It’s impossible to talk about Predestination without giving away important surprises. If you’ve read the Robert E. Heinlein story All You Zombies, although I gather the story is a bit different, you more or less know how the story goes and can proceed to the plot summary. If not, go watch the movie! It’s a very clever retro-futuristic sci-fi thriller, and has nothing to do with actual zombies.
See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Predestination
A man in a trench coat and hat is going into a building carrying two cases. Voiceover says: “What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life. If I could guarantee that you’d get away with it, would you kill him?”
Our hero is working for a mysterious agency. He tries to defuse a bomb, but is injured and wakes covered in gauze in some kind of facility. As he comes to terms with his new face, he is given an assignment that is to be his last mission. It’s part of an ongoing investigation attempting to stop a series of deadly bombings by the “fizzle bomber”.
Catalyst / Debate / Break into Two
After swearing to follow the agency’s rules regarding the mission, the agent takes a job as a bartender and convinces a morose young man in the bar to reveal his shocking life story by betting him a presumably expensive bottle of whisky against twenty dollars.
B Story / Fun and Games
The young man, John Doe, explains that he grew up as a tough, nerdy, lonely female orphan named Jane Doe, but that, despite her dreams of space travel and her physical and mental qualifications, for some poorly understood reason she was rejected as a potential wife for an astronaut posted off Earth. While working as an underpaid housekeeper, she was offered a job with the mysterious agency, but then became pregnant after being seduced by a mysterious stranger she bumped into at night school.
(There’s a lot of mystery the first time you watch this movie. When you watch it again, you’re not as surprised by the plot, but you’re surprised how every line of dialog carries an ironic extra meaning you didn’t realize it had.)
After she gave birth, her child was stolen from the hospital, and doctors explained that apparently she’d had a full set of both the male and the female reproductive organs but that they had been forced to remove her female organs as a result of injuries she sustained giving birth. They performed additional surgeries to change her into a fully functional man. She took the name John. The surgeries disqualified John from space travel as an astronaut, so he became a typist. He discovered he was good at writing fake confession stories for women’s magazines, and built a career on the apt pen name “The Unmarried Mother”.
Now, John feels unsatisfied with his writing career and basically everything that has happened in the wake of the seduction—hence his desire to drink morosely in a bar, and his vicious desire for revenge on the seducer, and his cynical outlook that more than half approves of the bomber’s killings.
The agent/bartender awards John a bottle of whisky as previously agreed. Then we again hear the opening lines of the movie: “What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life. If I could guarantee that you’d get away with it, would you kill him?” John says yes but doubts the bartender’s wherewithal.
Bad Guys Close In
The bartender is a “temporal agent” and has a time machine that can take John into the past to kill Jane’s seducer. So they go into the past. Instead of killing Jane’s seducer, John realizes he is Jane’s seducer, and promptly falls in love with his younger female self.
All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
(Or, This Movie Has Way Fewer Characters Than You Thought)
The agent, following his boss’s instructions, steals the baby from the hospital and takes it to the orphanage where Jane grew up. Thus Jane is both her own mother and her own father. (Gosh, there are a lot of sentences I could write to say the same thing! Jane and John are the same person; Jane is the daughter of Jane and John; baby Jane grows up to be Jane, who turns into John, who fathers baby Jane; and so on.)
The agent goes back to the bombing scene to fight the bomber. He loses the fight with the bomber, who escapes, but he helps the burned man, a previous version of himself, and collects a piece of the bomb timer. I think technically he wasn’t supposed to make that particular jump because it wasn’t part of the mission, but his boss believes he’s important so he doesn’t get into trouble over it.
The agent goes back to transport John away from Jane so he can begin work as a temporal agent. John doesn’t want to leave Jane, but he knows he already did, or he wouldn’t be there… Can he forgive himself for jilting himself? The agent tells John that he is him, only older, and also still misses Jane. But John will make a great agent. After all, “We were born into this job.”
Break into Three
The agent, having already done more than enough time traveling for one person, retires to New York around the time of the bomber’s deadliest bomb. His boss leaves him a clue about the bomb timer, intending for him to continue hunting the bomber. Strangely, the time machine doesn’t deactivate as it was supposed to do.
The agent encounters the bomber. The bomber is old and unkempt, but is clearly a version of Jane/John/the agent. He appeals to the agent, saying that they two could work together to save lives. The agent accuses the bomber of killing innocents, but the bomber protests that he time traveled and killed to save lives, presenting newspaper clippings from alternate futures as proof. The bomber claims that killing him will cause the agent to become him, that the only way to escape fate would be to not kill him. The agent, repulsed, kills him, thus answering the question posed at the start of the movie.
The “retired” agent, distraught and showing scars from his sex-change surgery, says in a kind of prayer to his earlier, female self: “I miss you dreadfully.” The agent is Jane, John, and the bomber, all in one; he’s the snake that eats its own tail, forever; or, if you prefer, he’s the rooster that solves the chicken-and-egg paradox. It is clear that because he has a functioning time machine, he will use it just as the bomber did, eventually going mad from loneliness and committing the mass bombing he has been trying all along to prevent. Apparently you can’t change what has been predestined.