The Self: "Predestination" trippy, thoughtful, strange time-travel fare

Predestination (2015)
97 min., rated R.

Michael and Peter Spierig deserve some sort of "Most Improved" award as genre showmen with talent. While they cobbled together zombies, aliens, and spaghetti western tropes for their first feature, 2005's "Undead," which was just a campy cheapie right out of Troma, these Australian filmmakers then helmed 2010's criminally underrated "Daybreakers," a futuristic vampire actioner with enough style and vision to go with their bags of blood. For their third time out, "Predestination" takes a page out of 2012's "Looper" with its own trippy time-traveling sci-fi yarn, based on the short story "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein. As comes with any movie dealing with time travel, the film challenges, zigging and zagging through different time frames; some might need a second viewing to fact-check the final trick, while others will just want to experience the ride all over again.

An elusive madman known as the "Fizzle Bomber" has taken hundreds of lives in New York City. In an attempt to stop him, The Temporal Bureau's secret agent (Ethan Hawke), with a time machine disguised as a violin case, manages to stop the bomb, but he becomes severely burned, while the bomber gets away. After the agent's face is restored via plastic surgery, he is sent on a final mission before retirement, working undercover as a bartender in the 1970s. Late one night, an androgynous customer (Sarah Snook), who writes under the pseudonym "Unmarried Mother" for a magazine's tell-all testimonials, comes in for a drink. He/she bets that his/her remarkable story will impress the bartender. In return, the agent/bartender will offer the columnist a chance for revenge on the child kidnapper in the story.

Flashing backwards from 1975 to 1945 and then forwards to 1992, the film's nonlinear storytelling never fails to fascinate. When the drinking columnist opens up about his/her life, half of the film is already absorbing and emotionally resonant. Born as a female in 1945, the "Unmarried Mother" was abandoned, placed in an orphanage, and raised as "Jane." In her early years, Jane was a tough brawler, standing up to anyone who bullied her, but also an intelligent young girl who excelled in math and science. Later, she would be recruited by Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor) to join the covert government program Space Corps, starting with a series of tests that Jane saw as preparation to enter space, but there's a reason why she is so different from the others. What would later be a heartbreaking change for Jane becomes the connective tissue to the temporal agent and the "Fizzle Bomber." Without Jane's story setting the groundwork, "Predestination" might have just been a clever trick, but this is certainly a thinking person's fare. Astutely adapting Robert A. Heinlein's story, the Spierig Brothers themselves bring to the screen a story about identity and fate, themes that are always in the context of their grand time-travel design. If one plot turn is more about the viewer waiting for the other shoe to drop, what comes later packs enough surprise for the final destination.

Ethan Hawke (the filmmakers' muse?) is our lead on the surface. His motivations as the temporal agent are kept close to the vest at first, but that murkiness all pays off in the end. While his strong performance is still an anchor, the film's most valuable player happens to be a lesser known performer. Meet Australian newcomer Sarah Snook (2014's "Jessabelle"), a mesmerizing find, who brings so many sensitive, complex layers to such a gender-bending role. Her human, unforgettably moving work as Jane/John is one of the reasons that makes "Predestination" more of a special piece of work than a derivative patchwork. Arrestingly photographed by Ben Nott ("Daybreakers") and vividly designed by Matthew Putland, from the dark, noir-ish interiors of the bar to the retro-futuristic sets of the Space Corps tests, the film always has something to drink in visually, too.

The Spierig Brothers are clearly artists out to tell a thoughtful story with one "what-the-hell" revelation before the final shot that seals the deal. Nothing is dumbed down, as existential questions are merely left as questions. Can predetermined events ever be changed? And, if they can, do we really want them to be changed? A highbrow entertainment with something on its mind but never forgetting to entertain, "Predestination" is the kind of smart, strange, uncommonly ambitious genre piece that used to not come around until recently. If there's any nitpick, the film leaves enough room to have gone on long past its lean, efficiently paced 97 minutes, and what's the last film to warrant such a nitpick? For those who appreciate mind-benders that aren't merely out to trick for the sake of tricking, this is another rarity that commands attention, intellectually and emotionally.

Grade: A -