Place-Time Continuum: Predestination requires some serious suspension of disbelief.
Place-Time Continuum: Predestination requires some serious suspension of disbelief.

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Most time-travel movies knot your brain with a bit of speedily exposited quantum physics. Predestination, on the other hand, will make you crazy with its biology. But any ethical reviewer of the film should be all Fight Club about this rather significant detail, as well as the plot in general. So here’s an attempt to talk about Predestination without actually, you know, talking about it.

Directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers) penned the screenplay, which they adapted from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies.” The screen stays black after some brief credits as a narrator says, “What if I could put him in front of you, the man that ruined your life? If I could guarantee that you’d get away with it—would you kill him?”

A few mysterious, shadowy scenes follow before the Spierigs put you in 1970 New York and kick off some seriously lopsided storytelling. A man walks into a bar. (No, really.) He’s an angry young man, identified only as the Unmarried Mother, his persona for a confessional column he writes. The Barkeep (Ethan Hawke) repeatedly tries to engage him despite his antagonistic attitude. Eventually they make a bet: The customer gets a bottle of booze if his backstory is the craziest the Barkeep’s ever heard.

Get comfortable, because you’re about to take in about 45 minutes of exposition. (The movie runs only 97.) You already know that Hawke’s character, also unnamed, is a temporal agent, i.e. a time-traveling cop. There’s also been mention of a terrorist dubbed the Fizzle Bomber, whom the agent is assumably trying to stop.

But not, apparently, until he hears the Unmarried Mother’s tale of woe, from being left at the door of an orphanage as an infant to enduring social isolation for being smarter and stronger than his peers. Toss in a still-broken, still-bitter heart and a shocking medical diagnosis, and you’ve got a guy who should win that bottle.

After all that buildup, it’s exciting when the time-hopping finally starts—at least until the inevitable moment of “Huh?” It’s the Barkeep’s final assignment, and his conversation with his customer is actually an attempt to recruit. He persuades the Unmarried Mother to take a temporal leap by offering him the chance for revenge against the one who hurt him. And then things get weird.

As its title suggests, Predestination is most interested in the “predestination paradox,” or the closed loop present in most time-travel films. Sometimes, as in 2012’s excellent Looper, there’s at least some logic you can grasp onto, making it easy enough to suspend disbelief and enjoy the otherworldly ride. Here, you just have to accept that comprehensible rules do not apply. At all.

Hawke is serviceable as the agent, though he’s got a phlegmy, Bale-esque Batman voice that can be distracting. The most impressive actor among the cast of mostly unknowns is Sarah Snook, the star of last year’s horror flick Jessabelle. Her role demands a chameleon performance, which she delivers so subtly it’s easy to overlook while you’re focused on figuring things out.

Predestination adeptly interprets and expands on Heinlein’s work; considering that this story doesn’t hold your hand, your satisfaction will depend on how much explanation you need from your mind-benders. But even if the film leaves you cold, you may get a laugh from realizing that it takes the phrase “Go fuck yourself” and fancifully brings it to life.

Predestination opens Jan. 9 at AMC Hoffman in Alexandria.