The sci-fi thriller Predestination is pretty intriguing when it's not being a sci-fi thriller. A twisty time-paradox movie in the vein of Minority Report or Primer, the film is certainly one of the biggest ever to feature an intersex protagonist. The unnamed character is played as both a man (in the present) and woman (in flashbacks) by the versatile actress Sarah Snook (Jessabelle), who anchors the story's choppy rhythms with touching clarity. In the movie's long middle stretch, in-between some overfamiliar time travel business, the character's tragic life story unfolds: an intermittently fascinating look at a perpetual outcast who can't fit in on either side of the gender gap.
Not only is the hero nameless; so is the man played by Snook's co-lead, Ethan Hawke, a time-traveling crimestopper whose job is to make sure that people don't forget this is supposed to be a hokey sci-fi movie. Hawke's agent works for one of those paradox-flaunting government agencies that sends people back in time to stop crimes that have already occurred, never mind what new crimes might arise as a result. His target is the Fizzle Bomber, whose projectiles have killed—or will kill, or might kill—thousands of New Yorkers in this movie's version of 1975. The stakes would seem higher if not for the apparent fact that the government can just send another agent should Hawke screw up.
Hawke packs his violin-shaped time machine and jumps to 1975 New York to pose as a bartender, which gives the low-budget film a lot of mileage from one basement bar set. The bartender's purpose involves Snook's androgynous depressive, who stops in for a drink and unwinds the dense (too dense, given this movie's small scope) tale of his past life: assigned female at birth, abandoned at an orphanage as a baby, unaware of her intersex nature, teased in etiquette class, impregnated by a charming stranger, and forced out of the female sex by surgeons after a botched C-section, now self-identifying as a man. And there's more. If this sounds like excessive plot recap, know that plot is pretty much all the movie has.
Predestination is disorienting, but in a way that suggests narrative chaos rather than narrative control. The film's mysteries hinge on who Hawke is and who Snook is—information its makers must deliberately withhold by obscuring faces, illustrating only partial flashbacks, that sort of thing. This is the kind of structure that works better in a short story, where authors can skim over visual tells that would bring a film to a halt, and indeed Predestination is based on one by sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein. The idea was adapted and directed by Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who previously made the alien/zombie mashup Undead and Daybreakers, an uncommonly stylish vampire flick that turned the formula on its head by making human blood a vanishing resource. Predestination is a much flatter film than Daybreakers, but has a distinctive enough concept to be worth a look from genre aficionados. The Spierigs should be commended for continuing to show ambition in their speculative fiction while too many of their peers settle for stagnancy.
Snook's character is simultaneously the film's biggest asset and its most frustrating demerit. The overwritten voiceover and clunky editing of his backstory undermine the subtleties of the actress's performance—what's the point of disguising several layers of grief if they're about to be spelled out anyway? It's not surprising the character ghost-writes a newspaper column (ridiculous penname: "The Unmarried Mother"), because his narration is flowery and needlessly expository in the manner of the profession's worst columnists. His noir-lite banter with Hawke grows old fast, and distracts not only from the story's emotional core but also from the film's economy of production design: the orphanage's rusty period look, the white porcelain gleam of a top-secret space program. When the Spierigs do get around to the sci-fi stuff, they must drastically speed up the film's pacing and tone in order to squeeze it in. Unfortunate that a movie about time machines has such poor time management skills.