At his darkest, Phil Connors certainly paints a gloomy picture: “I’ll give you a winter prediction,” he says. “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” But, I’m not sure he ever has it as bad as Evan Treborn in The Butterfly Effect. Of course, Evan’s plight is not a time loop, per se. Instead, it’s a regular rewriting of his own history (damaging his brain as he goes) to set things “right.” It’s like Quantum Leap if Sam Beckett had a really fucked up childhood and was leaping into himself in every episode, not just “The Leap Home.”
SPOILERS ahead, obviously.
Ashton Kutcher’s Evan deals with murderous adolescents, pedophile fathers, baby-killing explosives, burning dogs, and in the original ending (now available with the Director’s Cut), he eventually strangles himself with his umbilical cord in the womb. So, it’s not really a light-hearted film, and certainly not a comedy like Groundhog Day. Still, there’s a certain similarity in theme, fixing little things to make one’s life better then to make others’ lives better. And, there are side effects—not just the brain damage—to each change, where even the arguably happiest present Evan has managed (in which he and childhood friend Kayleigh are a couple in college, wearing bright colors and enjoying the college staples of sororities and fraternities) ends with brutal murder and prison time.
Evan doesn’t have an “adolescent” phase to his jaunts back through time, though. As soon as he realizes he can change the past, he immediately goes into the “good deed” phase. Still, he does have his “god” day, in which he explains to Kayleigh (a scarred and presumably drug-addled prostitute because of Evan’s tampering in their past) what he’s been doing. And, he offers proof, just like Phil offers Rita, only without the sweet flutes. There’s no “you like boats but not the ocean” innocence. Instead, Evan opens with, “How else would I know that you have twin moles on your inner thigh?”
Kayleigh’s response: “Anyone with fifty bucks can tell you that.” Evan’s next bit demonstrates the huge tonal differences between Groundhog Day and The Butterfly Effect:
Ok. Forget that. How about the fact that you prefer the smell of skunk to flowers, or that you hate cilantro because for some reason unknown to you it reminds you of your step-sister, or that when you have an orgasm your toes go numb? I'm sure all your clientele are privy to that. You know, I just thought you should know… that you were happy once, with me.
Kayleigh isn’t a “sucker for French poetry and rhinestones.” She’s a little more world weary and damaged. “You know,” she replies, “there is one major hole in your story—there is no fucking way in this planet or any other I would ever be in some fucking sorority.”
Needless to say, this is not a family film. There’s some disturbing stuff here. Ty Burr, in The Boston Globe, said “whatever train-wreck pleasures you might locate here are spoiled by the vile acts the characters commit.” When your lead ultimately strangles his infant self, yeah, I guess Burr has a point. But, I’d like to think that a darker take on these themes is just as relevant to life as a lighter take like Groundhog Day. Well, maybe not just as relevant, since watchability is certainly a fair measure of a film, and Groundhog Day is far more watchable. But, not every story should be bright and shiny and not every journey should lead to a happy ending.
Still, I think The Butterfly Effect deals with memories and the past and the idea of altering them for the better quite well. But, like Phil Connors toying with the specifics to create perfection, Evan Treborn can’t manage perfection. The titular effect falls in line with chaos theory, so changing one thing doesn’t only change one thing. It has potential to change everything thereafter. I’ll let Ian Malcolm explain it to you:
Director Richard Curtis has an interesting take on time travel (or, though he doesn’t say it, the Groundhog Day-style time loop); regarding his upcoming film, About Time, Curtis says the film poses a philosophical question: What really matters when it comes to time? “In my opinion,” he says,
…it’s about the ordinary things... You wouldn’t be trying to win an Oscar or Olympic gold or flying off for a glamorous night in New York. If you had one day to live your life, it would be a normal one. It’s breakfast with your kids and lunch with your friends and dinner with someone you love.
I should have led with that. Give you a nice bit of sentiment then get into the bleakness of The Butterfly Effect. But, the thing is, the way I see it, both of these things are of the same vein. I mean, Curtis is right. You tell me I have one day to live, and I would spend it with the people I love most, my kids, my soon-to-be ex-wife, my parents, my sisters. And, we wouldn’t have to do much. Maybe we’d go to Disneyland, but more likely we’d just stay home and play cards or board games, because it’s the moments when we’re together with the ones we love that really matter.
Though the original ending to The Butterfly Effect does actually mesh quite well with the tone of the film, in a way, the theatrical ending—
(Evan’s last trip is instead to a childhood birthday party, the day he first met Kayleigh, and he whispers in her ear, “I hate you and if you ever come near me again, I'll kill you and your whole damn family” so they will never be friends. Years later, he happens by her on the street. They both pause, a momentary recognition, then they both walk away… there are two alternate endings to this, one in which they speak and he asks her out to coffee, one in which he follows after her as she walks away, but both of those play a little stalkery.)
—actually paints a more depressing picture than Even never having been born. I mean, that’s certainly dark and depressing, but it’s also final. In the theatrical ending, he’s gone on living, knowing that once he was happy with Kayleigh and he will never have that again. In that moment on the street, when he pauses, he’s got the option… but what happens when he gets involved with her again? What if he finds out that he didn’t stop all of the bad things that happened to her? Will he be tempted to travel back again to start fixing them again? Instead of being tempted, he keeps walking, leaving brighter moments—we don’t have any particular inkling that his new present is bad, mind you—in the past.
Now, there’s no reason Evan can’t be happy again. Hell, there’s no reason Phil Connors can’t be happy without Rita. But, this is storytelling. Things work here and now, or they don’t work. There isn’t time for much in between… except movies like Groundhog Day and The Butterfly Effect are all about the in between, aren’t they? And, life is all about the in between. That’s why I think Curtis has a point. You give me the ability to time travel to specific moments and, sure, I’ll start with some major ones. But, ultimately, I’m going to end up exploring the unimportant moments, the quiet, happy moments that matter more after the fact, not because they directed the flow of life but because they simply were.
In an interview in Entertainment Weekly recently, Joss Whedon was asked about a tweet of his—“Everything is a drug. Family, art, causes, new shoes… We’re all just tweaking our chem to avoid the void.” The interviewer calls it “profound and depressing.” Whedon explains that tweet as
…one of those obvious revelations… Everything we do is just a little marker on the long road to death. And sometimes that’s overwhelmingly depressing to me, and sometimes it makes me feel kinship and forgiveness. We’ve all got the same ending to the story. The way we make that story more elaborate, I got to respect.
And, so much of what makes each individual story more elaborate is in the silly little details that would probably never make it into our life stories. The way my daughter exaggerated rolling an R when we were talking about her brother’s Spanish class, for example—that would never make it into the story of my life or her life or his life, but it’s the kind of detail I want to hold onto.
We can’t change the past, but we can change our recollection of it. We can hold onto the crazy little details that make us laugh, put aside the details that make us cry out, “my kingdom for a time machine!”
And, we can look forward to the future, more little moments. The best thing about the present is it is all little moments.
The future is broadstrokes, big hopes and dreams. And, maybe we aren’t hopeful about it, but at least the uncertainty allows for hope. In that same Joss Whedon interview, the interviewer quoted Fringe showrunner J.H. Wyman: “I believe in hope, and I believe that we are good. And I believe that we are smart, and I believe that we are going to stop anything terrible from happening.” Joss Whedon, the interviewer points out, once said the opposite: “I think the world is largely awful and getting worse, and eventually the human race will die out. And it’ll be our own fault.” I can’t help but agree with them both. I think in another life I had split personalities, because I get both of these perspectives. We are good, but we are also petty and we tend to ignore problems we think are too big for us. Hell, we tend to ignore problems we could solve if we just got off our asses to do something. Not because we’re lazy, not because we’re apathetic, but just because we’re human and we’ve got other things on our minds.
The end of the interview continues:
Whedon: I think that’s absolutely the case. I think we’re actually becoming stupider and more petty. I think we have one shot—and that’s education, and that’s being defunded along with all the social services. What’s going on in this country, and many countries, is beyond depressing. It’s terrifying. Sometimes I have to remember who I’m talking to. I’ll say something about climate change, how terrible things are, and meaningless, and the world is headed toward destruction and war and apocalypse. And at one point my daughter goes, “Hey! I’m 8!” She doesn’t want to hear that stuff. But I can’t believe anybody thinks we’re actually going to make it before we destroy the planet. I honestly think it’s inevitable. I have no hope.
Interviewer: That’s surprising, because your work isn’t bleak. Bad things happen, there’s pathos, favorite characters die. But it’s not like the fifth act of Hamlet.
Whedon: No. My stories do have hope because that is one of the things that is part of the solution—if there can be one. We use stories to connect, to care about people, to care about a situation. To turn the mundane heroic, to make people really think about who they are. They’re useful. And they’re also useful to me. Because if I wrote what I really think, I would be so sad all the time. We create to fill a gap—not just to avoid the idea of dying, it’s to fill some particular gap in ourselves. So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other. And on a personal level, I know many wonderful people who are spending their lives trying to help others, or who are just decent and kind. I have friends who are extraordinary, I love my family. But on a macro level, I don’t see that in the world. So I have a need to create it. Hopefully, that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope. Because if we take that away, then I’m definitely right. I want to be wrong, more than anything. I hate to say it, it’s that line from The Lord of the Rings—“I give hope to men; I keep none for myself.” They say it in Elvish, so it sounds supercool.
But, his mention of The Lord of the Rings there at the end had me thinking of other lines. Like this depressing one:
How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on... when in your heart you begin to understand... there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend... some hurts that go too deep... that have taken hold.
Or Sam’s take on those little moments I was talking about:
Rosie Cotton dancing. She had ribbons in her hair. If ever I were to marry someone, it would have been her. It would have been her.
Sam’s got the idea. The right girl, the ribbons in her hair—that’s a memory you hold onto for as long as you can manage it. Rosie Cotton, Kayleigh Miller, Rita Hanson… whatever girl or guy it is for you. My first novel—poorly written but full of some nice ideas—was all about how memory creates who we are. But, what memory we hold onto, what hope we cling to—that’s a choice we can make to affect our present. There’s a sign in a yard I drive by regularly; it says “Happiness is a choice.” It’s certainly a difficult choice sometimes, but I suppose that’s true. It’s all a matter of perspective. For example, though Phil Connors doesn’t say he’s happy until that last iteration of February 2nd, I think he was happy as soon as he got to the “good deed” phase because he had hope. He knew that life could be good.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to play with my kids and forget about the rest of the world, forget about the past and the future and enjoy now.
By the way, About Time is definitely a movie that The Groundhog Day Project will be reviewing when it comes out in November, so if you want to see it with me, let me know.