Time travel. There's hardly a more alluring fantasy in our pop culture, from the simplest depictions — children's cartoons, comic strips, romantic comedy films —to the "Interstellar" kind that you need a physics degree to understand.
Count "Predestination" as among the more complex explorations of the concept: a strange, yet also strangely alluring, adaptation of a definitively weird short story, "All You Zombies" by Robert Heinlein, about a time-tripping crime-fighter (Ethan Hawke, in his appealing Everyman persona). Directed by the Spierig brothers (Michael and Peter), the film may not require a physics degree. But it does require a decent night's sleep and most of your brain cells. This is not a movie to watch after several glasses of wine.
Speaking of wine, Hawke plays a man known only as The Barkeep. And yes, he tends bar occasionally, but his real job title is Temporal Agent, which is just as cool as it sounds. We meet him in 1970s Manhattan, where he's preparing for his final mission — taking down a terrorist called the Fizzle Bomber, who, if not stopped, will destroy much of the city. Dismantling one of the man's bombs, he loses much of his face. But he recovers to look like, well, Ethan Hawke.
One evening, a guy walks into a bar. Or, sort of a guy. His name is Unmarried Mother, and the reason for that name will slowly be revealed as he tells his story in flashbacks — a highlight of the film. Turns out Unmarried Mother — played by the terrific Australian actress Sarah Snook, in a wonderfully nuanced, gender-bending performance — began his unusual life as a female baby named Jane, abandoned on the steps of a Cleveland orphanage in 1945. After a youth in which she displays a tomboy streak and fighting skills, she winds up being recruited in the '60s to Space Corp, a strange force of women tasked with having sex with astronauts in space, to relieve their tension. But before she can blast off, she winds up impregnated by a mysterious young man who then deserts her.
It gets weirder. She gives birth to a baby girl, and doctors inform her that they discovered both male and female organs inside her. They've chosen to make her a man. She (he) ends up in New York, where she (he) makes a living writing confessional stories for magazines, using her (his) special woman's intuition.
The action gets going in the second half, when Barkeep offers Jane the chance to go back in time and alter what happened. She jumps at the chance, without knowing just how it's going to happen. Barkeep dusts off the old time machine, which lives in a violin case, and the two travel back to Jane's origins.
But Barkeep's got an agenda, and it's here that revealing any more plot becomes tricky. First, because of spoilers, but also because it gets really confusing. Certainly those who've read Heinlein's story (easily available online) will know what they're seeing, and sci-fi aficionados who think a certain way may have a good sense, too. Many others, though, will be aching more than once to hit a rewind button.
Like me, you may also find yourself asking, wait, can THAT happen in time travel? Why, of course it can. It's fiction. But you'll see what I mean.
You may also ask yourself why you haven't seen Snook before. This actress, who resembles a young Jodie Foster, gives a chameleon-like performance that's about much more than makeup and costumes and voice register. She makes the more preposterous scenes seem plausible, and even when they're not plausible, at least interesting. And she's only in her 20s; time is on her side.
"Predestination," a Sony Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language." Running time: 97 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.