Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which opens Friday in Chicago, continues a run of ambitious recent films—Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip—that try to convey in distinctly cinematic fashion what it’s like to read a distinctly literary author. All three films honor their source material by acknowledging that books and movies do different things. Rather than minimize the most idiosyncratic (really, the most novelistic) qualities of Thomas Pynchon, Boris Vian, and Philip Roth, these movies develop novel formal devices (pun intended) in an effort to preserve those qualities. They show that any author can be brought to life if the right filmmakers tackle his or her work.
I thought of these films again while previewing Predestination, an Australian sci-fi item also opening Friday. The film may be based on a short story by Robert Heinlein, but in plotting and tone it reminded me of certain comics written by Alan Moore, namely Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea. The first two of those titles have been made into movies (along with In Hell and V for Vendetta), but the adaptations failed to capture the literariness that makes Moore’s work unique. Predestination approaches pulpy sci-fi in a manner I associate with Moore—self-reflexive and steeped in older literature.
The Extraordinary Gentlemen series, which takes place in an alternate universe where such fictional characters as Dr. Jekyll and Captain Nemo interacted in real life, is the most blatant of Moore’s metafictional conceits. But many of his works play on the irreconcilable separation between life and fantasy. Watchmen, his most famous work, depicts a group of superheroes too neurotic or disturbed to function as normal people. Moore continues in the modernist tradition of Luigi Pirandello and Samuel Beckett, presenting the world of fiction as a form of confinement. The characters’ struggle to define themselves within a closed system can seem poignant: Who doesn’t struggle, at some point, to define him- or herself? It can also be unsettling: What if the social conventions we follow in life are as unnatural as the ones in escapist entertainment?
Predestination raises similar questions, and like much of Moore’s work, it reminds us why fiction provides such a valuable forum for addressing them. The film emphasizes its nature as fiction from the very start. The main characters, identified as “The Unmarried Woman” (Sarah Snook) and “The Barkeep” (Ethan Hawke), are both writers. When the movie opens, the two meet at a dive bar in 1970 New York, sense a connection, and begin trading stories. The story takes place, we soon realize, in an alternate universe where space travel became commonplace by the 1960s and New York is now being menaced by an evil genius who calls himself the Fizzle Bomber. Twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who wrote and directed, pile one outlandish sci-fi premise on top of another, so that in little time we’re convinced that anything might happen. When Hawke’s character announces suddenly that he can travel through time, the revelation doesn’t seem all that surprising.
Though somewhat sparse in its design, the movie looks like a comic book. The slightly exaggerated decors suggest a dream version of midcentury America compiled from representations in popular culture—film noir, DC Comics, the paintings of Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper—and some of the slanted camera angles recall comic book panels. Yet the Spierigs defamiliarize the comic book atmosphere by introducing qualities we associate with serious literature. Both main characters emerge as three-dimensional even though they couldn’t possibly exist in real life. Hawke and Snook play their roles naturalistically, focusing on the characters’ vulnerability within the convoluted sci-fi plot. Over the course of the story, the Unmarried Mother undergoes a physical transformation that might remind you of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (one of Moore’s points of reference in the Extraordinary Gentleman series, incidentally), and like that novel, Predestination is particularly obsessed with gender politics.
The second half of the movie finds the heroes traveling through the past in an effort to alter the course of their lives. This fantastic premise speaks to the common desire to rewrite our lives as though they were stories. It also alerts us to one of fiction’s most enduring allures, a quality that unites Virginia Woolf and Robert Heinlein.