Film and drama

Screen Themes: Predestination vs 12 Monkeys

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It’s time to suspend your disbelief, as entertainment editor John Turnbull takes a look at a pair of time travel films, the Australian made Predestination and the Terry Gilliam classic Twelve Monkeys.

From the days of HG Wells The Time Machine, time travel has been one of science fiction’s favourite subjects. From Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, to Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, to Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, time travel has been used to tell stories of heroism, humour and horror.

Predestination (2014) — directed by the Spierig Brothers

Australian writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig made their first movie back in 2003, the criminally underseen zombie comedy Undead. This was followed up in 2009 with the vampire drama Daybreakers, set in a dystopian future where vampires are the dominant species and are running out of humans on which to feed. Daybreakers starred Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke, who returns to the fold in the recently released Predestination.

Based on the Robert A. Heinlein short story All You Zombies, Predestination is the tale of an unnamed ‘temporal agent’ who travels through time to stop catastrophic crimes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. Hawke plays this temporal agent, travelling back to the early 1970s to stop a criminal known as The Fizzle Bomber, who killed over 11,000 people in a bombing in 1975.

Taking a job as a bartender, the agent meets a mysterious man named John, who promises to tell him the most amazing story he had ever heard for the price of a bottle of whiskey. The story that he tells is one of ambition, heartbreak and gender dysmorphia, linked inextricably with the life of the temporal agent himself.

Also starring Noah Taylor and star on the rise Sarah Snook, Predestination is a science fiction tale that focuses on the human elements of time travel, rather than trying to dazzle viewers with special effects. Snook is spectacular as Jane, an abandoned child who spends her whole life feeling different and alienated from those around her, only to discover that there are some things that she cannot change, no matter how hard she tries.

To reveal more about Predestination risks spoiling the multiple twists and turns contained within the story, but suffice to say that this is a film that will stick with you and have you thinking about it long after the credits roll. 

In the likely event that you missed Predestination at the cinemas, you can thank Australian distributor Pinnacle Films, who unfortunately had neither the promotional budget or the marketing nous to expose the movie to a broad audience. This is an ongoing problem for Australian films, particularly those that fall outside the comedy or family genres.

Twelve Monkeys (1995) — directed by Terry Gilliam

Based on the 1962 short film La Jetee, Twelve Monkeys tells the story of a convicted criminal sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population. Directed by former Python Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeline Stowe, Twelve Monkeys is a decidedly weird movie that gives new meaning to the word dystopian.

Bruce Willis plays time traveller Cole, accidentally sent back six years earlier than planned and locked up in a mental institution. It is here that he meets Brad Pitt’s Jeffery Goines, a decidedly unhinged individual with a connection to the mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys, the group blamed for the initial outbreak of the virus.

While Willis is the lead in this movie, it is Pitt who truly shines, casting off any of the pretty boy pretence that carried him through earlier films like Thelma & Louise and A River Runs Through It. Much like his performance in Se7en the year before and Fight Club a couple of years later, Pitt displays a range and versatility that is beyond many actors of his generation, showing that with the right director he has the potential to be an amazing performer.   

Responsible for those weird animated sections from Monty Python movies and the Flying Circus, director Terry Gilliam has long been known for his artistic sensibilities. This trend holds true in Twelve Monkeys, with many shots framed like a painting, lighting and composition being just as important as what the actors are doing in the foreground.

Fans of the original film should be aware that SyFy have recently launched an ongoing series based on Twelve Monkeys, starring Aaron Stanford who played Pyro in X-Men 2 and The Last Stand. Somewhat typically, this series does not currently appear to be available to Australian viewers, which means you just have to wait, because piracy is bad, mmkay?

The Verdict

If you’re looking for a movie that will make you think, I highly recommend Predestination. While it starts out looking like a procedural thriller, it rapidly becomes something else and, if you can handle the change of pace, the reward is more than worth the effort. Newcomer Sarah Snook is incredible, standing out as an actress to watch as her career develops.

In terms of fulfilling expectations, Twelve Monkeys may be the better film, because you get just what you expect from a Terry Gilliam film — beautifully shot weirdness, starring fine actors giving some of the best performances of their lives.

Some reviewers have complained that the plot twists in Predestination are predictable, but I would argue that the reason for this is that they’re based on a story written in the 1950s and have been used in a number of films since then. This so-called predictability didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie and may even be intentional considering the title is a core theme — some things cannot be changed, no matter how hard you try.

As is the case with many time travel films, both Predestination and Twelve Monkeys reward multiple viewings. Check them out and let me know what you think!

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