Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Theology and Film in Dialogue: The Butterfly Effect (DVD), Part I of III.

The following post is the first of a three-part series placing The Butterfly Effect movie and theology in conversation.

I. Unpacking the Power and Meaning of The Butterfly Effect.

“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway across the world.”
--Chaos Theory.

This quote sets the stage for The Butterfly Effect (d. Bress and Gruber, 2004) as its first frame. In this connection, it alerts the viewer to two (2) basic premises or themes. First, this view posits that there is a cause-and-effect relationship in the “real world” and the “reel world” that is to follow this quote.

In other words, one event, even a minor one, can cause unforeseen and wide-ranging repercussions. Second, by virtue of its attribution to “chaos theory”, this cause-and-effect operates chaotically—without predestination, plan or purpose.

The movie explores “chaos theory” through the story of Evan Treborn, ably played by Ashton Kutcher. Simply summarized, Kutcher’s character is seen in three (3) basic time-periods. The audience first observes him and his friends Kayleigh, Tommy and Lenny at age 7; again at age 13; and also in a modern-day setting where they are college-aged.

At each of the “flashback” stages something traumatic happens to Kutcher and/or his friends. Such events include a teenage prank to merely destroy a mailbox turning into an unspeakable tragedy when an infant and her mom are accidentally killed by it. Another “cause” is unfurled when viewers witness the sickness of a father who tries to cast his 7-year-old daughter Kayleigh and Evan into one of his child porn movies. The movie then returns to the modern day and presents what “effect” these earlier causes might have had.

In one permutation, we see Kayleigh as a drug-addled prostitute. In another, we see Lenny residing in a mental institution because he is unable to cope with the effect—the deaths of the mom and her infant—visited upon them as a result of his placement of dynamite in the mailbox.

Enter the protagonist into this morass. Evan Treborn, we learn, has a special ability to go back in time, and then to adjust these events or “causes”. His apparent hope is that when he returns to the present he will see that by changing a cause, the later effect will be remedied. His changes of the “causes” lead to effects he did not anticipate, when he returns to the modern day. For example, Lenny’s insolence in one setting becomes even worse in another where he is utterly incapacitated—despite Treborn’s best efforts. Nothing Evan does by tweaking the past seems to lead to the effect he wanted or planned. Through a series of failures, Evan becomes wearied and troubled by his inability to right the course for his friends.

In the director’s cut ending, which I vastly preferred to the theatrical release’s, Ashton’s character goes far back into his existence. In fact, he returns to the womb. The viewer is then treated to a shot inside the womb--of a fetus representing Treborn. We see Evan fixing the umbilical cord around his neck so as to choke the life out of himself. His “solution”, therefore, is to remove himself from the equation since he concludes that his presence in the lives of his friends is the one constant “cause” that is leading to the deleterious “effects” in their lives. Since he was unable to fix their circumstances by adjusting events, he concluded that he was the germinal problem that needed fixing and since his Herculean efforts were futile (and perhaps harmful) it would be better not to even live.

Treborn comes to this fatalistic conclusion through another strand of the plot weaved through the overall story. At the outset, the film alludes to Evan’s father and how he is absent. Further information is eventually disclosed whereby we learn that the elder Treborn has been hospitalized for a mental disorder. Nearly simultaneously, the viewer observes Evan himself being placed into a machine for what appears to be CAT scan. We hear Evan’s mother telling his doctor with words to the effect of “Tell me that he did not inherit his father’s illness”, which is unspecified.

However, later in the film, the mother implies to Evan that the father thought he could change events in the past or at least see them. Evan is, of course, enraptured by this discussion because he is learning that he has a similar ability. Nevertheless, his mother stops short from providing a complete explanation, and appears reluctant to talk about it. She does not seem to believe that the father possessed any such ability, and does not want to burden Evan with the prospect that his father was “ill” and hence could have passed on this “illness” genetically (in light of her prior conversation with the doctor).

At this point, Evan is unable to ask his father about it because the audience has been shown a disturbing scene from a flashback where Evan visited his father in the mental hospital. This visit ended badly—the father verbally and physically attacked Evan, and was killed by the staff seeking to protect little Evan (at age 7).

This injection of the “nature” aspect of the nature-versus-nurture debate into a film exploring the “chaos theory” is telling and poignant. While the film generally posits that events are not predetermined, but rather the product of random events or chance, i.e. chaos, the filmmakers intelligently incorporate at least this issue for the viewer to ponder. Is life predetermined, or at bottom, influenced by one’s nature or genetics? Wisely and subtly, they do not provide the answer, instead they are content to leave the viewer to explore the ambiguity.

While the foregoing generally represents a thematic critique or analysis of the movie, the following critical approaches should also be brought to the film.

A. Genre Criticism.

This film has been categorized as a science-fiction thriller. (See, e.g., While I think the time-travel aspect certainly falls under the general sci-fi rubric, I think this characterization is a bit unfair. The movie is more psychological thriller than sci-fi. The filmmakers even show the college-aged Evan in a psychology class in a university, and suggest that he is a prime student interested in the study of memory appropriation. By so doing, they reinforce the psychological underpinning of the “time-travel” and the issues Evan is facing.

Like most thrillers, the power of the movie is rooted in the way that the movie unfolds in a nonlinear and mysterious fashion. Information is parceled out to the viewer, and in a nonsequential way, so that he or she yearns to learn what the “real” facts are, and what might happen to the people it is asked to care about—especially Evan and Kayleigh. This approach heightens the tension and drama, making it a thriller on the par with The Fugitive (d. Davis, 1993).

B. Auteur Criticism.

Dr. Robert Johnston (one of my theology professors) astutely writes in Reel Spirituality (2000) that auteur criticism is often difficult given the collaborative nature of the process. (p. 133.) Given this collaboration, the fingerprints of many are left on the film, including “producers, writers, directors, camera crew, editors, actors, lighting and sound people, composers, costumers, casting agents, and more.” (Id.) However, auteur criticism is aided here by the fact that The Butterfly Effect’s two writers and directors are the same two men, Eric Bruss and J. Mackye Gruber. As Dr. Johnson correctly posits that “the dominant personality in the making of a movie is usually the director” (id.), this dominance is more pronounced where, as here, the directors are also the writers-another dominant contributor in filmmaking.

Moreover, they provide their insights (along with a complex presentation of “chaos theory” from scientists and philosophers) on the DVD , so as to understand their purpose and message with this film. There can be no mistake that they were heavily influenced by “chaos theory” in making this film, and that they wanted to explore the randomness and chaos of life, by showing how even the slightest permutations can lead off into disparate trajectories. These two filmmakers have worked together on a similar project, The Final Destination 2 (2003), which is also a thriller. Notably, TFD franchise also explores the questions about whether events can be changed before they occur. However, TFD2 comes at it from the reverse direction—a premonition. Both movies, nevertheless, cause the audience to question what is “real” or “reel” in their manipulation of reality or events. (As Dr. Johnston notes this basic structure has been explored in Sliding Doors, Blind Chance, and Run Lola Run. (Johnson, Useless Beauty, p. 96.).)

Given these similarities in approach in the auteur’s last two movies and their explication for the message behind their work, it especially aids the viewer in unpacking its meaning and power.

Next post will be part two of this series.

Part II:
Part III: