“What have I just watched…?” pulsated in my head as the credits of “Predestination” ran across the laptop screen. I’ll be honest – the movie’s ending wasn’t clear even to me the first time. But when I figured out the plot twists and turns and time paradoxes, the bewilderment was replaced by admiration. I hope that my article will help you to understand the meaning of the movie “Predestination” and its ending.
What keeps you from making sense of “Time Patrol” the first time
I suppose you were confused by the same thing that confused me. It’s hard to believe that all the main characters in the film are the same person. There are four in total: Jane, John, the Time Agent (he spends most of his screen time behind the bar, so I’ll call him Bartender), and the bomber who is being hunted by the agent. All four are the same man at different ages, moving through time and repeatedly crossing paths with himself.
What makes it hard to understand is that actress Sarah Snook plays Jane and John, while Ethan Hawke plays the bartender and the bomber, and the actors are completely different from each other. You can consider it a miscalculation of the creators, but in my opinion, otherwise, it would not have been possible to keep the intrigue until the end.
In addition, it’s hard to wrap my head around the time paradoxes on which the plot is based. Let’s first deal with the sequence and interrelationship of events, and then I will explain how the time contradictions work in the film.
The sequence and interrelationship of events in the film
1970 – Time Agent John tries to stop the Bomber, but at the last moment, the explosives catch fire and burn the skin on John’s face. John seems to be doomed, but a stranger (later revealed to be the Bartender) suddenly appears and helps John get to the time machine.
1992 – John is transported to the future, to the Time Bureau. It turns out that he is a valuable employee of the Bureau. He has the critical mission of returning to the past to kill the Bomber and thus prevent the 1975 terrorist attack in New York that killed 11,000 people. But Bomber is elusive (which is not surprising since he is a former Time Agent).
The doctor reconstructs John’s face but warns him that the new face will not look like the one he is used to. From that point on, he acquires a new look and voice and becomes the man I call Bartender.
1970 – A Time Agent, disguised as the Bartender, meets John at a bar. John tells his story (which the Bartender knows, of course, but doesn’t show it and listens with interest). On the other hand, John has no idea that he is from the future. However, when the Bartender gives John a light, he notices that they have the same lighter. The Bartender offers John a trade: he will transport John to the past and reveal the man who ruined John/Jane’s life. The character can kill that man and go unpunished. In return, John pledges to try his hand at being a Time Agent. The Bartender, of course, does not tell John the whole truth about who really seduced Jane.
1963 – The characters travel back in time; the Bartender gives John a large sum of money that will help him get through a few months in New York without any problems. John goes to the college building in full confidence that he will meet Jane’s seducer and kill him. Instead, however, he encounters Jane and realizes that her seducer is himself from the future.
Knowing perfectly well that he will make Jane suffer, he still goes out with her anyway and begins dating her. In the meantime, he’s embezzling the money the Bartender gave him, and Jane thinks he’s wealthy. This goes on until John notices the Bartender following him in the park. John withdraws to talk to the Bartender, who convinces him to become a Time Agent. John leaves Jane and moves into the future with the Bartender.
1970 – The Bartender travels to 1970 to stop the Bomber, but loses him in a fight. When he wakes up, he finds John with a burnt face and helps him return to the future.
1964 – Jane gives birth to a child. The Bartender steals the girl and goes back in time with her.
1945 – The Bartender moves the little girl back in time and drops her off at an orphanage. Thus it becomes clear that Jane and John’s daughter is Jane herself. At the same time, the girl’s mother and father are the same person.
1985 – The year of the invention of the time machine and the founding of the Bureau of Time. The Bartender delivers John to the Bureau so that he can become a Time Agent.
1975 – The Bartender expresses his desire to retire exactly in 1975, shortly before the terrorist attack. His service is over, although he never accomplished his last mission. The first thing he does is try to deactivate his time machine, but he fails – the machine keeps running.
The bartender tracks down and finds the Bomber, in whom he recognizes himself from the future. From Bomber’s story, he realizes that he continued to use the time machine after he retired, and this led to serious mental problems. Bomber is now convinced that he will save other people’s lives with his terrorist attack, just as he did before in the Time Bureau. The Bomber tries to convince the Bartender that killing him is useless – it will only lead to the Bartender repeating his fate and becoming the Bomber himself.
The Bartender kills the Bomber. The ending remains open. There are two possible developments:
- the Bartender begins to use the time machine for his personal purposes, eventually repeating the Bomber’s fate, and the cycle closes. The whole story repeats over and over again ad infinitum.
- the Bartender does not repeat the Bomber’s actions (does not use the time machine, does not meet Alice), breaks the cycle, and ceases to exist. I’ll explain why Bartender ceases to exist if he doesn’t use it in the following sections.
Time Paradoxes in the movie
The Paradox of Predestination
The original title of the film is “Predestination”. The plot of the film is based on the predestination paradox of the same name. The paradox can be summed up as follows:
The events of the past cannot be changed. If a traveler from the future wants to prevent an event in the past, the predestination paradox will lead to the traveler himself contributing to (or directly participating in) that event.
Let’s say you went back in time to save your friend who had been hit by a car. You travel in time to that ill-fated intersection. The only problem is that the time machine sends you not to the side of the road, but directly behind the wheel of the car. You do not have time to understand what is what, and you hit a man. Congratulations, you’ve just killed the friend you were going to save. The same thing happens to the Time Agent. John tries to save Jane from the seducer but instead seduces her himself. The Bartender tries to stop the Bomber but instead takes his place himself.
There are many points in the film’s storyline where events could have taken a different direction if the character had changed his mind. John might not have spoken to Jane; the Bartender might have let the Bomber go. One must realize, however, that if the protagonist had made a different decision, he would have – how shall I put it gently? – annihilated. The Time Agent is forced to repeat the same sequence of actions in order to continue his existence within the causal loop.
The causal loop
The causal loop is another storytelling time paradox. The most simple and clear example of such a loop is given by Wikipedia: imagine that you are playing billiards and decide to move one of the balls back in time. The ball collides with itself and changes its own trajectory. Cause and effect seem to close in a circle – without the effect, the cause is impossible, which is why the paradox is called the cause-effect loop.
Back to the “Predestination”: If Jane hadn’t been found under the door of the orphanage in 1945, she wouldn’t have met John in 1963. Is that correct? Yes, but the opposite is also true: If Jane had not met John, she would not have been born and could not have been in the orphanage in 1945. Jane’s birth is both cause and effect of her affair with John.
The loop has no beginning and no end, so it is not possible to reconstruct the course of events before the start of the circle. However, Astronomy Trek offers an interesting version. Perhaps Jane was really born in 1945, grew up and became pregnant by another man in the original timeline. However, this is not necessarily true: she may have needed a sex change operation because of her health problems. This is what Robertson, who knew about Jane’s growth peculiarities, took advantage of. He used a time machine to place Jane/John in a causal loop and thus obtained the perfect Time Agent for his Bureau – with no past and no future, forever locked inside the circle.
Let’s kill Hitler paradox
Why was it necessary to create a causal loop? As an explanation, the authors of Astronomy Trek cite another time paradox – “let’s kill Hitler”.
Suppose we decided to go back in time and kill Hitler. Once this happened, the future changed, which means there is no reason in our time to go back in time and kill Hitler. To overcome this contradiction, a causal loop comes in handy. In this loop, we will place a man who agrees to become Hitler’s murderer. In order to solve this problem, he can move freely in time inside the loop. But, unlike people living in linear time, he will remember why he killed Hitler, even when the future changes.
Now replace Hitler with the Bomber and Hitler’s murderer with the Time Agent, and it becomes clear why the Time Bureau put the Agent in a causal loop.
But does Robertson indeed want to get rid of the Bomber? Let’s not forget that the Bomber is the Agent of Time; if we destroy one, we won’t have the other. Robertson uses the image of the Bomber as bait for the Agent – just as the Bartender entices John with the promise of finding Jane’s seducer.
Unless the Agent, once retired, continues to use the time machine, loses his mind, and becomes the Bomber – his existence within the causal loop will cease, and the Time Bureau will lose its most valuable employee. The Time Bureau is not after the Bomber; it uses him to maintain the integrity of the causal loop.
Although the relationship between the characters only becomes clear after the final plot twist, there are telling clue details scattered throughout the film. I doubt that you can guess the denouement from them; they work more to create an atmosphere. Since we are talking about the meaning of “Predestination,” we should also list these subtle hints:
- At the bar, a song plays with the lyrics, “I’m my own grandpa. my own grandpa”), and the bartender picks it up.
- The bartender asks John, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” John answers: “The rooster.” First, this is another example of a causal loop; second, a hint of the sex-change operation that John went through.
- The bartender mentions “the snake that devours its tail.” This a reference to Ouroboros, the ancient Greek mythological image of infinity.