We have since turned our attention to the third of the series, Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations, which will reappear on the site in due course.
Some time back we examined The Butterfly Effect, an entertaining film which confused viewers with an approach to time travel that was inconsistent not only with any known theory of time travel, but with its own rules. It was a temporal disaster which not only could not happen overall, it could not have happened even in the small parts, given the best benefit of every doubt.
So of course they made a sequel.
A critic once complained of a sequel that they could not get the stars from the original to make another, and that appears to be true here; that, though, is not a problem, as this is an entirely new story of a different person who has a similar condition. It is a much less convoluted tale, in part because our time traveler makes only three trips to the past, none reaching back much further than a single year. Yet it suffers from many of the same problems as the original film nonetheless, as a brief examination will demonstrate.
This time our time traveler is Nick Larson, whose job is to raise investment capital for Callahan Mobile Integration, CMI. He has been for the past three years seeing photographic artist Julie Miller, and the story opens on and never reaches earlier than her twenty-fourth birthday. Their best friends are Trevor Eastman, who works with Nick at CMI, and his girlfriend, whose name Amanda appears only in the credits despite her significant role. Of the other significant characters, company president Ron Callahan figures prominently, and his daughter Grace is briefly important; Dave Bristol switches between being being one of the CMI workers and being its vice president; and Malcolm and Wayne are important in the penultimate history as killers of some of the important people. The only character connection to the first movie is an article about the case of Jason Treborn, father of the Evan Treborn who had similar conditions, and the coincidental fact that Nick's girlfriend Julie, like Evan's love Kayleigh, has the relatively common surname Miller.
We see the original history. Nick has persuaded Julie to stay with him out west rather than getting a masters degree in an art program in New York (he says it's three thousand miles away, and his plates have California coloring), and she is just about to tell him she's pregnant (I hope that was as obvious to everyone as it was to me) when Bristol calls about an important meeting. The foursome abandon Julie's birthday party with promises about doing something special next year, then head down the mountain where they have been picnicking. Julie unbuckles her safety belt to get better photos of the couple in the back seat, and then a tire blows on Nick's sport-utility vehicle. By the time he has brought the car to a safe halt, they are sideways across the twisting mountain road and the engine has stalled. He attempts to ascertain whether anyone is injured, and then realizes that there is a tractor-trailer starting to jacknife as it vainly attempts to stop and avoid colliding with him. He tries unsuccessfully to restart the engine, and the car is hit and flipped.
When he awakens in the hospital, the others are dead. Bristol got the promotion which Nick had commented would be his if he made it to the meeting, and he has periodic seizure-like headaches when pictures start moving as if they were from Hogwarts. At one point he drops a copy of a photo from the birthday party, breaking the frame.
His attacks are disrupting his ability to do his job, and Callahan and Bristol send him home for a week in the hope that he will recuperate. He takes Julie's digital camera and connects it to his laptop, and starts looking at those pictures until suddenly he has another attack, and time abruptly rewinds to the party on the beach. That begins our first altered history.
As we begin the second timeline, we immediately hit some of the problems which plagued the original film.
The first is that Nick has so completely rewritten history that he will not be in the right place to make the trip that makes the changes, creating an infinity loop. This is not insoluble. It relies on a perhaps dubious understanding of Niven's Law, assuming that once a change has been made in the past, changes to the future cannot undo them. That is, if I were to travel to the past and assassinate John Wilkes Booth before he reached Abraham Lincoln, and that so disrupted history that you decided to fix it, you would have to travel to the same time in the past to intervene--simply preventing me from leaving the future would not remove me from the past nor undo what I did. It is a problem that arises often in time travel films, including Terminator Salvation, but it runs rampant in this series, as the altered versions of history are never self-sustaining.
The second problem is that Nick does not remember the history that now exists, but the history that now never happened. It would be as if you had traveled to the past and killed Stalin, and then when you returned to the future the Soviet Union dominated the world, but you knew nothing of how that happened and only remembered the events that now never happened. Writers sometimes attempt to make this possible by suggesting that the memory of the time traveler is somehow "protected" while he is out of his own time, so that he remembers the events from the unaltered history. The logic of this fails, however, when you ask how someone can remember events that never happened, given that in changing history he has caused a different set of events to be the only one that ever really was.
On this first change, Nick saves the lives of his friends. He is looking at photos from that last picnic, and finds one taken in the car moments before the accident. As with the Pevensies and the Dawn Treader, he sees the picture start to move, then come alive, then draw him into itself. Gradually he becomes aware of where and when he is, and he orders Julie to don her seatbelt moments before the tire blows. (Apparently he was not aware enough of the situation to slow down and pull off the road safely before the tire blew, but it was the first time he did this and he was obviously a bit disoriented.) When the tire blows, he again manages to control the car, bringing it to much the same point of rest as before--but this time he wastes no time checking the condition of his passengers, and instead focuses on restarting the stalled engine. He guns it off the road into a tree, and although it is a bad accident, the four of them all live.
When he returns to the future that he considers the present, Julie is alive and living in his apartment; but he has no memory of her survival, nor of any of the events connecting that moment to this one. He does not understand the veiled reference to the baby she lost in the accident, but does not let anyone know that he has this convoluted memory problem beyond suggesting that he dreamed the entire year was different than it was. It still was not the future he expected. Bristol still got the promotion to vice president, and he is still an account executive. Trevor is marrying Amanda, and wants to make sure Nick has arranged strippers for the bachelor's party, about which he knows nothing but fills in the blanks quickly enough. But good things are about to go bad, and Nick will try to change the world again.
Nick managed to mitigate the damages of the accident, such that instead of he being the sole survivor only the unborn baby died; finding that Julie is not dead pleases him so much that we perhaps cannot blame him for being cocky; but that feeling of invincibility pushes him into the next problem.
He always felt as if he would have gotten the promotion, but that something went wrong. What went wrong was only partly that the accident put him in the hospital for some period of time; that time was considerably shorter after the first change, and the position still went to Bristol. But he knows why, or at least believes he does: Bristol closed an account with a major investor, Strike Line Technologies, and that major influx of cash made Bristol the head of daily operations. Nick has no respect for him. It was chance that put the Strike Line Technologies folder on Bristol's desk, and Nick assumes that had that folder landed on his desk instead, he would have been the vice president. That, though, is not how it is in this timeline.
Bristol holds a staff meeting. Trevor lost an account, and Mr. Callahan wants to make an example, so Bristol fires Trevor. Nick gets angry. He says that it was not Trevor's fault but Bristol's, that Bristol was supposed to close that deal, and Bristol is the one who lost it. Bristol fires him, too.
This does not sit well with Julie. He had promised her that the promotion he never got was going to give them a very comfortable life, and she gave up her chance to go to graduate school in New York because he was going to open a gallery for her. Now not only did the promotion never come and the gallery never materialize, but she is working to help pay the rent and he has just trashed the job that was their primary income. She deflates his confidence very quickly, and he decides he has to do something to fix the problem.
He finds his answer when he sees a picture from the company Christmas party on the refrigerator, and it begins to destabilize, pushing him back to an earlier time.
The film does not give us a lot of dates, but it does tell us that Nick makes his first trip to the past one year to the day after the accident, and that Trevor will marry Amanda on October 27, marked on a desk calendar for the year 2007. That suggests that the Christmas party photo was from December 2006, and that the picnic at which the accident occurred was not long before October 2006. Bristol apparently has not yet been promoted at this point, and so when Nick reaches the party he manages to humiliate Bristol and then raid his rival's file drawer, moving the Strike Line Technologies file to his own desk.
At this point, we have to pause to recognize that Butterfly Effect 2 has made what is really, ironically, a butterfly effect mistake.
When Nick removes the Strike Line Technologies file from Bristol's desk and places it on his own, the film makes a butterfly effect error. It is improbable in the extreme that Bristol has that file in this timeline.
From comments made by Nick, it appears that there is a certain randomness in which files go to which representatives. If we assume that there are ten people working accounts, and fifty files are being distributed among them this week, each rep will get five files. Nick will get files one through five, Trevor files six through ten, Bristol files eleven through fifteen, and so on. But in our original history, Nick was in the hospital for at least several weeks, and Trevor is dead. That means that that week the files were split eight ways, with Bristol getting files one through six or maybe seven--none of the same files he would get once Nick restores Trevor to history and shortens his own hospital stay. The change in available account reps will change the files each gets, and since there is a random factor involved the odds are very much against any particular file going to the same rep in both histories.
We do not know how long Nick originally was hospitalized, but by the time he gets back to work Bristol's promotion is a fait accompli. For Nick to know how that happened, he would have had to have heard from colleagues once he was back at work. We thus conclude that Nick was out of work until sometime after Christmas, and that sometime in January Bristol closed the deal with Strike Line, and having done so was soon promoted to Vice President. Nick then returns to work, and learns this--otherwise, the Christmas party is too late for him to change it.
In the rewritten history, Nick spent very little time in the hospital, and that shuffles the accounts over several months. Yet it is a year later, and thus half a year after Bristol's promotion, that Nick enters this version of history. He has guessed, correctly, that Bristol got the promotion because he closed the deal on Strike Line. However, that knowledge is based on the events of the other history, and in that other history all the accounts would have been distributed differently.
Even were we to assume that the distribution of accounts was not totally random, that someone looked over each folder and decided who would be best able to manage that potential client, our chaos theory problem still applies. In the history from which Nick gets his knowledge, Trevor died. Either he was replaced or he was not. If he was not, the number of accounts to each rep changes, and that means who gets which ones will also change as Trevor's accounts are redistributed (and, for the relevant time, Nick's as well). If he was, then the new rep will be given accounts thought suitable for him, and that means again that the odds are considerably lower that any particular agent will receive any particular same file.
If the film were true to its title, then the change in which reps were working accounts ought to have changed which accounts were given to which reps, and Bristol should not have been promoted in both histories.
However, the film does make up for this problem with a few twists in the next history.
Having gone back to the Christmas party and moved the Strike Line Technologies file from Bristol's desk to his own, Nick returns to the future to find himself not only still employed, but promoted to Vice President. However, his world has changed more than that, and in some surprising ways.
Before Bristol landed Strike Line Technologies, Nick thought he was going to get the Vice President position. We can thus excuse him for thinking when he finds himself in that position that he must have landed the account instead. It appears, though, that Nick got the position because, as he believed, he was best for it--despite having lost the Strike Line Technologies account. That account only made the difference in that had Bristol sold it he would have moved into the office that otherwise would have defaulted to Nick. It made another difference, too, though, and that is that without that capital, CMI is bankrupt. Nick knows none of this, and is blindsided by the revelations as they emerge.
He also is confused that Julie is not answering his calls, and again when Callahan's daughter Grace molests him in the Men's Room of the restaurant, insisting that they've been doing this for a week and he has never been hesitant about it before. We never get enough details to know, but it appears that at some point the successful vice presidential Nick decided that he was tired of the Julie who had passed up her educational opportunity to be with him, and dumped her in favor of the boss's daughter. She is bitter and hurt, but already in another relationship, so it's unclear just when this was altered. The problem for Nick is, having the memories of the office worker Nick he still wants the relationship his other self discarded.
This time history goes very badly. Trevor picked up an account that never should have been pursued, but apparently because they were desperate they accepted a sizable investment from the owners of a club, who now want it back. CMI does not have it. Nick visits the club to talk with the client, Malcolm, and offer him a token repayment from his personal account. Malcolm makes a point by killing Trevor, and Nick flees through the club. Julie, working a photography job at a fashion show in the club, gets swept into the violence and shot, dying in Nick's arms, as Nick tries to roll back the clock a few days with a photo in his cell phone but instead gets clubbed and awakens somewhere else. He escapes, and arranges to have Amanda bring him a copy of the photo from the birthday party picnic so he can attempt one more trip to make everything right. This introduces another problem we had in the first film; but before we get there, we also have a very unusual memory problem that is unique to this film.
There is a moment in which Nick remembers something quite remarkable. There is a joke about the villain's remarkable memory in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, when he recognizes Chekov: Chekov had not yet joined the crew of the Enterprise when they found Kahn and delivered him to that planet, not to be contacted again until that moment.
This is perhaps not so remarkable as that, but in the original history, when Nick is trying to adjust to his life following the accident, he gets flashes to moments in the past, and he remembers that Julie said to him that she could not imagine living without him--but she never said it, or more precisely, has not said it yet. She will say it to him in the final history; but he has not yet created that final history, and he certainly has not yet experienced it. He cannot have that memory.
We could decide that it was a mistake, a temporal continuity error--whoever edited the memory montage did not realize that that particular piece of film was not part of the original history, and thought it would be a great part to include. Certainly from a filmmaking point of view all of the scenes at the picnic were shot at the same time, probably the same day. The conditions would be the same, the actors would look the same, and they wouldn't have to pay the crew to be out there more than once. Thus the film editor has all the film from that shoot together, and although he knows that it represents different versions of time, he overlooked the fact that this clip was not part of the first piece of history but part of the rewrite.
However, in our analyses we always assume that what is on the screen is the story, and we analyze not what we think the filmmakers meant to say but what they actually said. So whether this was a mistake or not, we face the problem that in the first version of history, Nick remembers an event that has not yet happened and that he has not yet experienced.
One possibility we considered in trying to resolve the events of the first film was whether it was some type of parallel dimension theory. In this case, we would be assuming that every possible history happened, and somehow Nick's instability makes it possible for him to remember a moment from one of the other histories, a moment that a different version of Nick had experienced.
This of course gives us the problem we had in the other film, of what happens to the other Nicks (the ones who experienced and thus remember the histories into which our Nick moves), but it gives us another problem as well. When Nick leaps back to the accident, tells Julie to don her seatbelt and gets the car off the road, we understand his motivation--he knows the accident is coming. Similarly, when he embarrasses Bristol at the Christmas party and steals the Strike Line Technologies file from his desk, he does this because he knows that this seemingly insignificant account got Bristol the vice presidency. If we are looking at a history of the world in which there is a Nick who does not know these things, then that Nick lacks the motivation to do these things. Those are histories that can only happen if they are caused by the actions of a time traveling Nick trying to alter history.
That means that even if the original history is one dimension and the history in which Julie makes the statement he remembers is another, that other dimension is one that can only exist once Nick travels to the past; therefore what she says is in his sequential future not merely because he has not yet experienced it, but because that world will not come into existence until that day in October 2007 when he travels back to 2006 and makes the change. Even on parallel dimension theory he cannot remember it in the original history, because the universe in which that is said has not yet come into existence.
So perhaps we should congratulate the filmmakers for managing to find one more impossibility to include in this film. They are not yet done, though. We have that last trip to consider.
There was one other problem with the first Butterfly Effect film which they managed to incorporate into the second. Despite the fact that Nick only makes three trips to the past he still manages to overlap himself. That is, his future self takes over his past self at the same time that he had already done so, and he does so with the intent to change what he had already changed.
We buy into the idea that Nick can go back and change what he did at moments in the past; that's the film's gimmick, and it never quite explains how he does it but that it is a condition, something like that of The Time Traveler's Wife: he was born this way. So on the anniversary of the accident he leaves the present behind and leaps into the version of himself that is driving the SUV down the mountainside, and saves the lives of his friends. That changes the future, and he changes the future again, and then, because of how wrong everything has gone, he leaps back into himself at the birthday party, has a very bad confrontation with Julie, and then winds up pursuing her down the mountain, as she has his SUV and he has stolen someone else's car to try to catch her before the tire blows.
There is an issue of timing concerning that truck, and we will consider that next; but given that the truck is there Julie is very close to the original schedule. That means that this is right about the time when Nick--the other Nick--is going to leap in from the future--the earlier future--and take over his body. Where is he? Why does he not arrive? Or if he does, why is there no conflict between the two future versions of Nick, as to who gets to control the body driving this car?
We already saw something of the answer to this, in that the film seems to rely on an interpretation of Niven's Law, to the effect that once you've changed the past it remains changed unless someone else travels to the past and changes it. The odd aspect of this is found in this question: if having changed the past a time traveler does not need to leave the new future to do so, what happens if he does? Would there be two of him in the past? This seems to be necessary in this case. When Nick traveled to the picnic and saved the lives of his friends, that had to be the Nick who knew about the accident. The Nick created by those acts would not have made that trip to the past nor made those changes if he had; yet the Nick who returns from the Christmas party trip obviously benefited from that altered universe, so the original Nick must still arrive at the picnic to save everyone even though he has been written out of existence. Now another Nick arrives to use the same body to make different changes; but where is the Nick who already arrived?
This problem plagues divergent dimension theory, but whether or not this is an example of that, it is an inconsistency in the treatment of time that is never explained. It makes for an interesting story, but it does not work under any coherent theory of time travel.
Nick makes his final trip, arriving at the picnic in time to change his conversation with Julia. He gets that quote he has already remembered. Despite his conversations with her in the future he is oblivious to the fact that she is about to inform him of her pregnancy, and so intent on pressing her to go to school in New York that this revelation throws him, and in his confusion she flees, taking his keys and his car down the mountain.
He knows that that tire is going to blow, and that she will be killed by the oncoming truck if she does not get safely off the road; so he steals a car to pursue her. At this point we have two genuine "butterfly effect" problems, a big one and a little one.
The little problem concerns the tire. Granted that it is weakened and about to burst, it is impossible to know when that will occur. The flat will occur at the moment when the tire reaches the stress point that overtaxes it in its weakened state, and that is caused by many factors that have changed--the load in the car (reduced passengers), the nature of the driving (a different, and distressed and rushed, driver), even which bumps on the road the car hits and at what speed and vector. Julia might make it to the bottom of the hill, or have the flat somewhere where she can easily bring the car to a safe stop. Of course, Nick does not have time to consider this, and cannot trust that it would be so (she might have the flat sooner in a worse spot), so it does not matter much to the character motivations; and we do not see the flat, so she perhaps never knows why he was trying to stop her.
The bigger problem is that truck.
In the original history, Nick's conversation with Julia is interrupted by the call from Bristol, and they walk back to the beach to collect their friends and their equipment, then get in his car and start driving, quickly but not rushing, down the mountain. They are about a minute ahead of the truck. In this altered history, before Bristol calls Nick has told Julia she has to leave for New York, she has burst into tears and anger, run from the scene, grabbed only the car keys without a word to her friends, leapt in Nick's car and fled the scene as fast as possible; yet when Nick reaches her she is behind the truck. Who moved the truck? Nothing Nick did in changing history could have delayed the truck, but everything Julia does demands that she is on that road earlier than they were in the original history.
It could be that this is not the same truck. That it has the same distinctive color, mirrors, and exhaust, and she encountered it in the same area of the roadway (shortly after passing the "roadway narrows" sign) could be coincidence. However, against all probability, the California license plate number on the back of the trailer--which appears to be A13C74I, which is not a legitimate California truck plate number for the design--is identical to the one on the front of the cab. It might have been another mistake, saving money using the same truck, but it's clear that Nick also believes it to be the truck that hit them, and there is every reason to believe it is--except that it is ahead of them.
We might hypothesize that Nick had passed the truck before the accident. That won't fit the timeline, either, though. He comments about how fast Julie is driving, and she left sooner, and still did not catch the truck until in the no-passing zone; neither of them would have attempted to pass that truck there but for the tension of the situation, and in the original history Nick certainly would not have reached the truck before that.
The only conclusion is that someone did not think through the events clearly enough to realize that Julie could not be behind a truck that had been behind Nick. Either that, or they wanted her to be behind the truck for the dramatic tension, and did not believe that their audience would be smart enough to recognize the inconsistency.
We have already looked at two problems with Nick's final trip to the past--changing history he already changed and the timing of the positions of vehicles on the road. We also recognized the inability of parallel or divergent dimension theories to explain the events we see. Looming over it all, though, is one final infinity loop: when Nick goes off the cliff to save Julie and his friends, he makes it impossible for him to have done anything he would ever have done after that moment--including travel to the past to make these changes. Discarding Niven's Law as we already have, that means all of history unravels--Nick did not tell Julie to go to New York, so she did not take his car, so he was not killed in that accident; but even before that, he did not travel back to the accident to tell her to don her seatbelt, and he did not manage to get the car off the road, because he died a year before making that trip. Thus the original history is restored; but the original history leads to the replacement history, and the replacement history leads back to the original one. And unlike Donnie Darko, Nick has no interfering time-traveling ghost to save him.
There is a fascinating hint of future possibilities given when Julie's son Nick (probably Nick Miller, although under California law she could have named him Nick Larson after his father) sees the photo of the picnic quiver, the way his father sometimes saw them before traveling to the past. Technically, Nick Miller is in that photo--we don't see him because he is inside his mother--so theoretically he could travel back to that moment and alter the past, and our history might not be stable even yet. However, Julie is not yet so far along as to be showing; it is difficult to imagine anything little Nick could do that she would even notice, never mind that he could have a significant impact on events. Instead, we have the likelihood that there could be a sequel, when little Nick matures and starts making forays into his own past.
It is interesting in another way, too, though. Evan Treborn never experienced anything other than blackouts (which Nick did not experience) until his sophomore year of college; Nick Larson was certainly older than that--Julie turned 24 on the day she died. Yet little Nick already sees pictures as unstable--and that means that he will never realize this is unusual. All of us, not only children, assume that our sensory experience is more or less the same as that for everyone else, barring some clear indication otherwise. Nearsighted children do not know that everyone else sees better than they do until someone gives them glasses; colorblind individuals do not know that what they call "blue" is not the same color as what others see. Nick, similarly, will not realize that pictures never move like that until some conversation with someone causes him to realize that they don't see what he sees. How that will impact his future--and his past--remains to be seen.
Julie obviously chooses the school in New York; without Nick's job there is nothing holding her in California. She must have forgiven Nick, even though she might not ever discover that he knew the tire was going to blow, because she names his son for him. Trevor's future is less clear. Amanda voiced the opinion that without Nick he would not be able to keep his job, and while we might think that cold, we also see Bristol fire him as scapegoat when a client is lost that Bristol was supposed to close. Apart from the previously noted shuffling of accounts with personnel changes, there is no reason to think Bristol will not get the promotion now that Nick is gone, and no reason to think that he will not eliminate the cavalier and disrespectful Trevor sooner. There are, though, worse things than losing your job shortly after the death of your best friend, such as losing your life a few weeks before your wedding. The firing will probably prolong his life, whatever job he gets next.
Overall, the movie is convoluted and impossible on any theory of time. That's often what makes such movies popular--the audience is lulled into believing that there must be a solution that makes it all work, and tries to find it. It was still a better story than I expected, and in the sense of self-sacrificial love for the benefit of friends has what we could call a happy, but not a Hollywood, ending.