Based upon a 1959 short story titled All You Zombies by sci-fi writer Robert A.Heinlein, Predestination (2014) is a stylish time-travel movie exploring the paradoxical nature of time and 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 a self-created entity trapped within a closed loop in time.
This excellent sci-fi thriller stars Ethan Hawke (“the Barkeep”) as a temporal agent who stops crimes before they happen, Sarah Snook (Jane/John) as an androgynous writer known as “The Unmarried Mother, and Noah Taylor as the Temporal Bureau’s mysterious boss Mr Robertson. It was written and directed by the Spierig brothers.
What is the Predestination Paradox in the movie?
The Predestination Paradox alluded to in the movie’s title indicates that any attempt by a time traveler to change events in the past would result in that person playing a role in creating the event they are trying to prevent. In other words, events are predestined to happen the same way over and over again.
One example of a predestination paradox in the movie is John wanting to save Jane from all the heartache caused by her mysterious lover leaving her, but instead falling in love with Jane and becoming the very mysterious stranger he was trying to save her from.
Another example is the Barkeep inadvertently causing the accident which leads to John being burnt and surgeons giving him the new face of the Barkeep. By the surprised look on the Barkeep’s face, he realizes it was he who causes the distraction which delays John from disarming the bomb in time, leading to John 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.
This is all necessary because despite their sadness over the decisions they make, if either Jane/John/Barkeep/Bomber 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 predestination paradox from beginning to end.
Is there a Bootstrap Paradox in Predestination?
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 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), who then gives birth to a child who subsequently travels back in time and grows up to become them. The result is a bootstrap paradox that takes the ‘chicken or egg’ causality dilemma to a whole new level.
John’s his own Parents and Granda
As John is the source of his own birth, he is his own father, mother, and grandfather. In fact, John’s very future depends upon him traveling back to 1970 and persuading his 25-year-old self to travel back to 1963 and impregnate his 18-year-old female self (Jane). To complete the loop, he must then drop the 9-month-old child (granddaughter) off in 1945 at the orphanage, where she could grow up to become them.
John is forced to repeat the process over and over again inside an endless loop, or else cease to exist. This temporal loop is symbolized by the Ouroboros mentioned in the movie, an ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail, signifying infinity and the eternal cycle of birth and death. A brief outline of the dilemma facing Agent Doe 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.”
Who is the Fizzle Bomber?
Only after following a lead to the laundrette given to him by Robertson does The Barkeep discover that the elusive Fizzle Bomber was actually an older version of himself all along, driven psychotic and delusional in later life because of the temporal the Barkeep’s continued use of the time machine which failed to deactivate on his retirement to New York City in 1975.
Therefore, Jane, John, the Barkeep, and the Fizzle Bomber all turn out to be the same person caught inside a closed time loop, with the Barkeep 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 it’s worth remembering here that to the Fizzle bomber’s warped way of thinking he is doing good. As an agent, after all, the Barkeep was originally tasked with stopping disasters from occurring by traveling through time.
By subsequently killing the Fizzle Bomber in the Laundromat, the Barkeep ensures he will continue the cycle by becoming him over time, and that his (now the Fizzle Bomber) actions will eventually give John the reason he needs to eventually travel back in time to halt the Fizzle Bomber. Thus, the loop sustains its succession of events and remains unbroken for the cycle to start over again.
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, the Barkeep arrives on the scene in time to give John his time-travel violin box and return him to 1992 in for treatment and reconstructive surgery where he becomes the Ethan Hawke character. The Fizzle bomber escapes.
Meanwhile, near the end of the movie, we then see that the Barkeep’s presence was due to him making a jump to the same location in one last attempt to stop the Fizzle Bomber. The Barkeep’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”.
The Barkeep then arrives on the scene before John and sees the Fizzle Bomber complete planting his bomb. The two of them then have a fight and the Barkeep 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. The Barkeep recovers in time to push John his time travel device.
The piece of the bomb John recovers from the scene and hands to Robertson provides information allowing the Barkeep to track the Fizzle Bomber to the laundrette and eventually kill him, thus assuming his part, and so on. Robertson’s decision to hand the Barkeep the information would seem to indicate he is ensuring that all events inside the loop continue to play out exactly as they already happened.
Time Loop vs. Split Timelines
At the movie’s end, we never find out if the time loop continues as a predestination paradox, or whether the Barkeep manages to break the loop and split it into alternative timelines (many worlds theory). In one version the Barkeep 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 the Barkeep 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 and Mr. Robertson
Head of the Temporal Bureau, Mr. Robertson views Jane/John/Barkeep 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 he can procreate with himself, resulting in a self-sustaining agent with no historical ties.
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,”, explaining that the Fizzle Bomber has helped the organization grow.
Interestingly, Robertson even seems to give Barkeep 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 the agent had become from his numerous time jumps, indicating he most likely needed the Barkeep to become the Fizzle Bomber to continue the loop. As Robertson tells the agent 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 that 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 phenomenon 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, John has face burnt whilst trying to stop the ‘Fizzle Bomber’ who manages to escape. The Barkeep appears and helps John activate his portable time machine.
1992, John travels forward in time to the Temporal Bureau, an organization founded in 1985 after the invention of time travel, and has reconstructive facial surgery. We later find out that the Fizzle Bomber killed 11,000 people in New York in 1975.
1970, The Barkeep 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 operation and became a writer called John.
The Barkeep 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 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 Barkeep travels to 1970 to confront the Fizzle Bomber and help badly burnt John. The Barkeep then travels to 1964 and takes Jane’s baby and drops her off at an orphanage in 1945. The Barkeep then drops John off in 1985 to enlist in the Temporal Bureau.
1975, The Barkeep 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 Barkeep shoots and kills the Fizzle Bomber, thus ensuring he becomes him.