Categories: Sci-Film Reviews

Predestination (2014) Explained

Predestination (2014) is based upon a 1959 short story titled ‘All You Zombies‘ by sci-fi writer Robert A.Heinlein, and is a stylish time-travel movie exploring the paradoxical nature of time travel. With its intricate chronology of events, this cerebral sci-fi thriller navigates through multiple twists of fate as the story’s tragic key character is gradually revealed to be self-created entity trapped within a closed loop in time. Written and directed by the Spierig brothers, Predestination stars Ethan Hawke as a temporal agent who stops crimes before they happen, Sarah Snook as an androgynous writer known as “The Unmarried Mother, and Noah Taylor as the Temporal Bureau’s mysterious boss Mr Robertson.

Predestination Paradox

The Predestination Paradox alluded to in the movie’s title indicates that any attempt by the time traveler to change events in the past would subsequently result in that person playing a role in creating the event they are trying to prevent, not changing it. In other words, events are predestined to happen the same way over and over again, one example in the movie being John wanting to save Jane from all the heartache caused by her mysterious lover, only for John to fall in love with Jane and cause the same situation he tried to prevent. Another is Ethan Hawke causing the accident which led to John being burnt and becoming Hawke, but more about that later.

Bootstrap Paradox

The movie also presents an example of a Bootstrap Paradox, a temporal phenomenon in which a time traveler (person, object or information) is a self-created entity existing within a closed loop in time in which the chain of cause-effect events runs in a continuous repeating circle. In the case of this movie, for example, John is the cause of his own birth and has to travel back in time and have sex with himself (Jane) from the past, giving birth to a child who travels back in time and grows up to become them. The result is a causality loop which takes the ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma to a whole new level. It is also important to realize that the causality loop exists separate from ordinary space-time, and while time repeats itself within the closed loop, for those people outside the temporal paradox time continues in a normal manner.

I’m My Own Grandpa

As John/Jane has no beginning or end and is the source of his own birth, he is his own father, mother, and grandfather. This paradox in time means that Hawke’s very future depends upon him traveling back to the past as the proverbial “grandfather”, and ensuring John gets his younger female self, Jane, pregnant so he can drop the child, his “granddaughter”,  off at the orphanage in 1945, where she could grow up to become them. Hawke is forced to repeat the process over and over again inside an endless loop, or else cease to exist. This endless loop is symbolized by the Ouroboros mentioned in the movie, an ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail, a narrative with no apparent beginning, middle or end. A brief outline of the dilemma facing the temporal agent can be found on wikipedia, which states:

He tells John that he needed John to meet with Jane in order for her to become pregnant and give birth to a child that would eventually grow up to be them and that he deceived John as he had no intention of getting him to kill the Fizzle Bomber. If the temporal agent had not kidnapped the child and transported her back to 1945, or had not set up John and Jane, all of them would not exist. John states that he doesn’t want to leave Jane, but the temporal agent insists it has to be.”

The Fizzle Bomber

Only after following a lead to the laundrette given to him by Robertson does Hawke discover that the elusive Fizzle Bomber was actually an older version of himself all along, driven psychotic and delusional in later life because of Hawke’s continued use of the time machine which failed to deactivate on his retirement to New York City in 1975. Therefore, Jane, John, Hawke, and the Fizzle Bomber all turn out to be the same person caught inside a closed time loop, with Hawke becoming the Fizzle Bomber in the 1970’s part of that cycle. This all, of  course, is facilitated by the invention of time travel in 1981.

The Fizzle bomber explains that by bombing the people who would have gone on to commit terrorist attacks he was preventing even more people from being killed, regardless of the collateral damage he incurs in the process. In other words, he was using a tragedy to stop countless other tragedies from happening, and its worth remembering here that to the Fizzle bomber’s warped way of thinking he is doing good. As an agent, after all, Hawke was originally tasked with stopping disasters from occurring by traveling through time.

By subsequently killing the Fizzle Bomber in the Laundromat Hawke ensures he will continue the cycle by becoming him over time, and that his (now the Fizzle Bomber) actions will eventually cause John to become Hawke and give him the reason he needs to travel back in time to stop him (Fizzle Bomber). Thus, the loop sustains its succession of events and remains unbroken for the cycle to start over again. This is all necessary because despite their sadness over the
decisions they make, if either Jane/John/Hawke/Fizzle make any decisions other than the ones that they were predestined to make then their very existence would be nullified. In this way, they all depend on one another to make the same choices they make throughout the movie in order to exist, making the character a chicken and egg time paradox from beginning to end.

Time Agent Gets His Face Burnt

In the very first scene of the movie, we see our main character descend upon a New York building in 1970 from 3 different timelines (or different stages along the time loop). We see John from 1992 enter the building before trying to defuse the bomb, we see the Fizzle Bomber try to stop John, and while John manages to contain most of the blast within his field kit, his face is badly burnt. Struggling to survive, Hawke arrives on the scene in time to push John his time travel violin box and return to 1992 for reconstructive surgery and treatment leading to him becoming Hawke. The Fizzle bomber escapes.

Meanwhile, near the end of the movie we then get to see that Hawke’s presence there was due to him making an illegal “unauthorized” jump to the same location in one last attempt to stop the Fizzle Bomber and presumably stop John from getting burnt. Hawke’s decision seems based upon the advice of a recorded message left to him by his future self saying “if you ever want to stop the Fizzle Bomber you will never get another chance”.

We then see that Hawke had arrived on the scene before John and saw the Fizzle Bomber complete planting his bomb. The two of them then have a fight and Hawke is knocked unconscious in another part of the building. In the meantime, John arrives to defuse the bomb and after a shoot out is delayed from sufficiently diffusing the bomb in time, thus leading to his horrific burns. Hawke recovers in time to push John his time travel device. By the surprise look on Hawke’s face, he realizes it was he who causes the distraction which delays John from disarming the bomb in time, leading to him burning his face. Ironic, but that’s the concept behind a predestination paradox. However much you try to alter the past, the event has already taken place resulting in your current timeline and is therefore predestined to happen.

The piece of the bomb Hawke recovers from the scene and hands to Robertson provides information allowing Hawke to track the Fizzle Bomber to the laundrette and eventually kill him, thus assuming his part, and so on. Robertson’s decision to hand Hawke the information would seem to indicate he is ensuring that all events inside the loop continue to play out exactly as they already happened.

Causal Loop Or Split Timelines?

At the end of the movie we never find out if the time loop continues as a predestination paradox, or whether Hawke manages to break the loop and split it into alternative timelines (many worlds theory). In one version Ethan Hawke is stuck in a temporal causality loop after killing the Fizzle Bomber before succumbing to psychosis and then becoming him; while in another scenario the paradox unravels and is split into two separate but concurrent timelines, with Hawke living the rest of his life out from 1975 on, while John is in 1992 and now moving forward with his life outside of the time loop.

Both theories can be supported. On the one hand a predestination paradox states that if time travel were possible, it would be impossible to change the past, and any attempt to do so would become the precipitating event for the change we are trying to make. An example of which being a time traveler going back in time to save a friend from being hit by a car, only to discover he is the man driving the car that killed his friend. On the other hand, the “many worlds” theory would  say that every time you travel back in time and actually manage to change events, you are only ever managing to create a new alternate timeline.

The Bureau’s Involvement

Head of the Temporal Bureau, Mr. Robertson views Jane/John/Hawke as a unique, and unexpected gift to the world. He is also fully aware of his importance to the Bureau as having no family ties makes him a perfect under the radar agent, while possessing two sets of sexual organs means the agent can procreate with himself and result in a self-sustaining agent with no ties to history, either. It was likely Robertson’s intention to create a paradox involving the agent’s origin so as to have a temporal agent capable of operating from both inside and outside the loop at the same time, possibly needed to help the Bureau carry out its mission of preventing disasters from happening. While no further details are given as to how this may work, one imaginative speculation proposed by online poster Not-Now-John, is as follows:

“It seems to me that there is a single timeline that has been edited (perhaps we are seeing the “final” version) and they must be intentionally creating loops. Its the only way to prevent disasters in the future. Think about it, if you go back and kill Hitler, in the new timeline, there is no Hitler, so there’s no reason to go back and kill Hitler [Let’s Kill Hitler Paradox]. But if you create a loop where someone has knowledge of the alternate future, they can go back to kill Hitler, while being the only ones aware of the need for this to happen. What better way to do this, than to create someone that only exists within the edited timespace.”

While, the Fizzle Bomber may have been an unintended consequence of the paradox, Robertson seems at ease with the situation, stating as he does that “we all learned things from him, he’s made us better at our jobs,” and explaining that the Fizzle Bomber has helped the organization grow. Interestingly, Robertson even seems to give Hawke all the encouragement he needs to carry on using his decommissioned time machine after his retirement to New York in 1975, stating how much more he believed the Bureau could accomplish if it had an agent working free from constant bureaucratic controls. Robertson gave this advice despite knowing how affected Hawke had become from his numerous time jumps, indicating he most likely needed Hawke to become the Fizzle Bomber to continue the loop. As Robertson tells Hawke before he is retired:

“You are here to create history and influence what is to come. Understand, you are more than an agent, you are a gift given to the world through a predestination paradox. You are the only one. Free from history, ancestry. You must complete your mission. You must lay your seeds for the future. We’re counting on you.”

How Was The Paradox Created?

As far as Predestination is concerned, we do not see the original timeline which actually started the causality loop, and the movie only ever shows us the timeline of events which unfold in the loop once its actually been created. In other words, there is no beginning to the events in the movie because we do not see the original timeline, but only observe a closed time loop. Even though there may be no explanation as to why such a phenomena may have spontaneously occurred, just like we may never know what caused the Big Bang, for the sake of this movie we can still allow ourselves to speculate as to possible causes.

While there may be many ways in which the original loop may have been created, one possibility is that in the original timeline Jane was born in 1945, became pregnant by some other man (not John) leading to the operation in which she became a man, or it may be that surgery became necessary at some stage in her life due to medical problems connected to her having both sets of reproductive organs. Either way, Robertson could have then recruited John for Space Corp, while planning to devise a plan in which he uses John’s “hermaphroditism” to create a predestination paradox in which John travels back in time and impregnates Jane. The reason for Robertson wanting to create such a paradox is unclear, although he does seem to indicate having an agent freely operating outside of normal time inside a closed time loop represented a vital part of the Bureau’s operation.

The By-Laws of Time ” Quotes

“Never Do Yesterday What Should Be Done Tomorrow.”
“If at Last You Do Succeed, Never Try Again.”
“A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Billion.”
“A Paradox May Be Paradoctored.”
“It Is Earlier When You Think.”
“Ancestors Are Just People.”
“Even Jove Nods.”

The Timeline Of Predestination

1970, Temporal agent has face burnt whilst trying to stop the ‘Fizzle Bomber’ who then escapes. A faceless stranger appears and helps badly burnt agent activate his portable time machine.

1992, Agent travels forward in time to the Temporal Bureau, an organization founded in 1985 after the invention of time travel. There he has reconstructive facial surgery, and we find out the Fizzle Bomber killed 11,000 people in New York in 1975.

1970, Temporal agent goes back to New York posing as a bartender and seems keen to engage a man calling himself ‘Unmarried Mother’ in conversation. The man explains he was originally a girl called Jane who was left at an orphanage in 1945. In 1963 Jane fell in love with a mystery man, who then disappeared. Jane had a baby who 9 months later was stolen. She then had a sex change and became a writer called John.

The temporal agent says he suspects the mystery man was the Fizzle Bomber and offers John the chance to go back to 1963 and kill the man who who ruined his life. In return he insists John must then join the Temporal Bureau. They then travel back to 1963 together.

1963, John accidentally meets his younger, female self Jane, falls in love, and impregnates her with a child that eventually would grow up to be them. Meanwhile, the temporal agent travels to 1970 to confront the Fizzle Bomber, and helps his badly burnt earlier self. The agent then travels to 1964 and takes Jane’s baby and drops her off at an orphanage in 1945. He then drops John off in 1985 to enlist in the Temporal Bureau.

1975, The temporal agent then retires to 1975 but he still retains the use of the time machine which fails to deactivate itself. The retired agent soon tracks down the Fizzle Bomber, who actually turns out to be himself in the future. He seems to have become insane from using the non-deactivated time machine too often as he sought to travel in time and avert disasters from occurring. However, his actions actually caused thousands of other untold deaths to happen in the process, and so disgusted with his future self, the agent shoots and kills the Fizzle Bomber, thus ensuring he becomes him.

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View Comments (482)

  • What might really throw you for a loop is that the whole thing was a story from his book titled, "The Unmarried Mother." And the whole time, he was a schizo/manic/ delusional guy trying to realize truth by means of thought that is time travel and a predestination paradox. I know this idea is far fetched and really not even relevant to the discussion of understanding the probabilities of the events taking place, but there is some evidence to support this theory. For instance, of one of the last scenes when he was typing on the type writer and kept typing over his name (the author) from "John" to "Jane" to "John Doe" wherein none of these things were real, just pschotic dilusions being written in a book titled "The Unmarried Mother." And i know that name was only presented as his tag name for his writings in those magazines, but in a separate sense, this whole paradox was just a fabrication of his mind. I mean, at least in this way, we can come back to Earth and see the impossibility of one person (hermaphrodite) having sex with himself, to give birth with himself. Even in science fiction, and in well founded scientific theory, this type of reproduction could never happen, and even if it could biologically that child would look Chunk from the Goonies. Just sayin

    • Sure, he was growing deranged, but that derangement was part of the book, as well as the movie. There is nothing in the book that suggests that idea. It was definitely and time-loop story, literally.

    • your wrong its from a book called all you zombies written by robert a hienlien in the 1950's

  • How did baby jane reach the orphanage at the first place I mean even for a time loop it has to start from somewhere if the baby would not have been dropped at orphanage there will be no jane ,John, fizzle bomber etc.

    • baby jane was kidnapped by the bartender and taken back in time to 1945 to be dropped off at the orphanage

  • How did baby jane reach the orphanage at the first place I mean even for a time loop it has to start from somewhere if the baby would not have been dropped at orphanage there will be no jane ,John, fizzle bomber etc.

  • But what I don't get is why the Bartender needed to place Jane's and John's daughter (a.k.a herself/himself) back to the orphanage. If he had already appointed the current John to be a part of the mission, why does he have to deliver the baby back if he knew it will restart a new loop?

    • he takes the baby that is himself back to 1945 to ensure his own survival after he kills himself the fizzle bomber

  • I just know one thing.. This one's a crazy ass film and my wife wanted to kill me after me made her watch it thru..!

  • It's not a closed loop as after being shot he would then be conceived. It appears to be an infinite number of concurrent time segments which are out of phase with each other - thus in the laundrette the two Hawkes are present but in different parts of each of their segment.

    I find the main puzzle being why John left Jane for her to go thru hell, just to have everything explained to him by Mr Robertson! Curiosity overcomes true love?

    • it is a closed loop because the bartender is his own mother his own father his own grandpa after being shot he is not then concieved he was concieved in the 1960's then kidnapped and taken back to 1945 and dropped off at an orphanage. the two hawks in the laundry mat are the same person one that is younger than the other john left jane to go on to be a time travel agent that was the deal if the bartender let john shoot to kill the fizzle bomber jane had to go through hell to ensure the survival of the bartender because once the bartender killed the fizzle bomber the bartender had ended his own life and to ensure that the bartender would survive killing himself he spent the whole time through out the whole movie making sure the bartender would survive in the end by taking john back in time to screw himself when he was still a woman to make a baby and kidnap that baby of himself and drop it off at an orphanage in 1945 to make sure he survives killing himself the fizzle bomber

  • As far as I know, the original to the original has never been made into a movie, although there have been two audiodramas.

    This is odd. "By His Bootstraps", 1941, could be thought of as the Time-Travel equivalent of Einstein's Relativity: a look at the central paradox of time-looping that came fully-formed and rationally argued out the mind of Heinlein, to the point that all further time-travel stories were nothing more than elaborations.

    The movie is a well-done take on "All you Zombies". All the core elements are present, the acting is good all round, and it's a skillful mix of SF, drama, thriller, slasher, pathos, action genres, all of which aspects are good representations of their respective genre. In other words, it's an A (or A-minus at worst) in all those categories, and altogether.

    Claims the biology is impossible is overblown. First, the real situation is that super-secret science is at work, including access to super-secret medical breakthroughs not available to the hoi poloi science world. This is standard sci-fi fare, quite legitimate. Second, hermaphroditism is not a myth. The idea of potentially functioning genitalia could be brought out by advanced surgery and hormones is a trivial accomplishment in science fiction. After all, once you've made the jump to time-travel via violin-case portables, everything else pales. May as well diss TT itself. I mean realistically, does anyone think its possible. Or to conventionally invoke a temporal Fermi's paradox: if time-travel is possible, where are the travelers? They haven't appeared, so it don't happen, quod erat demonstrandum.

  • Now that this movie is on amazon prime there may be a few posts "from the future". Anyway, I cannot get past the simple fact that even if a sex-changed version of Jane (John) impregnates Jane (and the zygote is viable and not horribly disfigured), there are now two distinct entities. Even Heinlein apparently would like to assume that if a person impregnates themself, they will give birth to themself. That's obviously nonsense. Even if the genes were exactly the same, they would be a clone, and would not be bound to travel the same path in time.

  • As I read these explanations from those who try to define the paradox. It seems these explanations are a paradox. In which the movie itself, has given each of us who have written, the same paradox that we are each trying to explain.