Image by Ben Thomson
Films tend to come in pairs. 1998 alone saw stoushes between asteroid blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon, animated insect comedies Antz and A Bug’s Life, and solemn World War Two dramas Saving Private Ryan and The Thing Red Line. I have a list of about a hundred of these from across the years, which would blow my word count quite significantly. But you get the idea.
This past month has seen the release of two Australian time travel films: Predestination, written and directed by the Spierig Brothers (Undead, Daybreakers) and starring Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook and Noah Taylor, and The Infinite Man, written and directed by Hugh Sullivan and starring Josh McConville, Hannah Marshall and Alex Dimitriades.
It’s not just the fact that these are both time travel films from the same country that brings them together, but the approach they’ve both taken to the concept of destiny.
Most time travel films tend to deal with changing what has already happened. From Back to the Future through to Looper, these films look at the dangers of changing history, often accidentally, and the quest to set things right.
But both Predestination and The Infinite Man take a different approach. In these films, history is a set, unalterable thing. The act of trying to change it ends up causing it, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy that undercuts our concept of free will.
Without spoiling anything in either of those films, allow me to illustrate with this scenario: you discover a window in your house has been smashed. You go back in time to stop whoever did it. You see someone approaching your house and go to attack them, but they duck out of the way and you careen through the window. This is not just a neat storytelling device, but something more profound: our fates are unchangeable, predestined, in the stars.
So why are we suddenly interested in self-fulfilling prophecies? There are, as far as I can tell, three distinct reasons.
One: from a storytelling point of view, audiences are now very familiar with the idea of time travel and historical consequences. A significant number of time travel films have acclimatised us to all the tropes and idiosyncrasies of the genre so that a mass audience is now ready for something a little more complex, a film which no longer requires a professor character to explain everything on a blackboard at the 45 minute mark.
Two: it’s high concept. If you want to do a science fiction film, your choices are limited. Space travel films are often inherently expensive, and depictions of the future—whether utopian or dystopian—generally require a lot of coin. But time travel is all about the ideas. To tell a story about time travel, all you really need is three characters and an idea. Which is exactly what Predestination and The Infinite Man have.
Three: we are currently living in an age where it feels as if everything is out of our control. We are facing down the barrel of catastrophic climate change, something we ourselves caused and continue to cause, but are unable to stop.
Movies are always a product of the time in which they were produced. Filmmakers may be consciously aware of the message they are trying to push, but even the smartest cannot always identify the societal context subconsciously peppering every moment. We lack the perspective because we’re living in it.
But we do know what our two biggest fears are. Ours is not the generation that defeated the Nazis, or saw the Cold War come to an end. Ours is the generation that is careening towards the inevitable collapse of society, with stateless terrorist enemies who by definition cannot be defeated. We feel as if we have no control, and that any attempt to change things will only help to cause them.
Enough haughty framing. Let’s get down to brass tacks: Predestination and The Infinite Man are both excellent, inventive films that, strangely, succeed at the doing the thing that the other is aiming for.
Predestination is a twisty, plot-driven film based on Robert Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies (which in turn is based on his own earlier work By His Bootstraps). It is intricate and circular and very clever, but perhaps undercuts itself by telegraphing its twists too readily. Too some, this may invalidate its good work, but it ends up doing something far more interesting. Sadly, that thing is impossible to discuss without spoiling the experience for you, which would be the ultimate crime. But watch that final scene with Ethan Hawke very carefully. Listen to what he’s saying and what it ultimately means, because there’s something extremely transgressive about its message in a way that the film is simply not getting enough credit for.
And that’s the sort of thing The Infinite Man is aiming for. In this film, a control-freak scientist attempts to recreate a perfect anniversary date with his girlfriend, by literally taking them back to that time. It all goes incredibly wrong as these things always do, and he devotes the rest of his time to trying to win her back via a combination of self-improvement and, well, time travel.
As a story about personal relationships, it’s moderately successful. The girlfriend character seems to have very little agency, and some of the motivations of both her scientist boyfriend and her intrusive ex-boyfriend are baffling. But it still manages to be a great film, and that’s by winning at the elaborate plot contrivances. It doesn’t matter if some of the character work doesn’t really make sense, because the film never ceases to be entertaining, and never stops us guessing where it will go next. It’s intricately plotted and immensely satisfying.
Both Predestination and The Infinite Man are the films that people always complain that Australia never makes. Inventive, interesting, high-concept, funny and fascinating. Both are in cinemas now. Ensure your destiny is to go and see them.
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