Stop reading this. Go to Netflix, your local video kiosk, wherever you can get your hands on a copy of Predestination. Watch it first, because I can guarantee it will be one of the best things you've seen all year, and odds are you might never have run into it if someone else hadn't told you about it. I want to put all this up front, because this movie deserves discussion and thought, and yet it is absolutely impossible to talk about this film without treading into complete spoiler territory. Those are just the facts. Go no further unless you are prepared.
Predestination is nominally science fiction, adapted from the Robert A. Heinlein short story "'All You Zombies — '", but like all the best SF, it doesn't stay stuck inside that container; it batters its way out and leaps towards bigger things. It deals with a man (Ethan Hawke) who appears to be some kind of spy in the employ of a nebulous organization, working behind the scenes to stop a terrorist named "The Fizzle Bomber" from destroying several square blocks of New York City. There's only one curious little detail, one that scoots by quickly enough that you might not catch it: the bombing hasn't happened yet. It's to happen at some point in the future. The spies are time travelers, fixing history when it breaks.
The film opens with the Hawke character attempting to stop a Fizzle Bomber attack, and getting his face blown off for his trouble. After months of recuperation and surgery, he returns to duty looking (we are told) nothing like what he did before. Sent to New York in the early 1970s, he's tending bar when one night a delicate-looking young man (Sarah Snook, in an astonishing dual role) walks in, starts drinking, and promises after a few refills to tell Hawke's bartender the wildest story he's ever heard in his life.
It's one wild story, all right. This he was once a she (again, Sarah Snook) — dumped on an orphanage's doorstep as a baby, a perpetual outsider through childhood, but smart and tough enough to be potentially accepted into an organization that grooms what could be described as comfort women for astronauts. (The world of this film resembles ours, but it isn't ours per se; the sly little ways it deviates from the reality we know are slipped under the door rather than slapped in our faces.) This plan is scotched not only when she gets pregnant, and not only when her baby is stolen from the hospital, but when her doctors discover she's a hermaphrodite — just female enough to deliver a baby, but no more than that. She's now a he, and he now writes trashy true-confession magazine stories for a living. You could do worse.
Then the bartender leans in and lays an even wilder line on him: "What if I could take the guy who ruined your life, put him in your lap, and you could do whatever you wanted — and get away with it?" After some wary back-and-forth, he leads the author into a back room, and ... into a time machine. Back they go to 1963, and before he knows it, the goggle-eyed author is now a fledgling temporal agent — just the man to hunt the Fizzle Bomber, because he and the man who ruined his life are one and the same. Or so we are told.
Where things go from here is, again, difficult to discuss without spoiling everything, but spoil I must. As the Hawke and Snook characters delve into the past and trigger one set of complications after another, a single, overarching, all-encompassing truth about everyone in the story becomes clear. And I do mean everyone — Hawke, Snook, the lost baby, all of them. Someone who has read the story will know what it is walking in, but an observant viewer will probably figure it out by the halfway mark.
The beauty of the movie lies in how even if you do figure out early on what's going on, or enter armed with the story as a crib sheet, none of that alone ruins what the film has to offer. Hawke and Snook are all magnificent performers, and the movie invests such time and effort setting them up as characters — especially both the male and female incarnations of the author, whose pain and alienation are like underground rivers of lava flowing through the movie — that the ultimate truth of all their lives seems less a stunt and more a philosophical statement. We are all children of fate and creators of our own destinies at the same time, and that the former seems so implacable is less invalidating of the latter than we might think.
Robert A. Heinlein has been the victim of many a bad film adaptation of his work. The Puppet Masters was truly dreadful, and Starship Troopers only worked if you realized the whole thing was an in-universe in-joke — one that managed to destroy everything that was interesting about the original story and replace it with supposedly ironic meathead tub-thumping. (The movie ended up becoming everything it was allegedly making fun of, which is why I don't buy it as satire; it's too easily enjoyed as exactly the kind of thing it professed to be skewering, and that made me uncomfortable in a bad way.) I also suspect no good movie version of Stranger in a Strange Land will ever be made, not merely because of the book's sprawl but because everything in it of importance is now strictly of interest as a historical curiosity; it just hasn't dated well.
"'Zombies'", on the other hand, was and remains timeless. I first encountered it in an SF anthology that I have kept to this day, and of all Heinlein's stories it strikes me as being the least like Heinlein and the most like one of his contemporaries, Philip K. Dick — another SF author whose works have been adapted despite their near-unfilmability, with sometimes good results (Blade Runner, The Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall, Minority Report) and sometimes not-so-good ones (Paycheck, Next, Screamers, Impostor). "Solipsism is the theory that nothing exists outside the self," said the editors in their introduction to "'Zombies'", and the way the movie backs into that very Dick-esque concept as a thesis to underscore everything it does is deviously clever.
These days, remakes and adaptations of other work seem compelled to tinker with the original, either to expand on it or to provide those walking in with some knowledge of the goings-on an additional frisson of the new. Predestination does this to some degree — the original story only had a passing mention of a "Fizzle War of 1963", not a Fizzle Bomber — but not because it's trying to do gratuitous things. Its one major embroidery to the original is a plot element that echoes its solipsism and paranoia, and thanks to that we get to keep the story's final, chilling lines — "I miss you dreadfully!" — which, the more you think about, the more unnerving they get.