The Butterfly Effect and Time-Travel

    The film The Butterfly Effect is, at times, moving, suspenseful, heartbreaking, and intriguing. Although The Butterfly Effect is one of my favorite films, I do have one issue with a key point of the plot. It is easy, when writing on the topic of time-travel, to create paradoxes. It is common for time-travel stories to focus on one’s ability to change his or her present by sending him or her into the past. Although the idea is novel, it creates a huge paradox: Let’s say I go back and alter the past that has worked to create my present. If the past that has worked to create my present never existed, then neither did the me who desired this change in the first place. In changing my past, I would create a world in which the desire to change my past never existed and my past and present would stay the same. This, of course would mean I would develop the desire to change my past and go back to change it only to change my world and stop myself from ever developing the desire to go back. Confused yet?
    The fundamental principle of films like Back to the Future, that one can go back in time and alter his or her present is flawed simply for the fact that the act of traveling back in time creates an alternate history. The presence of one more person in the world at that time would mean a deviation from the original time-line. It really is the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect gets it’s name from the idea that a butterfly could flap it’s wings on one side of the world and cause a typhoon on the other. One more person in the world means everyone’s experience is a little different. These seemingly subtle differences would likely have significant changes on the history. In the case of Back to the Future, 1955 Hill Valley without the time-traveling of Marty McFly would leave the future mayor, Goldie Wilson, uninspired to pursue a career in politics. What’s worse, who wrote the song “Johnny B Goode”? Marty McFly played it at his parent’s high school dance because he knew it from his time, when it was created by Chuck Berry. But Chuck Berry likely would never have written the song had his cousin Marvin not telephoned him during Marty McFly’s performance.
    Time-travel can be a tricky thing…unless of course, you have a paradox machine as the TARDIS from Doctor Who is said to have. I mean no offense to fans of Doctor Who, but this sounds an awful lot like the quick cigarette fix from the film Thank You for Smoking:
Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space?
Jeff Megall: It’s the final frontier, Nick.
Nick Naylor: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all oxygen environment?
Jeff Megall: Probably. But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.’ (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0427944/quotes)
    Either way, The Butterfly Effect would seem to one-up these other time-travel stories with a major hole in the premise of the story. The first part of the film tells the story of our main character, Evan’s childhood. Throughout his childhood, Evan experiences “blackouts”. He comes out of them with no memory of what has happened or why he faces certain consequences as a result. Example: Evan has no memory of drawing the detailed, gory picture in Mrs. Boswell’s class. But this act inspires Evan’s mom, Andrea, to seek professional help for her son. Likewise, Evan blacks out in a scene after this only to come back to his father’s attempt to squeeze the life out of him.
    We flash forward and Evan has been without blackouts for seven years. He discovers in a rather serendipitous way, he can go back in time and relive those moments he blacked out as a child. After a trip back home, in which he discovers his flashbacks, although disturbing, are true to history, he spends the rest of the film reliving these blacked out experiences in an effort to change his and his friends’ lives for the better.
    Evan can go back in time and alter his present. But we’ve already addressed the paradox such an act presents. What makes this story different is the fact that our adult Evan goes back to his child self to engage in acts for which his child self was already punished. Here is where a huge hole forms in our story. In one case, Evan goes back to Mrs. Boswell’s class and draws the picture for which his child self was punished. He also goes back to his visit with his father and shares some harsh words with him. This, of course, is the inspiration for child Evan’s experience of his father’s aggression toward him. But, as an adult, Evan had already experienced the consequences of these actions. He does not, however, experience the consequences of Lenny’s killing Tommy until he goes back and, inadvertently causes it to happen. Likewise, Evan only looses his arms in his adult time-line when he goes back and alters the happenings of his childhood.
    The fact that Adult Evan’s actions can affect child Evan at times and other times not, would seem to make for a great inconsistency in this story. Further, there is no explanation of why Evan’s adult actions affected child Evan at times and other times did not. Lastly, it was this traumatic past that inspired Evan’s desires to go back and change things. The removal of these traumatic experiences simultaneously removes the motivation to go back and change history. Without the motivation to go back, his history remains the same. And so the circle begins.

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