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6/24: Time Travel and the Problem(s) with Memory


February’s movie selection, the sixth movie in my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series, was The Butterfly Effect (2004). I’m not a big Ashton Kutcher fan, but sometimes you just gotta hold your nose…

The Butterfly Effect proved to be an doubly-interesting choice, mostly because I picked this movie based on what turned out to a incorrectly remembered premise / scene. I remembered the movie being about Kutcher’s character learning how to time travel, and then greedily using this knowledge to keep tweaking his personal narrative to create the “perfect” life for himself and his friends until, near the end, he ends up generating a timeline where his friends have all turned out just fine, but where he finds himself relegated to a wheelchair missing both his hands. My life lesson here was going to be something to the effect that sometimes the more you screw around trying to makes things “just right,” the more the potential may exist for the opposite to happen. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” etc.

Watching the movie with my son, however, it was immediately clear that I had mis-remembered it altogether. I suppose the above-noted summary more or less explains what happened in general terms, but it turns out I had made up the whole theme of personal greed as the protagonist’s prime motive. Hence the “teachable moment” I was planning on did not appear quite as black and white, quite as causally Aesopian, as I had recalled it. (Still, in my defence, I think some sort of cause-and-effect dilemma is fundamentally inherent in any such time travel narrative; the idea that you mess with certain things in your life — time in particular — at your peril. The very name of the movie, The Butterfly Effect, reinforces the supposition that even if we could time travel, the subtleties of truly being able to tame what actually constitutes cause and effect — viewed retrospectively as the passage of our lives — will, nonetheless, ultimately remain beyond our control.)

But I wasn’t too far off the mark in remembering the wheelchair scene as the turning point of the film. My son also picked up on this immediately, and without prompting. By this point in the movie Kutcher’s character had already gone “back in time” on several occasions to try to change the timeline for each of his three friends, to attempt to ensure that their lives would not evolve as the catastrophes which they had appeared to have become earlier in the movie. And he had to keep going back because every time he tweaked one piece of the puzzle to try to improve on their current timeline, this action inadvertently affected another piece of the puzzle which then screwed up something else along the way. By the time Kutcher wakes up to find himself a double amputee condemned to a wheelchair, however, all his friends finally appear to have promising, potential-filled lives ahead of them. All, apparently, except Kutcher himself.

At which point my son pressed the pause button and turned to me knowingly. “OK,” he said, “I get it. Now he’s got to ask himself, given how screwed up the timelines become whenever he goes back and tries to change things, is he now willing simply to live the rest of his life with his own current limitations, understanding that he’s finally managed to generate a timeline where everybody else but him is happy?” I was impressed. He had gone right to the heart of the matter; namely, how much are we willing to sacrifice to make those around us happy, especially when we may perceive many of our own actions to be part of the cause of others’ unhappiness to begin with. A much richer question, in fact, than I started this exercise with. Wow!

The only problem, we soon realized, was that in the “wheelchair” timeline, even though all of Kutcher’s friends were happy, his mother has cancer and is about to die.  Obviously he can’t let this happen, so he sets out to try to change history yet again. But with this knee-jerk approach to the cancer crisis — since everybody would seek to save their mom if they had the chance, right? — the original moral dilemma of whether or not he would have sought to try to revise the timeline again to try to save only himself, and thus, perhaps, to put his friends once more in harm’s way, gets cast aside.

In spite of my faulty recall, my son and I also had a good discussion about narrative technique and the requirement for consistency and parallelism at the heart of time travel stories. In fact, he seemed to understand the structural underpinning of the movie on first viewing far better than I initially did 13 years ago. We did have a bit of a disagreement about how to interpret the ending though. It all started with the penultimate plan Kutcher’s character undertook to try to change the timeline to save his mother. The particular “retro” action he pursued at this point seemed so short-sighted and ill-conceived that it was immediately at odds with all the far more clever and nuanced strategies he had executed to try to change time up until that point. My son saw this as a lazy cop-out on the part of the writers to simply move the story along to its next and final crisis, and felt that it was as if someone had thrown the proscenium curtain aside and we now could suddenly see all the strings controlling the marionettes on stage. I, too, thought it was rather clumsy, but by the end of the movie I wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

I think the difference between our readings was that my son was willing to conceive of the movie as a literal tale of “time travel”. Thus, if some mechanism within that particular temporal microcosm seemed clunky or unconvincing, it immediately cast doubt on the efficacy of the entire tale to hold together with any sort of internal coherence. I, however, was content to be left “uncertain” at the end of the experience. To understand that it was not time travel that was at the heart of the film, but rather the idea of how we approach choices in our lives and how we come to interpret our past in light of those choices. As with A Christmas Carol, I felt The Butterfly Effect to be a far richer tale when considered through the lens of possibility that everything that happened might have simply been the result of an “undigested bit of beef” rather than through the literal machinations of time travel (or actual visits by Christmas “spirits”).

In writing these “reviews” and considering what other movies I’m going to include throughout this two-year exercise, I’m starting to figure out that I’m a bit of a sucker for “time travel” stories. Movies like Click and Groundhog Day and It’s a Wonderful Life (which was I was saving for next Christmas) are all on my list as possibilities for the remaining 18 films in this exercise. I could also easily include, for many of the same reasons, Interstellar, Family Man, Terminator, About Time, Looper, 12 Monkeys, and, most recently, The Arrival (which we actually enjoyed together earlier this month — though we again each interpreted the ending quite differently). I think I like these type of films so much because they have to be — by their very nature — truly clever, well-planned stories to begin with. Stories in which somehow you have to allow time to circle back and continually become itself anew, and where we’re all somehow agents of free will, but always, nonetheless, at the mercy of an unchanging, unchangeable fate.

Ultimately, though, they’re all the same movie:  We somehow catch a glimpse of ourselves in a different or parallel or time-shifted reality (regardless of whether we arrive there via literal time travel or some sort of induced hallucination), and this insight, when all is said and done, allows us the opportunity to more fully embrace the life which we’re actually in the process of living. The pursuit of a richer more authentic existence through that ever-illusive, reflexive medium of self-awareness. The Delphic oracle’s ancient injunction to, “Know thyself.”



  1. brenda nichols says:

    I love time travel movies. About Time is one of my favorites. It shows how beautiful time travel could be and a lovely lesson on how to live your life. Our society likes to paint negative pictures around such desires, to make you believe it is noble or spiritual to sacrifice one’s life and dreams for others. To believe that suffering is the higher realm. I think this is to make you be quiet about your suffering. Most time travel movies like to show how bad time travel is. It says it is bad to want a better life, to strive for a better life.

    • Philster999 says:

      Hi Brenda! Thanks for dropping by, and for the “Like,” and for taking the time to jot down some thoughts. I completely agree re. About Time, by the way. Thoroughly charming, and heartwarming, and original, and quirky, and hugely life affirming.

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