March 9, 2011

Re-watching The Butterfly Effect (2004) [review by starlight]

"You can't change who people are without destroying who they were. "

Always a fun watch, if a little holey. Evan (Ashton Kutcher) has had something of a tragic life that has taken him away from his childhood friends and left them all miserable and alone, particularly his first love, Kayleigh (Amy Smart). As he nears completion of a psych undergrad, he begins to uncover the past, including memories that he'd "blacked out" before and couldn't remember even moments after they happened. He soon finds that he can do more than revisit these blackout moments - he relives them with the ability to change them, and completely change the course of his life.

It's a neat way to demonstration what Chaos Theory calls the Butterfly Effect - "It has been said something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world."By changing a moment in his past, Evan can completely re-write history and end up with a completely different life. (Spoilers beyond this point)

The only thing is, where something like The Simpson's Treehouse of Horror satirizes the idea that squishing a bug in prehistoric times can change the course of human evolution, The Butterfly Effect goes the other direction and allows Evan to make really minor changes that don't effect where he ends up at all. For example, when he ends up in prison for the murder of Kayleigh's brother Tommy, he has to prove to his cell mate, Carlos, that he can go back to his past and make changes. He goes back to when he was 7 years old playing at school and draws a picture - which is part of the original timeline that we, the audience, already saw - and stabs spikes through both of his palms - which creates a changed timeline so that Carlos can see them instantly appear, as if a mark of God. If we're trying to demonstrate the butterfly effect here, shouldn't changing that day when he was 7 have some ripple of effect through his life so that his situation would be just a little bit different now? Whether he was taken to the nurse's office or the hospital, if his mother took him to the psychiatrist at a different time, if it made him more freaked out about his blackouts, if it changed his vision of himself or his attitude towards life in any way, wouldn't every event leading up to his prison sentence be somewhat eschewed? We're supposed to believe that he would still end up in the exact same prison cell with the same prison mate at the exact same moment and the only difference would be a new set of scars?

Not to mention the nonsensicalness of having the scars appear instantaneously. Usually when Evan changes the past, he has altered the timeline leading up to the present, so he would have had those scars since he was seven and Carlos would have thought he'd always had them.

"So now I need some information to make things right again."
"There is no right!"
"That's bullshit. I'll send you a postcard when I made everything perfect again."

It's also interesting to note that no matter what Evan changes, he always ends up at the same University, with the same circle of friends and the same series of past events. Would Tommy really have still killed Crocket on the same day in the same circumstances after all of the earlier changes Evan made to the timeline? Would Evan's mom still move away to the same city in every situation and Evan still be a psych major at the same school? The movie pays up a little bit with the line "Tomorrow I can wake up in a dirt farm in Bangladesh." This is more in the spirit of chaos theory, I think. He really doesn't go far from his original path - the only difference is the mental and physical state of the people he cares about.

Then again, for the sake of a unified plot and a movie that makes sense, it is probably for the best that he stays far away from Bangladesh. That would make for a very silly, Treehouse of Horroresque movie, where what we really get is a masterful, dramatic story with some neat sci-fi elements. Kutcher is really excellent in this movie, and has only very few "Kelso moments". The end resolution, while sad and unsatisfying, is exactly what we needed, because this is not a fairy tale. Life is making the best of the situation, and sometimes that means you can't make everything perfect.

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