubles as a solicitous barkeep.
Sensitively directed by the Spierig brothers who also provided matte paintings, with Peter additionally composing the soundtrack, the tone is never sensationalist or exploitive, the film predominantly a two hander between Snook and Hawke, the latter of whom they previously worked with on their 2009 vampire techno thriller Daybreakers. Crucially for a time travel film, despite minimal resources their period recreations, particularly the fashions, are flawless, the location work in Melbourne in their native Australia utterly convincing.
With comments on gender roles, personal morality and the greater responsibility of an individual and the balance between a present misdeed which will prevent a greater future evil, Predestination is a paradox which repeat viewings may clarify but never fully resolve, and despite the almost secretive release campaign is a near flawless adaptation of a significant work of science fiction literature, the grand master himself acknowledged in the placement of a first edition of Stranger in a Strange Land on Jane’s writing desk.