It is very hard to find fun and original science fiction movies these days. Take for example, if you will, the year 2014. Last year, the three most financially successful sci-fi films were “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Of those three, two were big-budget sequels to big-budget franchises, and one was a big-budget superhero movie. That is not a comment on the films’ quality (“Dawn” and “Guardians” were great, “Transformers” was not), so much as on the fact that it is rare to see science fiction movies being made that use the genre to explore social issues, the future or other wild concepts.
The only place to find such movies these days is in the independent sphere. 2014 gave us the great “Snowpiercer,” but still, science fiction seems to be slowing down. 2015’s “Predestination” seeks to challenge that, presenting itself as a film that accepts the craziness of things like time travel while delivering a compelling and deep story. Put shortly, it fails to do both.
Adapted nearly completely from famed sci-fi author Robert Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies,” the film deals with a “temporal agent,” Ethan Hawke, an operative who travels through time and space, chasing criminals and righting wrongs. For his last assignment, the agent must work as a bartender in 1970s New York in order to catch the “Fizzle Bomber,” who has eluded him throughout time, before the bomber kills 11,000 people and escapes again. One night, a writer calling herself “The Unwed Mother,” Sarah Snook, walks into the agent’s bar, and tells a strange life story, filled with mysterious strangers and heartbreak. As the story unfolds, more becomes clear about the agent’s mission and enemy, and the meaning of the title becomes increasingly prescient.
There are a lot of great sci-fi tropes in “Predestination”: time travel, laser guns, paradoxes, the list goes on. It even features future selves going through time to go on dates with their past selves with so many twists in the continuum that Doctor Who would blush. And yet, it is intensely boring. Besides an action scene we see repeated two or three times, the majority of the film is a series of mostly silent scenes narrated by Snook’s droning monotone, as we see her life story. Every now and then, it will cut back to Hawke looking mildly bored or asking a question, but for the most part, the plot and its nuances are recited to us directly.
Because the entire movie consists of buildup, the character development is nonexistent other than the exposition, and the script is so ham-handed that the big twist at the end is hardly a surprise. Writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig, who previously disappointed audiences with “Daybreakers,” confuse slowness with drama and visual flair with plot. The film pays stylistic tribute to the era of its source material, with trench coats and fedoras in juxtaposition to futuristic sets aplenty. Some of the dialogue is occasionally clever, but the actors seem so uninterested, and the plot moves at such a snail’s pace that there is no point to any of it.
I have no doubt that when Heinlein’s original story was published in the late ’50s, readers were enthralled by his writing and the slow development of the plot through conversation. There is however, a large difference between reading a conversation between two people and watching it. And when the people filming the conversation have no sense of pacing and the two actors look like they would rather be taking a nap, you have a problem. “Predestination” is no “My Dinner With Andre.” It is not even really a movie, so much as a slog through the wastes of time itself.