Saturday, July 02, 2005

Film: Butterfly Effect

Why am I talking about “Butterfly effect” now? Well, apart from that it is a good movie. Perhaps I want it to represent current good movies, and even more so, made in the middle of Hollywood. Despite some interesting Hollywood manners.

Ok, now, the other day, my friend commented how there’s very little films with fresh, original ideas made, and how he mostly likes films that have a good starting idea. After a moment of thought, I replied that I actually think opposite: no matter how good initial idea was, the execution might screw it major and make it into an awful movie. On the other hand, film may start with an used idea, or even no idea, and upgrade it with it’s execution. I thought of so many good films, where I never realized that they don’t contain much of a plot until I tried to retell it.

It’s opposite from what my friend thought: films with good or interesting initial premise are made all the time, particularly in Hollywood. A good premise drags audience in theatres, makes them initially interested in the movie; If they come out disappointed, they still paid the ticket. Producers have this interesting system with scriptwriters: When meeting a writer who offers them the script, they expect him to retell them the entire script in five minutes; Writer has five minutes to make producer interested in a story. Because later, producer will have less than five minutes to make potential viewer interested. All professional writers know of this system – preparing a short, overblown summation of a script is a sort of secret of a trade. Taglines – those annoying sentences that studios use to advertise a film – are traditional means of advertising a film in Hollywood. Scriptwriter basically has to deliver a bunch of taglines to a producer to make him accept the project.

With hired director who had no deal in writing a script, the result is usually mediocre at best, partly because most of directors are mediocre themselves, and partly because finishing off someone else’s project with very little control over it is not an ideal working atmosphere for creative person. There’s so many mediocre films based on good ideas lately (“Memento”, “Phone booth”, “The ring”), that I am becoming very cautious of films with good ideas.

Now, “Butterfly effect” jumps in, praised as another Hollywood film with great idea. I was very cautious about it, but I still watched it because it was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I regard higher. And I liked it, very much. This is the irony: it is not actually that original idea; basically the one of a man who gets the chance to go back in past and fix things that went wrong along the way. This topic seems to bother filmmakers since films were made, and wading into it produced some very popular films as well (“Back to future”, “Groundhog day”). The term “Butterfly effect”, brought from theory of chaos, here, is very liberally used, or better said, grossly misused.

In chaos theory, that term actually refers to a theoretical phenomenon that some seemingly insignificant changes in structure of the system might cause imbalance in entire system, followed with greater changes in parts of the system that are seemingly completely unrelated. Over-quoted saying that butterfly flapping its wings in Japan might cause an earthquake in America... or something similar to that. In theory, movie “Butterfly effect” could be understood this way, because things that main character makes in past, affect situation in present. But that is total misunderstanding of chaos theory. However, chaos theory is here used by producers to pump up movie’s advertising campaign: As there is, so far, no movies based on chaos theory, using it in this film (even though unrelated to it) gives it an aura of originality.

And that’s all the crap about the chaos theory. Strip it from aggressive marketing and what you’ve got is a movie with not so good original idea, but nonetheless, a good movie.

However, the start isn’t so promising. It’s a complete mess of childhood traumas, starting with ones that remind us of “Village of the damned”, some episodes of “X-files” or any children-of-the-corn horror with glass-eyed kids holding big knives, and even a segment with “Silence of the lambs” feel in it. Very quickly, it switches to more real-life line of traumas with abusive parents and maniacal brothers – however, grossly exaggerated. It all seems like some over-the-top drama; It is so unlikely. It is not unbelievable, however, there is a strong possibility that such kinds of abuse are happening on daily basis somewhere in the world. But film is not a reality, it’s a microcosms that has to be build carefully, so if we try to build it mainly from such extreme situations and represents of human kind, we are bound to get over-the-top effects that would fit only in some sort of farce. “Butterfly effect”, however, never wades into farce, it is dead serious. And yet, we are not given common ground to which we can lean on. That’s why the start of the movie simply doesn’t work. It just seems like one of the more clichéd “X-files” episode.

Very soon we realize that events described at the beginning are just a plot vehicle. We realize it when Evan (Ashton Kutcher) the main character of the film, now a frown up psychology student, while dealing with his past, finds a way to return to some distinctive moments of his childhood and occupy his childhood body for enough time to change his actions and thus alter the future. The main cause for doing this is that consequences of those childhood traumas lead life love Kayleigh (Amy Smart) into a suicide. So Evan spends the rest of the movie returning to past and trying to fix mistakes, his, or other people’s (particularly Amy’s pedophiliac father and her deranged brother – see what I think when I say over the top?); But whenever he manages to fix one thing, he ruins the other; He simply cannot get the balance right and save someone without irreparably hurting someone else.

As the film goes, his attempts get more and more frustrating, and his psyche becomes more deranged. We get all sorts of consequences his actions cause, as for a moment film seems like a combinatorial playground to it’s writers; more amusing that involving. But things start to revolve into a thrilling direction when one of the more happy endings has his childhood friend Lenny (Elden Henson) locked up in a mental institution after Evan led him to kill another boy in past. That is basically first hard decision Evan has to make: he gives up on achieved happiness with Kayleigh and returns to past once again, even though knowing that his actions might mess everything he managed to do in the last return.

And his suspicion is right: He runs right into explosion that their childhood prank caused and returns to the present with no arms. This segment might the most brutal in the pain that Evan lives through: Kayleigh is not Lenny’s girlfriend; While Evan is trying to put himself together after the sudden loss of arms, she confesses that she loves him – but also indirectly lets him know that she couldn’t be with a cripple that he is now.

This is the first moment in the movie where we see Evan at the edge of his strength, willing to let present go as it is now; everybody is happy in this present – everybody but him – and he just seems so tired. Yet, he learns an important fact: That the long line of traumas would be avoided if he had not meet Kayleigh in the first place.

This marks what I predicted – and was hoping would happen – from far away: That Evan has to give up on his love if he wants to make things normal; And he does that, his last return to the past does just one little thing: alienates him from Kayleigh before they’ve even properly met. Waking up in present, he gradually finds that everything is ok, that all characters of the story are happy; With exception of one thing, of course: he never met Kayleigh, none of his friends knows of her, and the only reason he actually remembers her is that he bears memory of the entire story, with all that returning to past.

As I said, I’ve foreseen this ending: but not as a kind of cliché and predictable ending that I’ve seen many times before – but as the only proper ending to this story, that won’t be a sweetened happy-ending (with such dark-tones story, happy-ending could ruin the entire film) nor a troubling, depressive sad ending (sad ending would simply leave this story unfinished, as what we’ve seen through the film is actually a series of sad endings). It is this, balanced ending, in a story whose main subject is a balance is order of things, that forced itself as the only natural ending of the story.

In order to restore the balance, you have to be ready to sacrifice something, and that something, even though it seems like the most significant thing in this movie, is actually something that you can live without. For Evan, his love of Kayleigh might seem like the most precious thing in the whole world. “If you love somebody, set them free”, is what he does at the end: for her happiness – and she doesn’t miss him, she doesn’t even know him. The sacrifice it might seem, last scene shows, if nothing, that his memories fade as well. In the last scene (that kicks like a hammer) he is walking down the street, through the usual crowd, when he passes by her. He stops for a moment, looks back at her and acknowledges that she just kept walking. So he keeps on walking in his direction too. But then she stops and looks back at him, probably seeing something familiar in him, in some part of memory that wasn’t properly erased, and she sees his back walking away. And they keep passing by each other until the rest of their life, ‘because they’re total strangers now.

I don’t know how audience received this film, really. People like happy ending. This is not a happy ending, though it is not a sad ending either. It’s just the natural ending, with as much sadness as happiness. I am happy that authors didn’t try to force happy ending in it, even though it would certainly grant their film more income. However, if we can believe gossips, I’ve heard that film has two alternative endings. Even if so, according to story-of-the-mouth, those endings are much more black and depressing than the first one: One of them features Evan going back to his mother’s womb and strangling himself with a navel chord. Definitely over-the-top and unnecessary.

Ashton Kutcher played well. This is his first role where he doesn’t play imbecile and it’s some of his best acting so far. When I say best, I don’t think that he is one of the better young actors, but he has a certain youthful energy, that he does, and with a proper director he can give worthy results. However, his fame seems to be holding serious directors away.

“Butterfly effect” has many flaws, many inconsistencies and many moments that are so obviously serving as plot devices that film illusion is something ruined (the moment when we can’t see past actors and director playing a scripted story, when we can’t actually see characters and their lives anymore). But second part of the film, its thought-provoking connotations and emotional power of some of its segments make up for that.


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