Predestination (2014)

2016 #21
The Spierig Brothers | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

A man walks into a bar in ’70s New York. The bartender strikes up a conversation, which leads to a wager: if the man’s story is the most incredible the bartender has ever heard, he’ll give him a free bottle of whiskey. It had better be pretty good, because what we know that the man doesn’t is that the bartender, played by Ethan Hawke, is an agent for the Temporal Agency, travelling through time to stop crime before it happens; and he’s just had his face burnt off and completely rebuilt while failing to stop a notorious terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Beat that.

That said, the man’s story is pretty incredible too — but as the telling of it makes up over half the movie, and it’s full of its own twists, I shan’t get into spoiler territory. Predestination is a film that rewards knowing as little as possible, especially as the seasoned sci-fi viewer/reader has a fair chance of guessing a good number of its twists (possibly all of them) long before they’re revealed by the film. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter, because the tale remains an engaging and thought-provoking one, with many thematic points to consider, and not just of a science-fictional nature — there are human and historical issues in play here too, which is undoubtedly a rarity in modern screen SF.

We’re guided through this by a laid-back performance from Hawke, which turns intense when needed, but even more so by an affecting, transformative, award-winning turn from Australian actress Sarah Snook. She really should be much in demand after this. Chunks of the film are just a two-hander between Hawke and Snook, yet it effortlessly captivates throughout these stretches. That’s in part thanks to the fascinating nature of the narrative, adapted faithfully from Robert A. Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies (it has nothing to do with zombies — the story’s from the ’50s, before our modern conception of a zombie was formulated), as well as the direction of the Spierig brothers.

I don’t know how many people will remember, but the pair got a bit of attention back in the early ’00s with their debut feature Undead, because they not only wrote and directed it, but also edited it and created the CG effects at home on their laptops. That’s more commonplace nowadays (well, Gareth Edwards did it for Monsters, anyway), but was A Big Thing in certain circles back then. (I bought Undead on DVD at the time but have never got round to watching it. Plus ça change.) I thought they’d disappeared after that, but they were responsible for vampire thriller (and Channel 5 staple) Daybreakers in 2009. This is their third feature. Working from a low budget once again, they take us to alternate-history versions of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from bars to orphanages to universities to training for the space programme to the headquarters of a time travelling police organisation and more. To my eyes, it never looked cheap. Sure, it’s not overloaded with CGI, but it doesn’t need to be. I never got the sense anyone was having to hold back because of the low budget. Others may disagree, because I have seen people express the opposite opinion, but I think they’re wrong, so there.

Predestination is the latest reminder that “sci-fi” is not a byword for “action-adventure”. It certainly won’t satisfy the needs of the action-hungry fan (it’s not devoid of the odd punch-up or explosion, but they’re far from the point). For anyone interested in something a bit more intellectual, a bit more thought-provoking, particularly if you like the (potential) complications of time travel, or issues of gender and identity, then Predestination has a lot to offer, even if you guess the twists.

5 out of 5

Predestination placed 5th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

It is available on Sky Movies on demand and Now TV from today. It debuts on Sky Movies Premiere next Friday, February 12th, at 11:30am and 10:20pm.

Purists be aware: existing British releases completely muffed up the aspect ratio (reportedly it’s both open matte and cropped), so there’s every chance Sky’s copy will be similarly afflicted.

It Happened Here (1966)

2010 #98
Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo | 96 mins | DVD | PG

Alternate histories are always fun, and nothing seems to have provoked more than the Second World War. Which, as a defining event in modern history for a good chunk of the world, is understandable. It Happened Here is perhaps one of the earliest examples, depicting a 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation.

Co-directors Brownlow and Mollo use a dramatic narrative, as opposed to faux-documentary, to show off their vision of an occupied Britain. They shoot it in grainy, handheld black-and-white with a rough-round-the-edges feel that gives it the air of documentary even when it’s undoubtedly scripted and performed. How much this is deliberate and how much an accident of circumstance, I don’t know — they were both young, amateur filmmakers at the time, working on a small budget; United Artists spent more on the US trailer than was spent on the entire film. Whatever the cause, it works, because they’re also not trying and failing to convince us this is a documentary, simply employing the visual cues which help sell their history as real. Using a dramatic narrative also gives the viewer an identifiable character, nurse Pauline, which works nicely by drawing us into the story’s world, helping us feel and relate to the compromises and sacrifices that have to be made — and, as the film forces us to realise, would be made — under such circumstances.

Pauline is apolitical, which for the sake of the film means she can get buffeted around, seeing many facets of occupied life. She’s drawn into the regime without losing our sympathy, but when she legitimately disagrees with it she’s shoved out of the way to a country hospital — which allows us to see another aspect; namely, the quiet but methodical enacting of The Final Solution in an occupied territory. The whole film builds to this point, gradually showing the darker and deeper levels of cooperation — which starts out almost harmless and ends with organised mass murder — meaning it never feels like Brownlow and Mollo are pushing an agenda too hard, but still confront us with the reality: that we’d probably succumb too, and this is where we’d end up.

The film is distinctly anti-Nazi, then, though not without its controversies in spite of this. At one point, real fascists play themselves. I think you can tell, because I suspected as much before I looked it up to see: they’re not great actors, but they deliver their horrific polemics with a calm zeal. The argument that this merely gives some hateful people a platform for their views isn’t without merit — they’re certainly given a good chunk of time to discuss them — but it’s an ultimately effective sequence. Other characters ask questions — or perhaps other cast members do, because, knowing the fascists are real, it becomes hard to tell if it’s all scripted and in character or just a real-life Q&A that Brownlow & Mollo filmed. Either way, it works because any right-minded person is going to see the inherent ridiculousness of their views with ease.

Nazi EnglandAnother controversy arose over the villains being British collaborators — few German Nazis are seen — and the ease with which many agreed. But this is based in the facts of what occurred in other occupied territories; maybe Britain’s plucky spirit would’ve shown through, as many like to believe, or maybe many would have caved for the easier life — or, indeed, life at all. The film is examining several perspectives of occupation, and using the fictional context to good effect: this could have happened, the film says, however much we like to believe we wouldn’t have collaborated like (and/or resisted better than), say, the French.

Talking of the resistance, I presume the controversy didn’t stop with its depiction of collaborators: both sides are shown to be just as/almost as bad as the other. The film opens with occupying Nazis massacring women and children, including a hurried and confusing gunfight in which it’s unclear whether Pauline’s friends — all women and children — were slaughtered by the Nazis or a group of resistance fighters holed up nearby. Mirroring this, the film ends with a group of British resistance (and/or invading American and British troops) rounding up surrendered collaborators and gunning them down in cold blood. No one comes out of this well — and that is perhaps the most truthful part of all.

Nonetheless, It Happened Here is more anti-Nazi than pro-Nazi propaganda, in my opinion, though it’s easy to see why any material critical of the Allies could have outweighed the overall bias when the film was first released, just 20 years after victory in Europe. Generally, and viewed from a much more removed perspective, Brownlow and Mollo do a good job of offering conflicting perspectives with minimal comment, allowing the viewer to decide how ridiculous certain newsreels or opinions are, or how weak or misguided characters may or may not be — on both sides.

4 out of 5