Heinlein's time lines

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Published: Oct 02 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, October 2, 2015
     For me, one of the highlights of the mid-August World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane was the opportunity to see the 2014 feature film Predestination on a big screen. Made in Australia on a reported $7-million budget, the picture was, in the words of Variety reviewer Justin Chang, "fated for minor art house reception." But, he accurately noted in his strongly favourable review, "there will be plenty of cultists willing to indulge its heady and rarefied approach."

    Among those "cultists" were the members of the Long Beach, California-based Heinlein Society, who sponsored the Sasquan screening and are championing it for a Hugo Award at the 2016 MidAmericaCon II in Kansas City. Given the vapidity of so much currently being passed off as science fiction in cinemas, the picture is a genuine contender.

    Its makers are a pair of Australian twin brothers named Michael and Peter Spierig. They co-directed and adapted the screenplay from a 1959 short story by Robert Heinlein called ' — All You Zombies — '. Interestingly, the pair had made their directorial debut with a 2003 zombie comedy called Undead. They realized from the beginning that Heinlein's title had to go.

    A time-travel tale, it had been written a decade before a 1968 cult film called Night of the Living Dead forever changed the meaning of the word "zombie" in the popular culture. For Heinlein it was just a colourful metaphor, a cry of despair from a character facing the fact that his life has been series of encounters with soulless others. (Canadians of a certain age will recognize it as a slighting reference to army conscripts assigned to home defence duties during the Second World War.)

    Predestination is the story of a man recruited by a government agency called the Temporal Agency to "correct wrongdoings" in the past. It starts pretty much in the middle and unfolds in all directions simultaneously, a tale of breathtakingly unintended consequences.

    The potential paradoxes involved in the idea of time travel fascinated Heinlein, and he pushed them to the absolute limit. At one point in the film, we hear the 1947 novelty song I'm My Own Grandpa playing in the background. Think of it as the Spierig brothers' way of inserting a comedic clue to their movie's direction.

    Their "temporal agent" is played by Ethan Hawke, whose character bounces around in time interacting with a lovely, luckless orphan named Jane (Sarah Snook, a young actress who won Australia's equivalent of the Oscar for her performance). Can you guess where Heinlein is going with this?

    In a January 6, 2015 interview with Melissa Howard, Ethan Hawke said "We had this joke on set that the ad line for the movie should be ‘Predestination — go fuck yourself!’" Although Hollywood's Sony Pictures was not interested in giving the picture more than a limited theatrical release, they made it available earlier this year on DVD. It's worth seeking out.

    Today (October 2), we're off to VCON 40, Vancouver's own science-fiction convention, where I'll be chatting with old friends about such things as finding water on Mars, director Ridley Scott's remarkable luck at releasing a movie called The Martian in the same week, and time travel. For those of you who can't be there, the 10 most recent additions to the Reeling Back archive are:

TIME TRAVELLER'S FILM QUIZ — Noting that VCON 40's theme is "Time Travel," Reeling Back invites site visitors to test their knowledge of movies in which dates are destinations. (Posted October 2)

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES III: THE TURTLES ARE BACK . . . IN TIME — Canadian actor-turned-director Stuart Gillard attempted to save the failing film franchise in 1993 by sending his Heroes in the Half Shell to medieval Japan. An inspired change of direction, it failed to find favour with the fans. (Posted October 2)

TIMECOP — Martial arts action star Jean-Claude Van Damme had the title role in director Peter Hyams's 1994 adaptation of the Dark Horse comic book about a lawman charged with enforcing the rules against messing with the past. (Posted October 2)

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED — Looking for a hit after a string of box-office failures, director Francis Ford Coppola tried something completely different. Actress Kathleen Turner gave him a hit (and won herself an Oscar nomination in the process) with this 1986 science-fiction comedy. (Posted October 2)

JOHN SAYLES (interview) — On the road to promote the 1981 opening of his directorial debut feature, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, the independent filmmaker sat down with me to discuss the challenges involved in working outside of Hollywood's studio system. (Posted September 28)    

RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN — The 1979 film that inspired a cycle of Hollywood "reunion" films, independent director John Sayles's debut feature was a wise and witty look at the boomer generation reassesing its possibilities. (Posted September 28)

MONSIGNOR — Popularizing a negative image of the Roman Catholic church, director Frank Perry's 1982 potboiler starred Christopher Reeve as an erring priest and Geneviève Bujold as his paramour, a stripping nun. (Posted September 25)

THE BOY WHO COULD FLY — Filmed in Vancouver, director Nick Castle's 1986 feature offered a delicate balance between realism and fantasy. Teen actors Jay Underwood and Lucy Deakins brought life to this examination of the "little magic" of belief. (Posted September 21)

AN AMERICAN TAIL — Director Don Bluth joined with producer Steven Speilberg to challenge Walt Disney Productions in the cartoon feature market with this 1986 animated musical, the story of a family of Russian mice who immigrate to the New World in search of a better life. (Posted September 14)

DON BLUTH (interview) — In an interview conducted during his 1982 visit to Vancouver for its International Film Festival for Children and Young People, animation director Bluth discussed quitting his job at Walt Disney Productions on September 13, 1979, his own 42nd birthday. (Posted September 13)