‘Predestination’, Explained

It all started in the year 1895, when H.G. Wells’ carefully woven story around Time Travel encapsulated the combined geniuses of the likes of Newton and Einstein in the form of an art, a novel. ‘The Time Machine’ is a continued, timeless splendor that has given birth to the cult behind Time Travel. The concepts of Time Travel, Temporal Loops, Discontinuities and Paradoxes have, till now, caught the fancy of physicists, mathematicians, story tellers and film makers for close to a century now, and the reason behind it doesn’t take a lot of head scratching. In all its being constant and unchangeable, time is the one thing the trivial man wishes he could change, or even affect indirectly. Give it a thought, who hasn’t thought of going back in time and fixing a few wrongs, or traveling to the future to catch a short glimpse of it? Yet, a lot of these stories end digressing upon the inevitability of it all, how it is all predestined, and man is but a tool in the works. That inevitability is what has piqued man’s interest in time as a physical object, measurable yet unfathomable in its extent, constantly changing yet repeating itself.

‘Predestination’ is a film that toys with a lot of these ideas and experiments with a narrative that boldly emphasizes on the pun, ‘time travel never gets old’. Adapted from the 1959 short novel by Robert Heinlein, the film bears impeding resemblance to Spielberg’s Minority Report, based on a 1956 Philip Dick story. It’s venerably interesting to note how both movies drew their timelines from the 1960’s.

Characters and Jargons

It is safe to assume that if you clicked the link, you have watched the film. So, without further ado, before getting on to dabble with complexities including recurring time loops and voids, let’s get to know our main players, and how I’ll be referring to them in the explanation, per my understanding.

Baby Jane: The orphan with an unknown ancestry that is dropped off at the door of an orphanage in the beginning of the film.
Jane: The girl and woman baby Jane grows up into, detached and estranged from her peers, due to her being seemingly ‘different’ from them.
John: The guy she is transformed Into following Jane’s delivery and subsequent sex change operation.
The Barkeep/John Doe: The bartender at the bar John goes to drink, and is interested in listening to John’s story.
The Fizzle Bomber: A notorious bomber on the loose, responsible for the loss of lives in the thousands.

This is until only some time passes in the film. All of them assume dual roles to play in the film’s complex narrative as it develops further, becoming paradoxes in themselves in the time loops that form. This will be better understood when we establish what time loops actually are, and the ones this film employs.

Baby Jane: The baby that Jane from the first part of the narrative gives birth to, who is kidnapped days later and taken away from her, later dropped at the orphanage.
Jane: She is surprisingly the only main character whose story doesn’t completely change form and shape post major revelations.
John: The guy Jane falls in love with and has baby Jane with. Essentially the same guy who travels to the past with the Barkeep in the hope of killing the man who left Jane, and then becomes a temporal agent, abandoning Jane.
The Barkeep/John Doe: The time travelling secret agent from the temporal bureau hell bent on stopping the fizzle bomber. The same guy responsible for kidnapping baby Jane, taking her back in time and dropping her off at the orphanage. Also, the guy who takes John back in time to kill Jane’s lover (himself).
The Fizzle Bomber: The future self of agent John Doe, driven to his present condition as a result of psychosis from excessive time travel. But, more on this later.

If you still haven’t understood, I’m going to say it without twisting any words: The five of them were the same person. Read on to find how an insanely impossible idea like that was made possible.

The Plot, Linearly Deconstructed

Image result for predestination case

Before attempting to understand the plot any further, it would do us a world of good if we understood the world that this story is set in, and then proceed to deconstruct the plot linearly. Time travel has been invented in the year 1981, allowing travelling between 53 years into the future or the past. In the wake of said discovery, an organisation known as the Temporal Bureau exists and functions in the guise of SpaceCorp. The Temporal Bureau seems to regulate time travel and while its main agenda or purpose of existence seems unclear, it is hinted that the purpose of the Temporal Bureau was all the more reinforced by the bombings masterminded by the Fizzle Bomber. The organisation sends agents across into the future or the past, to (again possibly) stop crimes from ever happening in the first place.

The first event in the chronology of the film is John Doe from the future dropping off Baby Jane at the Cleveland orphanage, where she grows up to be an exceptional student and learner, although alienated from the rest of the girls there due to her indifference and being ‘different’ from her peers. She eventually enrols herself for an R&R program with SpaceCorp, where after months of training, she is rejected due to a report that states her condition of having both fully developed male and female genital organs, which is unknown to her at the time. Her performance and unfair dismissal catch the eye of one Mr. Robertson.

Jane falls in love with a man, whose name and appearance is initially unknown. The man later abandons Jane, and Jane is left to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, and the removal of her female reproductive organs due to some complications in her Caesarean delivery. Her baby (also named Jane) is fatefully kidnapped one day from the hospital, and Jane is now left to live as a man, John, following eleven months of surgery.

John continues living his life as a cynical, bitter man, now sexually capable as well, publishing confession articles under the pen name ‘The Unmarried Mother’, owing to his history. At a New York bar, he encounters the barkeep (agent John Doe) and indulges him with his story and ordeal. The Barkeep then offers John an opportunity to travel back in time and kill the man (Jane’s lover) who destroyed his life, also ensuring him that he would get away with it. In return, John promises that he’ll replace the Barkeep in the bureau as a temporal agent. Back in time in 1963, to the day Jane meets her lover, John realises he himself IS that man he sought to kill, Jane’s lover, and the father of baby Jane, as the three of them are revealed to be essentially the same person. John abandons Jane to become a temporal agent, jumping forward 22 years now, and the cycle repeats when Jane literally becomes John following her delivery and sex-change operation.

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This is a predestination paradox, an infinitely repeating loop (and the first complete one in the film), and Jane/John/Baby Jane is the element that drives the loop. Think of it as a self-sustaining, continuously occurring chemical reaction, with John Doe/The Barkeep acting as a catalyst. The paradox here then would be that the reaction occurs, changes form, deconstructs and reconstructs in the same time frame, every time, self sustains and repeats.

The next event in the timeline is a crucial one, marking the convergence of three simultaneous timelines in 1975 wherein the same individual from the past, present and future encounter each other: The Fizzle Bomber (present), John Doe (travelling forward from the past), and the now temporal agent John (travelling backward from the future). John from the future tries disarming the bomb placed by the fizzle bomber by placing it in a containment device, but his attempt is thwarted by an unknown assailant (most probably the fizzle bomber himself), who until now was involved in a duel with John Doe from the past, easily overpowering him.

In the events that ensue, agent John from the future is unable to contain the bomb which explodes, burning his face and greatly damaging his body, while the Fizzle bomber escapes. It is here when John Doe from the past realises who the burnt agent is, and passes him his time travelling case to allow him to escape.

Image result for predestination burnt face

Agent John from the future jumps forward in time to return to the bureau, where he undergoes surgery and facial reconstruction, significantly altering his appearance, which is finally similar to the barkeep/ John Doe. After recovering, he is briefed about his final mission, which is becoming the barkeep, travelling back in time to that night in 1970 when he met John in the bar. This is the second predestination paradox in the film, another self-repeating, complete loop. The fizzle bomber continues operating in the same timeline while the actual agent John Doe who had travelled from the past to 1975, returns back to 1963 and convinces John to abandon Jane, following which the two travel to 1985 where John replaces the barkeep as a temporal agent, and the barkeep/agent John Doe retire to New York in 1975.

At this point of time in the film, the third predestination paradox, or the third time loop comes into play. The retired agent John Doe is now in 1975, New York, close to a big attack by the fizzle bomber, a major one that the agent wishes/wished to stop. However, his time travelling kit fails to decommission per protocol, and he follows a few leads related to an electronic display and a few sightings of the suspect that lead him to the fizzle bomber. The agent/barkeep is startled to find that the bomber is his own future self, demented and psychotic due to exceeding the time jump limit continuously, and ignoring the disorientations after each jump.

The fizzle bomber is convinced that what he does saves more lives than the number of innocent civilians he ends up killing. He even shows John some newspaper clippings from the future of major events, wherein according to his twisted logic, major tragedies were averted because he bombed those places first and killed a lesser number of people. He tells John Doe that “Robertson set the whole thing up”, and tries to talk him into not killing him and co-existing with him, lest the agent become the fizzle bomber in the future, as he did himself, repeating the cycle. The agent is dissuaded, and shoots the bomber multiple times, vowing he’ll never become like him, killing his own future self.

Needless to say, he does become the future fizzle bomber as the psychosis and dementia set in. This also corroborates the lack of any evidence whatsoever against the fizzle bomber and the extended number of years of activity for an attacker of this sort. Makes sense if this assailant is a time traveller born of his own and whose current appearance has no records of existence, right?

In conclusion to the plot, it is now clear that the five distinct individuals in the plot are essentially the same person, tied together by three simultaneously occurring time loops.

Theories

Let me try to theorise this, in terms of physics, some mathematics and some basic geometry. One can argue that the three loops operate independently of each other in time, and yet when they converge, a major shifting of events takes place. The convergences are bridges to the other loop, all linearly moving, yet continuously repeating. Before I confuse things for you further, consider this sequence of events as three intersecting circles, like in a Venn diagram, with one convergence each between two loops adding up to three in total, and only one between all three of them.

The circle formed by joining the three points of intersection between the individual circles is the path wherein the film takes place, the path traversed by Baby Jane/Jane/John/The Barkeep/The Fizzle Bomber. The individual happenings as to what happened to them and their backstory is what constitutes the spaces in and between these circles. The agent can then be considered, quite simply, as someone continuously traversing all three loops simultaneously as different versions of himself in different timelines, and the transformations take place at every ‘convergence’.

This further emphasises the theory advocated by the equally fascinating German Netflix original ‘Dark’ (2016), about the cyclical nature of the past, present and future, as opposed to the widely normalised and accepted linear nature. Fortunately enough, any such theory is only mandated, or is even plausible enough only if its existence is accompanied by an aberration in time, a fracture, or an anomaly. That could be a cave, a time traveling device, or quite directly, a wormhole, like in Nolan’s space drama ‘Interstellar’.

Time Travel Flow

To better understand and visualize the time travel in the film, here’s a little schematic diagram.

time travel predestination

‘Predestination’

Let’s begin this section with a rather interesting piece of dialogue from the film.

“Our first mission is just as important as our last. Each one getting us closer to our final destination. See, you’ll find out that time has a very different meaning to people like us. Time catches up with us all even those in our line of work. I guess you could say we’re gifted. God, Jesus, that sounds arrogant saying it out loud. All right, I’ll put it a better way. I guess you could say, we were born into this job.”

The set of dialogues here is part of a set of instructions the barkeep keeps aside for his past self, John, for when he takes up the mantle as the time travelling agent, to better accustom him to his role. Here is another one in a similar vein, albeit from the end of the film, where the big reveal takes place.

“Here you are at the beginning of your new life. It can be overwhelming knowing the future you’re about to create. Knowing the purpose of that life. You know who she is. And you understand who you are. And now maybe you’re ready to understand who I am. You see, I love her too.”

It may sound almost biblical, but the film’s title, ‘Predestination’ then refers to this timeless agent, existing in time as a detached entity, and his quest to push the ‘paradox that can’t be paradoctored’ to its limit, which he fulfils by travelling back and forth in time, establishing links and connections that tie back to him on ‘convergences’ explained previously. This is what John Doe meant when he described ‘purpose’ in life, and that they were ‘born into the job’. They (John/Jane/Barkeep/Fizzle Bomber), being the same person, had an essential mission that was more than just stopping an unstoppable assailant. It was to introduce an entity within the confines of time, yet free from them, existing independently and mobile between the past, present and future.

The whole series of predestination paradoxes was, de facto, carefully engineered by Robertson to create the ‘perfect time-travelling agent’. An agent with no actual ties in time, whatsoever, an agent that could disappear in time if needed, with no ancestry, roots, records or relatives to account for. An agent, quite literally responsible for his own birth and death, his own creation and dissociation.

The snake that eats its own tail, forever and ever?

With all explanations offered and plot twists accounted for, we find ourselves wondering at the age old anachronism, the pining question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? What is the cause, and what is the effect? Scientists and researchers may have a definite answer now, philosophers still don’t. The film dabbles with these questions, with that philosophy, and more. It questions what true ‘purpose’ is, at the same time contemplating if the future is truly set, if the past is truly unchangeable, if the present is as ‘predestined’ as it is made out to be, and whether what happens actually does in that exact manner for a reason.

All of them, daunting questions, and worse still, with no simple answers. While I certainly cannot say that the film answers them all, it does get you thinking, as I said earlier. How many recent films can you think of that made you think about all these questions, while also ensuring that the sci-fi nerd in you had a field day deciphering the tiny details that populate this already heavy film? Yet still, ‘Predestination’ does it close to four years since it first released.

Final Word

‘Predestination’ may not end up satisfactorily answering a lot of the questions it raises, but it is bound to raise a brow or two with the flawed genius behind the big idea of it all. For those who like to think and prefer their films with a side of thought-fodder, this film is a haven among the woods. For those who don’t, it will either blow up your brains, or you will when it ends.

Read More in Explainers: Primer | Upstream Color | 2001: A Space Odyssey

1 comment

  • Just an observation: the “diffusing bomb” scene is in 1970, not 1975. They say at a moment that this wasn’t the big bomb, but a little one preceeding it.
    Now, whatever the interpretation, we must take into account the obvious (and insistent) resemblance between Robertson and Bartender, so Mr Robertson must also be integrated in the chain. Thus, after re-re-watching the movie, my final take is as follows:
    1945 – Jane is born, 1963 a stranger falls in love with her, gets her pregnant and leaves, baby stolen. She becomes John, frustrated, full of hate and looking for a scope. Just like a regular terrorist! So he becomes Fizzle Bomber, the catastrophe takes place. He won’t be caught and, in the meantime, maybe after this futile revenge consumes his hate, continues the “Unmarried mother” writing, gets married with Alice and his life goes on. Until 1981 – time travel is invented, and 1985 – the Temporal Agency is set, so there you are: a unique chance for him to go back in time in the pursuit of the one who destroyed his life. Therefore he joins the Agency, as Mr Robertson. Here I just can improvise: the aspect of Mr Robertson at the age of 40 is predestined to be the same, irrespective of having undergone a face surgery in the meantime or not.
    Anyway, the missions are very strict under the Agency, so he won’t be allowed to travel to 1963 for this personal goal. Therefore, he will use an intermediary: his younger self John. Technically, this is the correct choice: His mission is to stop the Bomber, he “has reasons to suppose the Bomber is somewhere there near the Bar”; in fact his intention is to shift his younger self’s killing intentions from 10,000 innocents to the man who is to blame. So Robertson comes from 1985 to 1970 to recruit John. Robertson and John go together back in 1963, John as a revenger and Robertson as an avid watcher. Thus, John is caught in the “lover’s” paradox. Remember the idea of the paradox, which is: if I go back in time to a moment when I know a friend of mine is killed by a car, the result would be that, instead of saving him, it will be me who becomes his killer – just the same case!
    During the couple of months spent together by John and Jane, Robertson understands the situation and is smart enough to steal the 1964 baby and put her back in 1945. John is broken-hearted but accepts to join the Agency. Both of them travel back from 1970 to 1985 and John serves heroically for seven years. In 1992 he is sent back in 1970 to stop the Bomber, gets burned and is saved by Robertson (or possibly another agent- they won’t let any of them behind). His face is repaired, now (1992) he becomes Bartender. He is assigned a last mission, to stop the Bomber. This is the second iteration (which can go for infinity), with Bartender (instead of Robertson) coming back from 1992 to the same 1970 bar. He meets John, makes him contact Jane and, in the meantime, steals the 1964 baby , put her back in 1945 AND (before returning to 1963 to embark John for 1985) takes his last chance to get the Bomber later in 1970. This is because now he knows his face was burned at that encounter and there was someone who saved him. Thus, he finds himself in this “diffusing scene” paradox (with all the three of them meeting at the same time). His teeth are punched, so he begins to lisp. All in all, in this scene, Bartender goes back from “post surgery 1992” to 1970, to save John from “pre-surgery 1992” . This is how the “diffusing scene paradox” can function on infinite iterations, in 1992: Bartender saves John and disappears (=retires). John takes Bartender’s face. Then he will go back in 1970 to recruit the next John and so on. [Remember how the “lovers” paradox iterated: every loop there is only one person which enters – as baby Jane-, and exits – as John]. Notice that the whole sequence goes, in “present”, only from 1985 to 1992, so no surprise Robertson’s face doesn’t grow much older.
    Now, the final encounter: Bartender retires to 1975 (predestined, he will choose this year probably infinitely). He gets Fizz Bomber and kills him (I would rather say Bomber was right when he said the chain could be broken only by NOT killing him). Thus, Robertson from the previous iteration is killed – no one would notice, as it is only 1975, ten years before the Agency is set. Bartender goes crazy, becomes obsessed with saving lives with the help with his not commissioned machine and eventually becoming Fizz Bomber. In the meantime, of course, he writes “Unmarried mother” confessions, gets married and so ten years pass. Until 1985, when the Agency is established, he already looks exactly like Robertson and here we go again all the story. Maybe the difference is that the second Robertson is no longer motivated by revenge, but by the continuous improvement of the agency. On the other hand, “We are Robertson” is a very important sentence! As well as Fizz’s request “You can love me again” or the final sentence of the movie “You were the best thing in my life”. These can explain the Jane/John/bartender/Fizz/Robertson’s urge to re-meet himself, so that’s why he always travels around the same period (March 1975) to detonate the bomb, knowing that he would be looked for and finally reached by himself at that time. Remember that all the threatening attacks before the big bomb were meticulously calculated as to affect very few people; after all he produces the big one only to be hunted and found.