I don’t know of anyone who would say they’re a fan of Ethan Hawke per se, but I think there are very few people who would say the opposite. I’m in the former camp – I’ve enjoyed a number of his movies and performances, but can’t quite make the leap to say I’m a fan. He’s kind of like a less-charming Kevin Bacon; solid, but lacks genuine star power. I’ve yet to see him turn in a bad performance, though, and I really like the fact he’s done so many genre movies in his long and varied career. Maybe he just has never had the best agents, maybe he just comes across as too cold and detached in many of his movies, I don’t know.
In the last few years, he’s made Daybreakers, The Purge, Sinister, and Predestination, which I watched last night just because it was there, gathering dust for a while. None of the aforementioned movies were terrific, but I thought Hawke was good in them. While not a top-drawer leading man, I do think he has the ability to anchor a movie and give a little more credibility to those made from bad scripts, like Daybreakers. Solid, like I said.
I didn’t know anything about Predestination other than what was on the material I received: a time travel movie where Hawke plays a “temporal agent” trying to stop a bad thing from happening (or something to that effect). Sounds a little too much like Minority Report, right? And that’s how I approached the viewing – the good thing is, Predestination is nothing like Spielberg’s flawed classic. Taking the negative slant for a minute, the production values are not exactly cheap, but the lack of varied locations and outdoor scenes are definitely indicative of a limited budget. The good thing here is that the story is completely different to Minority Report, which is a fairly routine fugitive-detective tale. In Predestination, the audience is put in the position of trying to unravel the mystery of the main characters and the true story underneath the main story. Hawke actually has two missions, and the unstated second mission is a real mind-bender.
Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, this marks the second collaboration between them and Hawke, with the first being Daybreakers, and I had no idea going in that it’s actually based on a classic science fiction story by one of the recognized masters of the genre – it’s at this point of the review that I actually want to tell you the name of the story, but if you’ve read it, it would utterly spoil the movie, which I think deserves to be watched. The original story features possibly the greatest time travel paradox in science fiction. It wasn’t until the movie was well into the second act that it struck me why it seemed so familiar. I couldn’t remember the name of the actual story, but I remembered the content well enough – it’s one of the cornerstones of my love for genre fiction, and the paradox it contains is pretty stunning. While I watched it, I was reminded somewhat of Looper, at least the first half, because the original story is built around an archplot that doesn’t exist in the original short story, turning the movie version into a kind of film noir. Hawke plays the unnamed protagonist, but the story is centered on that of Jane, who at a point in her life was forced to have gender reassignment surgery to save her life following a life-threatening childbirth. That part of the movie takes place in the 60s when medicine and ethics weren’t on the same page. When Hawke’s character meets Jane, it is when Jane has been John for a number of years now, living a lonely, unhappy life, never having recovered from the loss of her former identity. The character John is played by Australian actress Sarah Snook, who is great, but even though there’s a logical reason for her less-than-convincing portrayal of John, I was distracted by the portrayal – it still seemed a little too feminine and obvious to me.
“Obvious” is also how I’d describe the way The Spierig Brothers go about telling the story – I think they were right to play the central paradox as mysterious, and even to create the archplot of a terrible event that needs to be prevented, but the actual execution of the archplot is needlessly vague when it should have been more straightforward, given the complexity of the subplot featuring Jane/John, and Hawke’s character – the obviousness comes from the way they shoot certain scenes in the first half of the movie that will likely lead most viewers to guess the secret long before the reveal. And that’s too bad, because when the paradox is revealed, there is a definite feeling of “Ahhhh, riiiiiiiight”, as your mind instinctively returns to prior scenes. That kind of audience participation in story is key for would be screenwriters, and The Spierig Brothers mostly succeeded with me, though I concede that the paradox is so big that many screenwriters would have a difficult time keeping its true nature hidden for the entire duration of a movie without lapsing into total vagueness.
Once again Hawke proves a capable presence, and there seems a palpable desire to create an engaging noirish mystery despite the limitations of budget and the original story’s content, so much so that like Hawke himself, while the movie is hard to really like, you’d be hard pressed to dislike it. That might feel like too negative a critique, so I’ll close by saying it’s a science fiction movie that’s well worth watching.