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Film / Predestination

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"The snake that eats its own tail, forever and ever."

Predestination is a 2014 Australian science fiction mystery film written and directed by The Spierig Brothers. The film is based upon the 1959 short story "—All You Zombies—" by sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein, and stars Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, and Noah Taylor.

The film chronicles the life of a Temporal Agent sent on an intricate series of time-travel journeys designed to ensure the continuation of his law enforcement career for all eternity. On his final assignment, the Agent must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time and prevent a devastating attack in which thousands of lives will be lost.

Because the movie consists entirely of twists and turns, many of the trope names themselves are spoilers, and not all of the spoilers have been whited out. Proceed with caution.

This film provides examples of:

  • The '40s: Jane was abandoned in an orphanage in 1945, with there being some flashbacks to this decade.
  • The '50s: There are brief flashbacks to this decade when Jane was growing up in the orphanage.
  • The '60s: The majority of Jane's flashbacks occur in this decade, showing her interactions with Robertson and Space Corp, getting pregnant and having to transition to being John.
  • The '70s: The film starts with the Barkeep trying to disarm a bomb in 1975, Jane meets the Barkeeper in 1970 and it's explained that the at some point in 1975 the Fizzle Bomber will kill thousands of people, with the exact date changing due to time travel.
  • The '80s: The Barkeep takes John to 1985 after John learns that the Barkeep is his future self and that he's his own father and mother.
  • The '90s: After failing to disarm the bomb in 1975 safely, the Barkeep travels to 1992 to recover from his injuries.
  • Action Prologue: The opening Bomb Disposal sequence.
  • Adaptation Expansion: While overall very faithful to the original story, the film expands the role of The Fizzle Bomber and includes him in the web of paradoxes related to the Agent.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The film is based on the short story "—All You Zombies—".
  • Admiring the Abomination: Mr. Robertson speaks kindly of the Fizzle Bomber and how he helped their organization become better at saving lives. Lampshaded by the Barkeeper: "You sound as if you admire him". Then again, since it seems that the Fizzle Bomber itself is just another result of his manipulation, it's perfectly possible that he was actually admiring the fruits of his work.
  • Age Cut: At the end, several previous close-up shots are cut together to show the character's entire personal history in chronological order for the first time.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Young Jane feels misunderstood and isolated at the orphanage and also later in life.
  • Alternate History: The movie doesn't update Heinlein's setting to the early 21st Century, likely so they can maintain the Deliberate Values Dissonance needed for Jane's story. As a result we have a manned space program involving year-long missions by the Sixties, and time travel being invented in the Nineties.
  • Arc Words: "What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life?"
  • Bandaged Face: John, after his face gets burned in the bomb explosion.
  • Birds of a Feather: Justified. John and Jane are attracted to another for their many similarities.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Fizzle Bomber is eventually taken out of business but the organization subjected Jane to a lifetime of physical and psychological suffering and isolation to accomplish this goal. And it might even be a straight-up Downer Ending if, as the Fizzle Bomber says, the Bartender killing him is only the beginning of his transformation into him, forcing to repeat the story all over again.
  • Bomb Disposal: In the opening sequence, a mysterious character tries to contain one of the Fizzle Bomber's time bombs.
  • Break the Cutie: The Temporal Bureau arranged for this to happen to John, so that he would have no ties to his life and would want to become a temporal agent.
    Robertson: "John's life had to be fouled up so he had nothing to go back to. He had to want this."
  • Cat Fight: Twice. First Jane fights another girl at the orphanage, then again a colleague at Space Corp. The latter event causes her to be suspended from the program. Or so she thinks; really it was her hermaphroditism that got her kicked out.
  • Celibate Hero: Jane promised herself to stay away from sex, but it's subverted when she meets him.
    Jane: I made a solemn vow that any kid of mine would have both a mom and a pop. A real family. It kept me pure. Away from temptation.
  • Changed My Jumper: Discussed and Averted. Temporal agents make sure to have a stash of period appropriate clothing waiting for them in the time period they jump to in order to blend in.
  • City Noir: Shady characters with hats and trenchcoats, a mysterious organization and cool smoking. Similar in style to the Spierig brothers' previous work Daybreakers.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: Invoked by Robertson and the organization who arranged for Jane to be caught in an incestuous time loop where she was her own parents and offspring, all to become a well-functioning Temporal Agent with no ties to the past or the future.
    You're a gift given to the world through a predestination paradox. You're the only one free from history, ancestry.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: Space Corp is a recruiting front end for the secret time travel agency.
  • Cradle To Grave Character: The story begins when the main character is an adult and then follows that character through flashbacks and Time Travel to their birth and to when they're killed by the Bartender.
  • Cross-Cast Role: Sarah Snook is a non-intersex woman playing an intersex character who was raised as a girl but transitions to a man as an adult.
  • The Cynic: John is one due to the absolute hell he's gone through.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Jane/John suffered a lot in the early years. She grew up in an orphanage where she was not accepted. She was forced to change her gender against her will due to complications during her childbirth, meanwhile her baby is kidnapped from the nursery, leaving her in utter despair.
  • Dead Hat Shot: A non-lethal version. After the Bomb Disposal goes awry, there is a close-up on John's burning hat on the floor while John himself rolls around in pain.
  • Doorstop Baby: Jane. After the Barkeeper snatches her as a newborn from the nursery, he travels back in time, delivers her to the doorsteps of the City of Cleveland Orphanage and subsequently calls in to make sure the box is noticed.
  • Emergency Temporal Shift: Very early in the film, the Temporal Agent is sent to the 1970s to stop the Fizzle Bomber's reign of terror, only for the latest explosive to go off in his face before he can completely contain it. Near-fatally burned, he only survives because a good samaritan pushes his Field Kit back into his hands, allowing the Agent to transport himself back to Bureau headquarters in the 1990s and receive medical attention. It's later revealed that the samaritan is none other than the Temporal Agent's future self, left practically unrecognizable thanks to all the reconstructive surgery.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The revelation that John, the Barkeeper and the Fizzle Bomber (with Robertson an unconfirmed possibility) are one and the same effectively turns the film into a Protagonist Journey to Villain.
  • Enemies Equals Greatness: Robertson says that it's their hunt to stop the Fizzle Bomber—having to constantly learn from their mistakes—that caused the Time Police to grow into the elite agency it's become. Subverted when the Fizzle Bomber is revealed to be a future John, who implies that Robertson is still manipulating his life to bring about this outcome.
  • Flashback: The scenes of Jane's upbringing and adolescence are presented as flashbacks.
  • Flashback-Montage Realization: A version of this is seen at the end, flashing back to the earlier scene where the Barkeeper implies to John that he is him from a different point in time, and soon after this is a series of snapshots (all shots from previous scenes) of the character throughout his/her life, from infancy to the present day, showing the character's entire personal history in chronological order for the first time.
  • Foreshadowing: Several.
    • After John gets his face reconstructed, he comments that his own mother wouldn't recognize him before chuckling.
    • The Bartender's attempted joke about "What comes first, the chicken or the egg?". It foreshadows the relationship between himself, John, and Jane.
    • In the early bar scenes when the Barkeeper is talking to John, each time the camera looks at him, the angle changes slightly. Sometimes the "Gentlemen" restroom sign is over his head and sometimes it's "Ladies", foreshadowing the final plot twist.
    • When Jane's baby is snatched, John describes the snatcher having a "face-shaped face like yours and mine" which is foreshadowing that they are one and the same person.
    • When the Barkeeper and John decide to work with one another, one of the bar's patrons plays "I'm My Own Grandpa" on the jukebox.
    • The Barkeeper and John accuse one another of being the Fizzle Bomber.
    • When John calls the Barkeeper a "son of a bitch", the Barkeeper replies "Son of a bitch? That's funny." This foreshadows the fact that John is actually his own mother, the reason the Barkeeper finds it funny.
  • Future Me Scares Me: The Barkeep is horrified when he realizes that the Fizzle Bomber is him in the future, stating over and over again "I will never become you," before shooting him dead.
  • Future Self Reveal:
    • Jane recalls being seduced by a handsome young man who ultimately abandoned her, kicking off a chain of misfortunes that ended with Jane changing sex and renaming herself John. In the present, the Temporal Agent offers him a chance to go back in time and kill Jane's lover before he can ruin her life... but when John gets there, he finds himself bumping into Jane and unwittingly repeating the words that sparked their relationship in the first place.
    • Early in the film, the Temporal Agent is badly burned by one of the Fizzle Bomber's explosives and is only saved when a mysterious stranger pushes his Field Kit into his hands, allowing him to send himself to the future for emergency surgery. It eventually turns out that the stranger was actually the agent's future self, left unrecognizable after reconstructive surgery.
    • Jane was originally abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage, her parentage left unknown. However, prior to the sex change, Jane successfully gives birth to John's daughter and decides to name her Jane as well; a few days later, the Temporal Agent sneaks into the maternity ward and kidnaps baby Jane, depositing her on the doorstep of the orphanage.
    • The Temporal Agent eventually shows up to recruit John for the Bureau, becoming the direct cause of John's "abandoning" Jane. John is furious enough to put a gun to the Agent's head... only for the Agent to effortlessly disarm him by admitting, "You see, I love her too." Later shots confirm that the Agent still sports the marks from Jane's sex change and a caesarean scar across his stomach.
    • In the finale, the Temporal Agent finally manages to corner the Fizzle Bomber... only to find that the terrorist is none other than his future self, suffering from Temporal Sickness-induced psychosis and convinced that he's saving history. He warns the Agent that killing him will mean that he'll go on to become the Fizzle Bomber just as he did, and the only way to stop it is for the two of them to be together. The Agent refuses and shoots him dead... only for the final seconds of the movie to show him in the midst of a devastating case of Sanity Slippage.
  • Gilligan Cut: Doubles as a False Reassurance. When the Space Corp counselor assures Jane that her colleagues will "come 'round", the scene cuts to Jane getting her face punched by one of the other girls.
  • Help Yourself in the Future: Or past. The problem of the paradox is that Jane wasn't created, she was managed. At three points of her life, three versions of her future self conspire to manage the loop. John, the Barkeep, and possibly Robertson are in fact messing with their own life, that is their past self, because if it hadn't happened that way they wouldn't exist.
  • Hermaphrodite: Jane is revealed to be an intersex woman. She had internal male genitalia discovered during a cesarean section, and complications forced the doctors to supersede her external female genitalia with them.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: The Fizzle Bomber explains that he prevented bigger crimes from happening, but he made a monster of himself in the process.
  • Hidden Purpose Test: Space Corp officially tested women for space escorts but in reality the tests were designed to find suitable Temporal Agents.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Of The Reveal kind. The Barkeep discovers that the notorious Fizzle Bomber, the terrorist he's been hunting for years, is the older version of himself.
  • If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!: The Fizzle Bomber explains that if the Bartender shoots him, he will eventually become the Fizzle Bomber. If he wants to break the chain, he has to not kill him. Too bad, this situation is predestined.
  • In Medias Res: The plot starts somewhere in the middle of the time axis right before the protagonist transforms from John into the Barkeeper and follows the character from thereon forward in his life which also means going back into the past.
  • Ironic Echo: The line "What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life?" was originally addressed at John by the Barkeeper, but he uses the line again when finally facing his own nemesis, the Fizzle Bomber, his older self.
  • Irony:
    • At the beginning of the movie when he sees his new face for the first time he says "I've changed so much. I doubt my own mother would recognize me." and laughs, since he/she is his/her own mother.
    • Similarly, John calls the Barkeeper a son of a bitch, to which he laughs and says that's funny. Also doubles as an Insult Backfire.
    • The Barkeeper's line "We were born into this job." hints at the irony of his own birth which he personally helped to arrange using time travel.
  • Killing Your Alternate Self: In the final scenes of the film, the Barkeeper finally finds the Fizzle Bomber, only to discover that it was his older self. After arguing he shoots the bomber multiple times. Given the way the film twists his life through time travel and paradox, this is almost the most normal aspect of the plot.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Lampshaded.
    John: I was young and in love.
    Barkeep: Famous last words.
    John: What, haven't you ever done anything stupid for love?
    Barkeep: Once.
  • Magic Plastic Surgery: John gets plastic surgery where his face is being completely replaced after getting severely burned, and his character goes from being played by Sarah Snook to being played by Ethan Hawke. There are no scars or oddities visible after the surgical wounds have healed.
  • The Men in Black: The Barkeeper encounters two of them when being briefed for his One Last Job.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The Unmarried Mother writes short stories for magazines.
  • Mr. Smith: The doorstop baby is dubbed "Jane" for lack of any other name. As per this trope, Jane changes her name to "John", which is appropriate for someone who's an Un-person because they exist outside time.
  • Multiple Gunshot Death: The Barkeeper empties a revolver into the Fizzle Bomber.
  • My Future Self and Me: Averted. The future versions never introduce themselves as what they are.
  • My Own Grampa: In possibly the most convoluted, mind screwing way possible. Lampshaded at the end when the Barkeeper goes back to the bar. When he says, "I quit", the song playing is "I'm my own grandpa". This song is also referenced in the short story.
  • Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: When the Barkeeper offers John to try his job, the latter asks what his job was but the Barkeeper refuses to explain straight away.
    John: What is it?
    Barkeeper: I'll show you. (moving towards the backdoor)
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Big time. The trailer makes this film look like an action-packed sci-fi adventure when there are only two action scenes in the film, and it's really more of a sci-fi drama.
  • Nobody Calls Me "Chicken"!: Downplayed. There is a short scene in which young Jane gets into a Cat Fight with another girl from the orphanage over some name-calling.
  • No Name Given: The Barkeeper is never addressed by name. This is to hide that he's actually John/Jane from the future.
  • Once More, with Clarity: A couple of scenes are shown a second time from a different perspective which changes the meaning of the scene.
    • The opening Bomb Disposal sequence is revisited later when we see that the Barkeeper was the mysterious man pushing the violin case towards the man on the ground who turns out to be John.
    • Both the kidnapping of baby Jane and the following Doorstop Baby dropping scenes are shown twice. The second time it is revealed that the Mysterious Stranger who snatched the baby was the Barkeeper.
    • The park bench scene where Jane's lover disappears from her life is shown again later where we learn that the mysterious lover was John, who then vanishes back to the future.
  • One Degree of Separation: The various characters are connected by zero degrees of separation.
  • One Last Job: The recruiting of John is the Barkeeper's last job before being decommissioned. Subverted when the Barkeeper's Field Kit fails to decommission, allowing him to continue time travel unsupervised.
  • One-Word Title: Predestination.
  • Ouroboros: The barkeeper refers to this concept as a parallel with how his life played out.
  • Our Time Travel Is Different: As the Barkeeper explains, time travel is only possible 53 years in either direction of the creation of time travel in 1981 (so either 1928 or 2024). The Field Kit basically transports them to a safe location in whatever era they travel to, with it being shown that this does affect the environment around them to a degree (for example, time travelling in a car causes the windows to shatter). However Temporal Sickness is a real danger, with Robertson explaining how bits of matter are left behind with each time jump that are difficult to fix and can result in mental issues.
  • Parental Abandonment: Jane states that she missed having parents and envied other children who did.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The short story doesn't have an event of John's face being burnt and reconstructed to look like the Barkeep. Barkeep is merely an older version of John. The movie, being visual, had to introduce that face change else it would have given away the plot
  • Predestination Paradox: The barman remembers all the parts of the story from when they happened to him in his original timeline. He's just acting out his part now to complete the loop.
    • Also, John gets to relive the ultimate romance he once had as Jane, but this time filling in the role he remembers.
  • Screaming Birth: Jane is shown screaming like hell before the delivery of her baby.
  • Screw Yourself: Jane is made pregnant by a future version of herself who went through a sex change and came back through time.
  • Senseless Violins: Violins (called Field Kits) function as Time Travel devices.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: The Temporal Bureau's stated goal is to prevent crimes before they happen due to their knowledge of the future, and John is stated to have saved thousands of lives, but the only case we actually see them working on is their greatest failure: the Fizzle Bomber's 1975 attack in New York City. Ironically the Fizzle bomber himself is doing this, claiming that his attacks forestall far greater casualties in alternate futures.
  • Sobriquet Sex Switch: Jane changes her name to John once she transitions to a man. Lampshaded by the Barkeep, who says that it's "not terribly original."
  • Soft Glass: Young Jane breaks the glass of a car's headlight with her bare fist.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: Jane/John is intersex, and her transition from living as a woman to living as a man is a major plot point.
  • Stable Time Loop: We cannot say where the looping events have their beginning, foreshadowed by the chicken-and-egg and the snake-biting-its-tail talk between various characters. This also implies, as the movie title suggests, events are not possible to change for the time travelers. In its simplest form, however, it can be described that John/Jane is the agent of their own conception and death.
  • Temporal Paradox: John was taken back in time by his older self and impregnated his younger female self, Jane, with him/herself, making him/herself both his/her own parents and child. So where did his/her DNA come from? See the trope page for more information.
  • Temporal Sickness: People unused to time jumping feel ill, and John has to be hospitalized when the Bartender takes him on a particularly long jump to the future. Temporal agents are warned that making too many jumps can lead to psychosis. When the Bartender finally catches the Fizzle Bomber, he's revealed to be an insane future version of himself who claims to be working to avoid greater disasters, but the audience is left to wonder if that's true or just his delusion.
  • Tempting Fate: Jane promises to herself that her baby won't have to go through the suffering of growing up in an orphanage. Guess where her newborn winds up.
  • There Are No Therapists: Jane is left alone with her mental disorder.
  • Time Machine: The violin cases are powerful time travel devices with combination locks that encode the destination time.
  • Time Police: The purpose of the secret government organization the Barkeeper works for is to prevent crimes before they can happen. Or as Robertson puts it, the agency is "reshaping wrongdoings".
    • Partly a subversion since we never really get to see what the agency does or what the agents accomplice. The only case we see them working on is a distinct failure.
  • Time-Travel Romance: John goes back in time and falls in requited love with his younger female self, Jane, ultimately impregnating her with him/herself.
  • Time-Travel Tense Trouble: Written notes early on read "Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow." and "If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again."
  • Title Drop: Of the original short story "All You Zombies" in a scene towards the end where the Barkeeper has an inner monologue.
    Barkeeper: I know where I come from. But where do all you zombies come from?
    • Also one for the movie itself, delivered by Robertson:
    "You are a gift given to the world through a predestination paradox."
  • Title-Only Opening: There are no opening credits, only the title is shown.
  • Tragic Time Traveler: The Temporal Agent, 'nuff said. To make a very long story short, he suffers from brain damage as a result of their time travel, fails to stop the Fizzle Bomber, who turns out to be an alternate version of himself, and just trying to disarm one of his bombs leaves him so badly scarred that even with reconstructive surgery, his parents don't recognize him.
  • Truly Single Parent: Thanks to a Stable Time Loop and being a hermaphrodite, the female protagonist was impregnated by a sex-changed future version of herself.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Space Corps recruits physically fit, intelligent women to provide sexual and emotional comfort for astronauts on long term missions, and the recruiters interest in Jane's aptitude for mathematics and physics implies they work as Bridge Bunnies when not performing this function. Rather than prostitutes (who are often psychologically unsuitable for space work anyway) the recruiters prefer virgins because they can be trained from scratch. Jane mentions that the recruits are guaranteed to end up with a husband as such women are the only kind astronauts can relate to by the end of their own careers.
  • The Watson: John, when being introduced to time travelling. He constantly asks questions about the concept and the Barkeeper is more than happy to play Mr. Exposition.
  • We Can Rule Together: The Fizzle Bomber suggests this to the Barkeeper, who refuses the offer quite assertively.
  • Wham Line: To John from the Barkeeper, after John realizes he is the man who ruined Jane's life.
    The Barkeeper: You know who she is, and you understand who you are, and now maybe you're ready to understand who I am. You see, I love her too.
  • Wham Shot: Immediately after the Wham Line, the film cuts to the Barkeeper with his shirt open, revealing the exact same scars as John.
  • Write Back to the Future: The Bartender is shown leaving tape recorded messages for his future self. Actually his past self whom he brought to the future to set up the Time Police.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Due to the Stable Time Loop.