To everyone who dismisses science fiction as little more than high-concept shoot-outs in space, feebleminded pop philosophizing, retrograde sexual politics, and CGI hordes: take note. With Predestination, Michael and Peter Spierig expertly realize a fleshed-out adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s time-paradox yarn “—All You Zombies—” in which a Temporal Bureau agent attempts to stop a time-traveling criminal called The Fizzle Bomber from blowing up 10 blocks of Manhattan in 1975. The agent (Ethan Hawke) materializes in 1970 and, posing as a bartender, begins talking to John (Sarah Snook), a writer who goes by the pen name “The Unmarried Mother.” John bets him a bottle of “Old Underwear” that he’s got the most incredible story the agent’s ever heard.

From there, the narrative slowly curls itself into a tight Ouroboros predicated on cruel—but not cheap—twists of fate. Far from merely illustrating the original tale, the Spierig Brothers’ subtle, smart tweaks to the narrative (disfiguring a key character’s face in an accident; taking into account the mental strain of time travel) and visual flourishes (particularly the school young “John” attends, which suggests an Orbits commercial mashed with the 2001 Stargate sequence) transform it into something truly cinematic.

Their boldest choice yields the greatest emotional payoff: Heinlein’s bittersweet ending—that, in our darkest moments of solitude, we long for the person we once were—has been replaced with the far darker horror of seeing a terrible fate as unavoidable.