There seem to be two Ethan Hawkes working in the movies these days, operating in parallel universes. They look the same and sound the same but their choice in movies couldn't be more wildly different. There's the Ethan Hawke, whose warm, naturalistic performances in things like "Boyhood," are amongst the best in the business, profoundly moving and deeply identifiable. Then there's the Ethan Hawke who makes things like the horror romp "Sinister," where his defining character trait is his oversized cable-knit sweater that he wears in every scene. Last year might have reached a "Back to the Future, Part II" paradox, with Hawke starring in both one of the year's best movies ("Before Midnight") and one of the worst ("Getaway"). So it makes sense that he would sign on to "Predestination," a twisty time travel adventure that deals in alternate timelines and parallel dimensions. The question is: which Hawke showed up for this one?
The movie opens with a fairly engaging set piece: a man in a spiffy hat is walking down a long, marbled hallway. He disappears into a boiler room and opens up some kind of futuristic suitcase. Uncovering a large bomb, this man, whose face is obscured, is soon fired upon by another man, looking to ensure the bomb's detonation. (This man's face is obscured too—if you've seen any time travel movie in your life, you probably know what's going on.) The man in the hat is unsuccessful in totally detonating the bomb, and his face is engulfed in flames. The other man (the one with the gun) presumably gets away. Burn-face is spirited away by his other crazy briefcase.
When the burned man returns to the headquarters of the mysterious agency he's working for (this might be in the future, but it's is never really made clear), they tell him that his face will be almost completely unrecognizable but that he will look pretty much like middle-aged Ethan Hawke, which isn't necessarily a terrible thing. Through gravelly voice over, Hawke lets us know that he works for an agency that can affect history through time travel and that he's currently working on stopping the Fizzle Bomber, a terrorist responsible for killing over ten thousand people in New York in the mid-seventies. There are certainly gifts, he explains, that make him uniquely suited for the demanding physical and psychological effects of time travel (even though he seems to be experiencing some kind of psychological break at the beginning of the movie). "You could say I was born with it," he voice-overs.
From there, the movie shifts to the early seventies. Hawke is playing the role of a Manhattan bartender. He gets to talking to a young stranger who definitely seems off. It's unclear if this man is supposed to be the Fizzle Bomber or if this is just some kind of random aside, but his importance is made clear when he begins a long, rambling explanation of how he got to Manhattan and into writing a sort of self-help column for women. To paraphrase Austin Powers—that man is a woman, man! The story of how she went from an apple-cheeked young woman (played by Sarah Snook) to the grizzled pulp magazine writer standing before Ethan Hawke in the seventies is explained, in excruciating detail, for what seems like the next 30 minutes of the movie.
In some ways, this section of the movie is uniquely engaging. There's the transgender element of the story, which doesn't come in until quite late and when the audience's patience is at its thinnest, but should be commended for being attempted at all. Then there's this other element, laid on top of that, about a secret society that is looking to send young women into outer space. It gives the section of the movie the minimum amount of sizzle required to actually sit through it (although this was the part of the movie when we noticed several of our fellow SXSW-ers nodding off). Hawke's role is mostly to watch her tell the story, as it intermittently cuts back to the bar and him asking her arbitrary questions or making some face that says "wow, I'm astonished."
To think that this is really the central narrative thrust of a movie that claims to be about the repercussions, both personal and historical, of time travel, and about a man on the brink of collapse, chasing down one last criminal, is just flabbergasting. But it's true. There are broken hearts and unrequited loves and stolen babies and a mystery at an orphanage... (No, really). This could have been compelling, if the filmmakers (Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig) were more articulate storytellers. But they aren't, so it's just clunky and bizarre. By the time that the "hard sci-fi" elements of doppelgängers and parallel universes finally crop up again, it's hard to get engaged. Not only has the story of Snook's transgender reconfiguration taken over the narrative almost entirely (and left us quite bored), but it feels unearned and too elaborate to be shoved into the movie so late.
Hawke too, you can tell, is bored in the role and probably did it as a favor to the Spierig brothers, who directed him in the sort-of cool retro future vampire movie "Daybreakers." His face is an expressive one, and the way that he's aged certainly lends itself to a story about the effects of time and the toll it can take on the human experience. Linklater knows this, since he cast him in the "Before…" movies and "Boyhood," both of which are obsessed with the notion of time, both as it's presented by cinema and enacted in real life. But there aren't such heady concerns in "Predestination." There's a lot of empty commitment to the movie looking cool and some dorm room-worthy references to paradoxes and ouroboros. "So I'm just the snake that eats its own tail?" Hawke asks his shadowy superior (played, thanklessly, by Noah Taylor). Yes, Ethan, you are.