This Australian production by the brothers Michael and Peter Spierig is an extremely faithful adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s solipsistic time travel classic, “–All You Zombies–“. Heinlein’s 1959 story, which I’ve read only once, is one of the best attempts at exploring the paradoxes inherent in the very idea of time travel, and to his credit he takes it into sexually taboo areas that still feel very daring. Heinlein’s flouting of sexual taboos in his late career fiction often feels merely perverted (in a dirty old man way), but here he uses it to drive home his high concept. The Spierig Brothers don’t duck the taboo, and if anything they ground it more in human feeling, for better or worse.
The basic scenario is a standard science fiction trope: There is a Temporal Agency that attempts to prevent crimes. I believe the implication is that it’s only time crimes they care about, and the specific crime that the agent played by Ethan Hawke is after is trying to solve involves a terrorist who plants bombs at various points along the timeline. This is the main addition to Heinlein’s story, from what I can tell, and it’s probably a commercial consideration that allows the film to be marketed as a thriller. In any event, in the course of his investigation Hawke’s character takes up a job as a bartender in the ’70s, and he thereby meets a gender ambiguous customer who turns out be a man with an interesting story.
As I perhaps implied above, the terrorist-thriller aspect of the plot seems a little extraneous to the main purpose of the story, which is still the exploration of paradoxical causation. Since I don’t remember Heinlein’s story very well, I’m not completely sure that the film fleshes out the main characters as much as I think it does, but for sure it has an updated take on issues of gender and sexuality that were still relatively new areas for popular culture to explore in 1959. It’s hard to get into the nuts and bolts of the story without spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that. Along with the faithfulness to Heinlein’s story, the other thing about this film that struck me as catnip to an old school science fiction fan like myself is the portrayal of the gender-ambiguous man as an extremely bright social misfit — the very prototype of a fan. To that extent, the film might be an act of fan service, so caveat emptor if you don’t identify with such characters.
It’s a handsome production that always looks interesting, and Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook deliver very good performances. As a respectful, intelligent adaptation, it’s hard to find much wrong with the thing, although as with all time travel stories it probably doesn’t hold together if you think about it too much. Like Heinlein’s story (and using his exact language at key points) it stills strikes a nerve of solipsistic melancholy that I found irresistible.