There is much bad to be said about this entire series, and about each entry individually, but there is also much that is challenging, intriguing, and interesting. Most of what is bad in the first movie is compounded in the sequels, and there are a lot of inconsistencies and quite a bit that does not make sense under any theory of time. Indeed, each of the films individually fails to understand and follow its own rules, and this is compounded by the set as the rules become inconsistent from one to the next.
So we begin with the first film; the others will follow in due course.
At least in the world of time travel films, it seems that the way to get a lot of attention and a cult following is to create a story in which the rules of time are not immediately clear. Both Primer and Donnie Darko gained prominence this way. Another film that has a strong following in large part because it is difficult to understand is Butterfly Effect.
If you have heard about this film, you likely will have heard that it is very depressing. That may be because there are two versions, and diehard fans prefer the director's cut. This analysis is of the theatrical release, and the director's cut will be excluded as parole evidence. There are reasons why footage hits the cutting room floor, and not all of them are about time constraints. It is reported that the main character commits suicide in the director's cut; in the theatrical release he only attempts to do so. It still has something of a melancholy ending, but is not terribly depressing. It also makes a rather good film, enjoyable in its own terms, apart from the time travel elements.
It is the story of Evan Treborn, played in his adult years by Ashton Kutcher; it has been observed that his name is a play on the words event reborn, but the name is downplayed in the film, mentioned only once about halfway through, earlier known from his first name and his mother's name. Evan is a somewhat troubled child who has blackouts, moments in his life during which he does things he is not aware he is doing. These worry his mother, in part because some of those things, such as drawing a picture of himself with a knife standing over two bodies, are themselves frightening, and partly because his father apparently suffered from a similar problem with memory gaps and then later had a more serious condition which led to him being institutionalized.
Other than this problem, Evan is very intelligent, well-liked, and successful; but when he is twenty and a college sophomore studying psychology and particularly memory problems, he has an entirely different experience. Reading part of one of his journals to a girl visiting his dorm, he suddenly loses touch with reality and experiences the events which to that point he had never known. He experiments with this, determining first that these are the real events of his past and second that he has the power to change them and so alter the course of his life and the lives of those around him.
The film's name comes from the principle of chaos theory which maintains that very small causes support very great effects, and thus that whenever Evan changes any detail the outcomes are unpredictable. Those outcomes are not that unpredictable, but it frequently happens that whenever Evan attempts to make everything better, something gets much worse, driving him to attempt to change it all yet again. Ultimately he creates a world in which everything is reasonably good for everyone he knows, but at the cost of never having Kayleigh in his life, the one girl he most dearly loved in every other iteration. She, her brother Tommy, and Evan's friend Lenny are in most versions of his life in one way or another.
Tracing the timelines is very challenging; but the most challenging of all proves to be the initial history. Before we can address that, though, we must come to grips with the blackouts, what causes them, and how they relate to the time travel. That is where we will start.
The most difficult problem with the film pertains to the blackouts experienced by the young Evan Treborn. It is clear that he does something during these times, and that he does not remember what he does. The logic of the film suggests that we should believe that these are the moments when his future self has taken control of his younger self, and thus all the actions are controlled by the future self and all the memories belong to the future self. There are, however, at least four problems with this idea.
First, toward the end of the film Evan manages to return to points in his past for which there is no evidence that he ever had experienced a blackout. The first of these is when he was in the woods with two friends before his dog was killed, when he prepares them for what is about to happen. The second is when he uses a home movie of a family party to disrupt his relationship with Kayleigh before it begins. It is possible that the second was a blackout of which we were unaware, but the first clearly was not. Further, his father traveled to the past using a photo album, and it is unlikely that these were photos of his times of blackout.
Second, unless we are using fixed time theory, there must be an original history in which Evan took action, in order for there to be a future from which Evan can return to change events. Yet if it is fixed time, then it is impossible for Evan to change the past (Cheeseman's Emotional Energy Theory aside). It would thus have to be that Evan had no blackouts until the time when he used his journals to travel to the past and relive those moments; but he only has the journals because of the blackouts, and thus the blackouts become dependent on themselves in a predestination paradox in which the blackouts create the journals which create the blackouts. Note that whether we use replacement theory or parallel or divergent dimension theory, Evan must have the journals in the history from which he departs, and we recognize from the penultimate timeline that without the blackouts he would never start the journals.
The third problem is that in the earliest returns to the past, Evan acts like the seven year old child that he was. Granted that he is confused and disoriented, he sees the events as remembering what he did, not deciding what to do. This demands that there was an original history, some course of action that he followed, during each blackout prior to the changes he made.
The final problem is that once he understands what is happening, he makes real changes to the past which make real changes to the future. If, though, the blackouts were caused by his intervention from the future, then we must conclude either that (in true fixed time fashion) he changed nothing, and thus that what happens is what had always happened (not consistent with the film), or that for each blackout there was a previous moment when he became his younger self and did whatever he originally did. However, some of the things he did are inexplicable on that theory, leaving us with the question of how the blackouts and the time travel fit together.
Our working solution is that neither causes the other, but both are the result of a common cause. That is, Evan Treborn has a condition which will ultimately allow him to enter his own mind at points in the past and relive those moments, even change events as he does so; that condition also causes him to have memory lapses, moments when he is not aware of what is happening to him. Those memory lapses give him the opportunity to learn that he can re-enter his own mind at points in the past, and ultimately to do so at moments which were not memory lapses.
With this as a starting point, we can attempt to reconstruct the original history.
Compiling an original timeline is a difficult step, largely because of the blackouts problem. However, if we work from the assumption that the blackouts and the time travel do not cause each other, but arise from the same abnormality and create the opportunities, we can begin to reconstruct that original history.
It begins with a kiss. We do not see this kiss until the end of the film, and then only in a home movie, but little Kayleigh kisses young Evan, and this sparks the beginning of their romance. From this point forward, they are drawn to each other.
Evan turns seven and has a blackout in school. It is during this blackout that he draws the picture of himself with a knife. This event is inexplicable, and may prove fatal to the film. The future version of Evan who later draws that picture also pierces his hands, which he does not do in the original timeline. However, that picture is what leads Mrs. Treborn to introduce Evan to Dr. Redfield, who suggests that Evan keep the journals. It thus must be that Evan drew something disturbing enough that his teacher alerted his mother and his mother had him examined. That it would be the same picture is beyond coincidence, and thus is a displaced event: no version of Evan would have drawn that picture and not pierced his own hands.
There is then a moment when his mother finds him in a daze in the kitchen holding a knife, and he does not remember how he got it. This too is displaced; it did not happen in the original history. The only reason for Evan to have that knife at that moment is based on his knowledge from the future. He did not have it at that moment in the original history. That will have only minor impact on events. He is already scheduled to see Dr. Redfield, and he has a blackout either way. What is not known is what he does in that blackout. His mother will be more concerned in a later timeline when she finds him with the knife, but simply finding him dazed, particularly given his father's history, will concern her.
If seeing him with the knife did not dissuade her from delivering him to play with Kayleigh and Tommy, seeing him merely dazed certainly would not do so. Thus we have the Robin Hood filming, and in the midst of this Evan has another blackout. It is apparent that Mr. Miller gets the boy to engage in inappropriate activity with his own daughter, the details of which are extremely important to Kayleigh and Tommy (who watches), but are only suggested to us, for obvious reasons. This has the effect of building the bond between Kayleigh and Evan, but also of destroying much of who Kayleigh would have been.
After this, Mrs. Treborn allows her young son to visit his sick father, a violently dangerous man in lockup. All is going well until Evan has another blackout. We would like to guess that the altered scene Evan creates when he returns to this moment from the future is what happened, but again that cannot be the original history. It might be sufficient, though, that Jason Treborn recognizes in his son the same condition from which he himself has suffered, and determines to prevent the kinds of disasters he knows from experience the affliction causes. That a dangerous and unstable man might attempt to strangle someone he recognizes as similarly afflicted is not surprising; that he would attempt to strangle the same person when that person exhibits even more obvious symptoms is less so. The blow intended to subdue the patient proves fatal, and Evan attends the funeral of the one person who might have been able to explain all of this to him.
We have managed to get through Evan's childhood, introducing him to his blackouts and the love of his life.
Tommy Miller has a lot of anger in his life thanks to his father, and his sister Kayleigh is in pretty bad shape as well. Together with Evan and Lenny, who it seems is there merely because he is Evan's friend, they are becoming thirteen-year-old delinquents. They find an explosive called a "blockbuster" in the Miller's basement, and decide to pull a prank; they agree that Lenny will put the stick, on a cigarette fuse, in someone's mailbox. Then, while awaiting the bang, Evan has another memory gap. The next thing he knows they are all running through the woods dragging Lenny, and he does not know why.
It has been observed that you cannot use a cigarette for a delayed fuse, but that is a more recent development, as chemicals have been added to cigarettes to cause them to extinguish if left unattended. It was not so long ago that this would have worked.
We pick up pieces of it from a session of hypnotherapy, but it is too difficult for the young Evan to face; thus our knowledge comes from his later visit to that moment when he is twenty--the moment he never understood, which changed Lenny forever and no one would explain to him. Someone came home, mother and baby, and walked to the mailbox, both killed in the blast, rather horribly.
It appears no one makes the connection to them, but their foursome is destroyed. Lenny does not want to be around Tommy, so Evan and Kayleigh are sometimes with Lenny and sometimes with Tommy. One day they go to a movie with Tommy (Se7en, which is R rated so they should not have been able to enter), but during the movie Kayleigh goes to the lobby, Evan follows, and the two of them kiss there--which Tommy sees, becoming enraged, but getting diverted into a vicious fight with a bully who made the mistake of picking on him at that moment.
On another afternoon Evan and Kayleigh are are exploring an abandoned junkyard with Lenny, and the threesome run into Tommy, who has captured Evan's dog and is about to set it afire in a burlap sack. There is a fight, but Evan blacks out again. He is no match for Tommy, who stuns him and sets the dog ablaze. He threatens Lenny's mother, then flees the scene leaving Kayleigh, Evan, and Lenny to deal with the grief.
It is at this point that Mrs. Treborn decides her son cannot stay around these friends, and she relocates her family somewhere far enough away that despite his intentions expressed in a note held to the window and kept for years after, Evan did not come back for Kayleigh for quite a while--not, in fact, until things changed in his twentieth year, when he started traveling to the past.
Now Evan is twenty, a very successful psychology major in his second year of college, free of any blackouts since then, and celebrating. He brings a girl back to the room, and she wants him to read from his journals. The selection is presumably random, but happens to be the junkyard scene where the dog was killed. As he is reading he suddenly loses touch with the room and is living the part he could never remember. This disrupts his date, but it also begins the new part of his life. He visits Lenny, upsetting his already unstable friend, but confirms that this is what happened.
Technically, whether we use replacement theory or some kind of divergent or parallel dimension theory, this puts us in a new timeline (creating it or moving us to it, depending on the form of the theory). The boy who sees the events surrounding the death of his dog now knows the future in great detail. Practically it changes nothing. He tells no one what will happen, and believes that he is remembering, reliving as a sort of hallucinatory memory, not as a reality. He is swept along with events, and makes no effort to choose otherwise. It is shocking enough simply to remember, and the more to discover that the memory is correct.
Not at all surprisingly, he next determines to use the journals to "remember" that one event that so damaged Lenny and destroyed their foursome, the mailbox. He sees what we previously described; but he also drops his cigarette on his shirt and burns himself. This is significant, because even though he is still merely being swept along in events, he has made a very small change in the past. It is at this point that he, and we, know that he is not remembering, but literally reliving, going back into the person he once was but taking what he knows now. He finds that burn on himself in the future, seven years later; it was never there before.
This is the first difficulty created by the time travel, and it is a difficulty that will repeat in all future trips. It is the fact that he remembers the history that he has erased, not the history that he has created. Like the Marty McFly who at the end of Back to the Future is surprised by the world in which he must have been raised, Evan remembers the world that he has unmade despite living in the world he has made. Just as it is inconsistent in Frequency for the burnt letters to appear on the table as John Sullivan watches, as his father burns them thirty years in the past, it is not merely that Evan now knows how he got that cigarette burn; he now has a cigarette burn he did not have an hour before. He has changed history, and he knows it.
It is of course necessary to the story that the burn appear now, and that he not have had it previously. He must realize that he has changed history, and that can only happen if his memories are out of synch with his situation to some degree. Yet it does not make a lot of sense temporally. If he has changed everything that happened, why does he remember what never happened instead of what happened instead? We could guess that he has leapt into a divergent or parallel self, that his consciousness went from the unburned twenty year old in the dorm to the mailbox explosion and then to the mind of the twenty year old with the cigarette burn. It then forces us to ask what happened to the other Evan Treborn, whose mind left his body in that other version of the dormitory. Perhaps he was not burned, and decided that that memory was not real after all. For this particular version of him, it's not that big a deal; but for some of those yet to come, not actually undoing the world in which he finds himself, not actually jumping to the newly formed universe, would be a disaster. The next timeline is exactly that sort, as Evan Treborn tries to fix the life of the girl he loves. That will be the subject of the next article.
Next to the mystery of the mailbox, what bothered Evan the most about his childhood was the question of what happened in the basement. He almost uses his journals to go back and find out, but hesitates. If indeed things happened as he thought, it will be very different if he does this as mentally twenty years old than it would have been for two seven-year-olds. Instead he visits Kayleigh, finding her working as a waitress in a lousy diner and trying to question her about it. She gets very upset, and this triggers her suicide; Tommy learns that they had some sort of discussion, and threatens Evan's life. Evan drops flowers on her casket when he is alone at the gravesite, along with the note promising to come for her. He now needs to fix this. Finding the journal from the making of the Robin Hood movie, he takes himself back to that basement.
This time, he quite intentionally alters time. He threatens George Miller and scolds him for ruining his daughter's life. The movie scene is never shot, and a frightened Miller treats his daughter Kayleigh remarkably well for the next thirteen years. Evan snaps back to the future.
He awakens in Kayleigh's bed in her sorority house on campus. They are very much in love, going to get married, and having a wonderful time. His former (in another timeline) punk-dressing roommate thinks he's fratboy scum, but all the girls love him and he's a BMOC at the frat house. He is no longer a star student, but he throws a wonderful date for Kayleigh.
We must digress at this point to recognize that under strict replacement theory Evan just created an infinity loop. There is no reason now for him to have traveled back to that basement to save Kayleigh; the montage of history undone and redone tells us that they grew up as childhood sweethearts. Yet if he never made that trip, he never threatened Mr. Miller, and never saved Kayleigh. We might argue that Kayleigh told him what happened, but he had her cover her ears. Tommy heard, but Tommy's relationship with Evan is not very good in this world--as we will see in a moment. It seems, though, that the writers are relying on some form of Niven's Law, that once the past has been changed it stays changed unless someone from the future goes back and changes it again. That's a difficult theory to defend, but it's not up to the movie to defend it, only to treat it consistently. It has not mattered to this point, because the changes he made would not have changed him making those changes; but this trip is different.
What Evan did not realize, not having memories from this history, is that Tommy got the brunt of Mr. Miller's problems, and still does not want Evan to touch Kayleigh (a strange detail, since this time Tommy witnessed Evan defending Kayleigh, but he is apparently a very sick boy). Further, Kayleigh neglected to mention that Tommy was just released from detention. Seeing the two of them together, Tommy attacks with a club. Evan disarms him and violently kills him.
Evan is now in prison. His mother is wrong about self-defense; the best he can expect is involuntary manslaughter. (His claim to self-defense ended the moment he was no longer in danger, which is arguably when Tommy was down and Evan had the club. Also, he should not be in prison--prisoners awaiting trial are held in jails, separate from those who have been convicted and sentenced.) He wants his journals, so he can change things yet again; but they are taken from him, and he gets only a few pages of them. Still he decides to trick his cell mate into helping him recover the journals. He does this by using the few pages he has to change history in a way that will appear to be a miracle; but this is inconsistent with what has happened before, and will have to be examined next.
In order to escape from prison, Evan must persuade his cellmate to help him. To do so, he claims to have spoken with Jesus, and that he can prove it given a minute. He thumbs through the few pages of his journal he has managed to salvage from the gang members who are right now reading the rest of them, and chooses to return to the moment he created that picture of himself stabbing someone. He is now in an elementary school classroom.
He delays to draw the picture because the teacher tries to focus him on it. Probably he chose this image because he needed to think of something quickly, and it was what he expected to do in this future. He then walks to the teacher's desk, where she has two metal spikes sticking upright for stabbing papers (the sort that are used by some merchants to hold sales receipts). Ignore the fact that even thirty years ago such dangerous devices would be at best very rare in elementary school classrooms, accept that he grits his teeth and slaps his hands down on the spikes, piercing both of them.
If the movie were true to its title, the ripples of this particular change would have made a serious difference everywhere; it is doubtful that he and Kayleigh would have been the fraternity/sorority couple. But strictly speaking, it does not have to derail the future that brings him to that jail cell, and so we can get there.
That, though, is where our problem arises.
Up to this point, it has been fairly simple: Evan changes the world, and everyone remembers the world he has created except for him--he remembers the world he destroyed. But this time, his cellmate sees the scars form on Evan's hands, right before his own eyes. This is the problem.
If Evan is the only one who remembers the other history, then for his cellmate those scars have always been there. His memory of today will be of having met the Evan Treborn who had those scars in his hand since he was seven years old. If, though, we allow that the cellmate sees the scars appear, that means that he is remembering the other history--and if he remembers the other history this time, then everyone must remember the other history every time. That is, Kayleigh must remember making the porn film which now was never made, and then losing Evan when he moved, becoming a waitress, killing herself, and then waking up in a bed in a sorority house with Evan, as if it were all a bad dream but she can't remember the reality. Evan's punk roommate must wonder why Evan is not his roommate now, and the frat brothers must be confused as to how he suddenly became one of them.
That is not how it happened. No one other than Evan Treborn remembers the world that was, and that means that the Evan Treborn this man knew already had those scars in his hands before Evan attempted to work the miracle. He cannot remember those palms without those scars, so the trick does not work.
Complicating it, if we approach this moment under replacement theory, once he has made this trip to give himself these scars, he must make the same trip to give himself the same scars, and he has no reason to do so. He cannot even think that giving himself those scars will persuade his cellmate of anything, because he already has them. That will create an infinity loop. It is less disastrous under other theories of time, but it is not clear that it would work under any of them.
Still, assuming that it works anyway, it was a clever idea that brings us to the next timeline.
We can cut him some slack, maybe, because when Evan Treborn was trying to escape from the prison in which he was confined for killing Tommy, he had a very limited supply of journals and a very short time in which to use them. He probably was not certain what he was going to do when he chose to return to a time moments before Tommy killed his dog, but he probably hoped that if he could save the dog he could keep Tommy out of juvenile detention and maybe make things all right for him. This was also the first time Evan visited a moment in his past which had not been connected to a blackout.
It was a good idea, on some level, but it failed to account for Lenny's problem with Tommy stemming from that mailbox explosion. Evan gave Lenny a piece of junk with sharp points and edges so that Lenny could cut open the bag and free the dog; he knew that in the original history Lenny had tried but been unable to do so. That was the plan; but plan A became plan B, as Evan faced Tommy (reliving these events for the second time, but this time taking control of them). He would persuade Tommy to release the dog. Tommy had been badly abused by his father, but Evan knew how much Tommy loved his sister, and Tommy would never leave Kayleigh alone in that house. It was working. Tommy was relenting.
Then Lenny stabbed him.
Lenny had never been completely right after the mailbox incident, and was much worse after the dog incineration. This time he was very much destroyed. Evan leaps back to the future, finds himself back in the dorm with his punk-styled roommate. This time, though, he is rushed to the hospital. He is bleeding from several facial orifices, and has suffered damage to the memory portions of his brain, as if he had rewritten too much too fast.
It is not clear what he rewrote, but apparently he knows that Lenny is in lockdown here. He lifts the doctor's access card and pays his friend a visit. Lenny is very upset; he knows that Evan expected something to happen, and so blames him.
Evan makes another trip here. It is temporally inconsequential--that is, although it creates a new history, it is indistinguishable from the previous history. He visits the moment when he blacked out while visiting his father. He tries to ask his father pointed questions, and his father is now persuaded that the power is dangerous and only makes things worse. They argue, and his father attacks him. That is not much different from the original history. Although we do not know what either said in that history, we know that Jason Treborn recognized the danger that his son was, and tried to kill him. It is much the same.
Then back in the present Evan goes to see Kayleigh, but somehow he does not know that she was not at the restaurant when he visited her there before her suicide. Getting a lead from her father, he finds her. Her life is much worse now as a drug-abusing prostitute. He takes her to dinner and tells her the whole story; she is unpersuaded, particularly by the suggestion that she could ever have been happy as a sorority girl.
He decides he has to change this. He has to fix what happened at the mailbox. That is where he goes next, but we have to make a stop along the way.
We followed Evan Treborn as he returned to the junkyard where his dog had been incinerated by Tommy Miller, where they changed history when Lenny killed Tommy. This, though creates an anomaly which has to be considered carefully. This was the second time Evan relived that moment, but that should change what happened the first time.
To recap, originally Evan was attacked by Tommy then blacked out and remembered nothing until he revived to see the charred remains of his pet. He then relived those events, his first experience with this odd travel to the past, which included Tommy attacking him and killing the dog. Then, in what we count as his fifth trip down memory lane, he returns to that same time, takes control of the situation, and changes it.
No matter how you figure things, seven years later Evan Treborn will be making his first trip to the past, and he will see--not remember, but actually see--what happened there. He will not, however, see Tommy burn the dog. He will instead see Tommy relent and Lenny then stab him fatally. That will also be consistent with what he remembers. Yet is that what will happen? On the one hand, the fifth trip Evan got there first, a little earlier than the first trip Evan, and so set up a different sequence of events; on the other hand, would the first trip Evan arriving later displace the fifth trip Evan, and then go with the flow the way he did in his first trip? If he does, what does that mean will happen? If he later visits Lenny, will he be able to get enough information from his more severely disturbed friend to persuade him that this was real?
It seems that Evan Treborn's future has been derailed in ways that make it unpredictable, because of the interaction of multiple trips to the past. The complications are such that we cannot hope that time will stabilize; he undoes the information on which he has been making choices, not only in single trips, but in the interrelationships of multiple trips.
The film has a ready answer to this, though. Evan does not remember what really happened in the world that is; he remembers what has unhappened in the worlds that were. The problem that made his life so confusing when he awoke in Kayleigh's sorority house bedroom is the solution that saves him now. It does not matter that the Evan Treborn of a week or two back traveled back to a different past than the one he visited when he made that trip. His past is a mongrel conglomeration of fragments of different histories. For him, he really was in jail the other day, and he really does have two distinct memories of the events of that afternoon in the junkyard. Like Shroedinger's Cat, his dog is both dead and alive. He does not remember what really happened. He remembers the moments through which he lived, the original histories of each timeline from the moment he left the future to create them to the moment he left to create the next.
It seems a bit absurd and does not fit well in any usual theory of time, but at least on this point it is fairly consistent. If Evan remembers the events through which he actually lived before he changed them, and not the events of the world he created by his changes, then the later trip does not alter his memories of the former one. It leaves us asking what happens to these other versions of Evan who actually did live through those events, and facing inconsistencies with the theory that are difficult at best to resolve, but at least the story as told works for the first man through.
On that note, we can return with Evan to the mailbox.
Tommy is dead. Lenny is in a locked down psyche ward. Kayleigh is a drug-addicted prostitute. Butterfly Effect's hero Evan Treborn could hardly think the world worse. Oh, it's better for him, back to being a successful psychology major; but his friends matter to him, and somehow it's his fault everything has gotten so bad for them. It wasn't quite this bad before.
It all happened at that mailbox. That's where Lenny lost it; that's where the crew started to disintegrate. If he can prevent the horror there, he can make all their lives better. He returns a second time to become himself at that moment.
This is the second time Evan returned to the same moment in the past a second time. We discussed the problems with that, and since again he did this as an observer in the previous history the same answer that applied there applies again. There is a way to make it make sense, even if that way doesn't make much sense.
He has some vague idea that he is going to prevent a tragedy. He does not know exactly how. However, as the woman and her child start approaching the mailbox he steps from his hiding place and starts trying to get there first.
Tommy decides that Evan is being stupid--and rightly, too. He sees the best way to prevent the tragedy which Evan has seen but Tommy can only imagine: he runs past the mailbox and tackles the woman and her baby, just as the explosion hits.
Evan has certainly changed the future. His roommate in college is Lenny, who is a great, well-adjusted guy who is dating Kayleigh. Tommy is on campus preaching the gospel to anyone who will hear, and helping people in every way he can. His friends have wonderful lives, and they don't seem to mind at all that they have to do so much to help him, Evan, who has lost both forearms and the ability to walk.
He attempts to kill himself, but Tommy saves him and encourages him that he can't give up. His friends really care about him, but having landed in this version of the future without the past seven years of surviving and adjusting to his circumstance, he is not at all grateful for any of it.
Perhaps he would have left the world thus, but he found someone else who was hurt by this latest change in the world. Evan's mother is dying of cancer, apparently brought on by the increased smoking and other effects of the stress following his accident. So he at least tells himself that he is not doing this because it hurts so much to see Kayleigh in love with Lenny, or because he cannot stand to be the one who suffers while his friends are all freed from their pains. He is doing this to save her from the cancer, he says, as he plans yet another trip to the past.
The quadriplegic Evan Treborn has decided that another trip to the past will save his mother from cancer, and might incidentally restore his arms and legs, not to mention his relationship with Kayleigh. He gets Lenny to help him by holding the notebooks so he can read them. He makes a quick trip back to that afternoon when his mother found him with the knife. He is looking for something to destroy the blockbuster, the explosive which took his arms and legs along with the mailbox. This trip changes nothing, though--he still sees the psychiatrist and he still sees Kayleigh.
Suddenly we are forced to ask why it does not change anything. The film's consistency is breaking down. Using Niven's Law we can easily accept that changing what happens at the mailbox changes what happens with the dog that comes later, but not what happens in the basement which happened earlier, even if those events were influenced by subsequent time travel departures themselves. What happened in this history, after Evan picked up the knife? Does the fact that the past is being rewritten from that moment forward mean that the porn film is made in the basement, or will the other change hold, and the Evan from an earlier future trip to a later point in the past still control what happens there? Actions are being done and undone in inconsistent ways.
Were it even possible to trace the confusing interconnected anomalies of this film, we would conclude that the trip Evan made to warn Mr. Miller still happens in the history from which he came to look for the knife, and thus that he still arrives in the basement to warn Mr. Miller, and that line still exists. It does not lead to the fraternity story, though, because the version of the mailbox scene in which Evan is injured is also unchanged. It is complicated, but at least in this case it works. If we can get to this configuration of history, this trip does not change it. This is really stretching Niven's Law. The Evan who was injured at the mailbox never traveled to the past to warn Mr. Miller against harming Kayleigh, and never saw his dog incinerated. He never knew his friends to be other than the happy people on campus in the future, and has no reason to make any of the trips which ultimately led to his present condition. Absent Niven's Law, most of these timelines result in infinity loops themselves, and again in interaction with each other. Traditional temporal theories do not get us this far without a lot of hazy thinking.
However, the brief effort to arm his younger self before making the Robin Hood movie does not work, and makes no significant changes to the future, so Evan will have to try yet again if he is to create the perfect world.
Having failed to cut out a critical event in the past with a kitchen knife, the quadriplegic Evan Treborn has decided to save his mother from cancer, and perhaps incidentally restore his arms and legs by going back to the basement yet again. Again Lenny holds the notebook. This time the change he makes is more drastic: he kills seven-year-old Kayleigh.
It is obviously not what he intended. We get the impression that Evan is usually improvising in these situations, and he has apparently decided that the blockbuster, the explosive which they found in Miller's basement when he was thirteen, could be used when he was seven to threaten Mr. Miller, and destroyed in the process, ending any chance that it would have been used at the mailbox. Thus he grabs it, waves it about, lights it, and is trying to decide what to do with it when Mr. Miller rushes him, the explosive flies free, and Kayleigh recovers it.
In some sense the plan worked. We do not know what happened to Tommy or George Miller, but given that Evan was not permanently harmed physically by the blast it is likely that they, too, survived, and that their lives were significantly altered by the loss of the girl. Lenny will be better off, as his connection to Tommy is through Evan, and so now is removed. (We know this because when Evan breaks his connection to Kayleigh in the final history, his roommate Lenny has never heard of her.) He has his body back intact, and his mother appears to be healthy. However, Evan now lives in the psychiatric ward under care of Dr. Redfield, who has tried to explain to him that there are no journals.
That part is confusing. We can certainly understand that Evan remembers the journals but that after the blast (which occurred during one of his blackouts) he never wrote them. The problem is, at what point in this timeline does Evan become aware of the history in which he wrote the journals? That is, for the Evan we have been following, yesterday the journals did exist; but the Evan who was in the psychiatric ward yesterday never wrote those journals, and unless he already had all the memories of all the timelines that have now been erased, he cannot have remembered journals which for him never existed. Yet Dr. Redfield's patient explanation conveys the sense that Evan has been asking for his journals for a long time, and has refused to believe that they do not exist, just as his father kept demanding the non-existent photo album. If Dr. Redfield has been over this before with Evan, then the Evan who lived through this history must already have remembered events from the other history. This might or might not be inconsistent--the film has never explained what happens to the versions of Evan who actually lived through the intervening events of each timeline--but it does create a puzzle that it cannot easily resolve. Either each iteration of Evan has always been out of touch with the real events of his own world as he gains the memories of the unmade events, or the real Evan of each timeline is destroyed and replaced by his doppelganger from another history.
From Dr. Redfield's perspective, it is all part of an effort by his patient to deal with the reality that he killed Kayleigh Miller in a terrible accident, and as a result he has these memory blackouts and this delusion that he has lived other lives in parallel worlds. From Evan's perspective, the changes are very real, and he needs to make one more to save Kayleigh's life, and incidentally to free himself from the mental hospital.
The journals are gone; he appears to be trapped. However, Dr. Redfield mentioned his father's photo album, and this gave Evan the clue he needed: there is no special power in the journals. What matters is that he has some object that links to his past memories in a solid and clear way. Thus he persuades his mother to bring the old home movies, and he breaks into Dr. Redfield's office to take himself back to a time before it all began, to a picnic at which little Kayleigh Miller gave little Evan Treborn a kiss.
So doing, he creates the final timeline. There is, however, something else to consider about the trips just examined.
There has been a certain amount of uncertainty concerning what it was that Evan Treborn intended to do, first with the knife and then with the explosive in the basement that killed Kayleigh. The assumption was that he was trying to fix the future by undoing the explosion at the mailbox, preventing himself from becoming a quadriplegic and so saving his mother from cancer. However, there is a possibility that he had something else in mind, but was repeatedly thwarted. He may have been attempting to commit suicide.
We should give this serious thought. He has already demonstrated his resolve to do so, attempting to drown himself in the bathtub but being rescued by Tommy. He proved that he has the willpower to inflict serious pain on himself when he slammed his hands on the spikes to give himself scars. It might be that what he wanted to destroy was himself, intending to use the knife to end his life at seven, before any of this happened. It might be, too, that as he lit the fuse on the dynamite he thought that having it in his hand would mean that he would die rather than be crippled.
In the first instance, this solution does not work. He had time to use the knife but instead walked across the kitchen to where he would be more likely to be seen--to where he might have remembered having been seen. Had he stayed where he was and stabbed himself, he might have managed to die before his mother could have realized there was a problem. It is said that when men attempt suicide they are more often successful. Women still hope to be rescued, and so are less careful; men have made their decision. Evan was sloppy, if this was his intent. Besides, he said he needed a way to destroy the blockbuster, which is the explosive.
It is less clear, though, whether we can say the same about the second. Once he lights the fuse, someone is likely to be hurt. He is threatening Mr. Miller, but he can't believe that killing Kayleigh's father will fix the future--if she could not forgive him for killing her brother, she will not for killing her father. If he does not intend to die himself, he needs a way to dispose of the explosive such that no one is hurt. If he is not planning to die, he is not doing this very well.
If that were Evan's intention, and if he were successful, he would have created a classic grandfather paradox: he will have undone his existence by killing himself, which has the same effect as killing your own grandfather, creating an infinity loop, but with considerably more certainty. It is interesting on two levels that he does not succeed. On one level, it illustrates the belief of fixed time theorists that the universe would prevent you from creating such a paradox. On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of paradox that Evan has created in other ways several times, undoing the future cause of the past change, and in each case it has followed Niven's Law to prevent paradox. Why should it be different in this case? Why should whether Evan kills himself not be covered by Niven's Law, when everything else is?
If Evan did kill himself in the past, that's the end of the story--there will be no Evan Treborn in the future to travel back to fix this. That's not an entirely implausible ending for a time travel movie, but then for those who have seen Donnie Darko it's a bit of "been there, done that, got the T-shirt". It's not a new nor even clever idea. It still might have been the intention; but then, if his goal is to change his mother's life to save her from the cancer she contracted because of the stress of his injuries in an explosion, it is unlikely that his death six years earlier in a different explosion will be less stressful to the woman whose husband is hospitalized for mental illness already. It's a bad plan if it's the plan, but it's not the plan. He is trying to eliminate the explosive, not use it.
There is one more matter to consider before we reach the final change.
Ee have already considered the problem created when Evan Treborn returns to the same events a second time. Having done it to save the dog, he did it again to save the baby at the mailbox. In both of those cases, though, his first visit was as an observer, discovering the events that had happened during the blackouts of his youth. This time it's different. He had already traveled to that basement to warn Mr. Miller to leave Kayleigh alone, undoing the kiddie porn film and making Kayleigh's life much better. Now he travels to that same moment, displacing himself and creating a different new version of the past.
All of the problems already addressed apply afresh, but with a new wrinkle: why is Evan not fighting with himself for control of himself? We understand why the blacked out Evan is going along for the ride; he does not know what is happening as it is. We can almost grasp why the first and second trip Evans, being mere observers, do not interfere with the interventions of the fifth and seventh trip Evans. However, the Evan who came back here on his third trip ought to be present, trying to accomplish his agenda, while the Evan on his ninth trip has a very different agenda.
It does not help to say that the actions of the ninth trip Evan will undo those of the third trip Evan. Certainly that is true, both because third trip Evan now will never have made the porn film and because he does not have the journals and has never discovered his ability to travel to his own past. However, that logic will mean that ninth trip Evan cannot make the trip, either, and thus the acts of both of them must be preserved by Niven's Law if either is to become history. Nor can we suppose, as with fifth trip Evan, that ninth trip Evan got here first; he seems to have targeted the basement more precisely, and perhaps arrived second. We are back to the question of who displaces whom.
The film, though, assumes that whoever makes the last time travel event controls the events in the past. It does not explain, nor even consider, what happens to the traveler who made the previous trip. This becomes one of its mysteries, preventing us from developing a coherent theory of time from it. It also means that whatever this Evan Treborn did has altered every event in which Kayleigh was involved, which is almost every time travel event he ever made, and enough of them that his new self would not have near the same experience. Again, though, he remembers the undone histories, not the newly created ones, so he knows what he needs to know.
Evan Treborn's penultimate trip to the past resulted in Kayleigh Miller dying in the explosion which probably was not intended to end his own life but only threaten her father and destroy the explosive, and now as he is incarcerated in an asylum, he is going to use a home movie to go back to the moment when Kayleigh gave him that first kiss at a picnic. It is the second time he has traveled to a point in his past which is not connected to a blackout. It is also the last trip he makes.
The logic of it is imperfect. If Mr. Miller is really as sick as it appears, removing Evan from the equation will mean that he will make his movie using his son--unless perhaps it was the obvious attraction between his daughter and this other boy that gave him the idea for the love scene. In any case, every bad thing that happened in Kayleigh's life involved Evan, and almost every bad thing that happened in Evan's life involved Kayleigh. Most certainly, if Evan had not returned to that moment in the basement, Kayleigh would not have died.
Thus the twenty-year-old Evan in a six-year-old body threatens the girl he has loved all these years in all these timelines, telling her he will kill her and her family if she ever comes near him. She believes him, and runs away crying.
Thus ends their relationship, and with it all the horrors that were created by the connection between Evan and the Millers. There will be no porn film, no dynamite in a mailbox, no incinerated dog. Tommy will not be killed by Lenny nor by Evan. Evan and Lenny will be friends, and Tommy and Kayleigh will have to deal with whatever their father becomes, but they will not have to deal with these particular events. Evan will not kill anyone, and will not be crippled in a blast, and his mother will have only the ordinary stresses of raising her son while his father is institutionalized.
We know that this is what happened, because as he awakens now in the college dorm, his roommate and good friend Lenny has never heard of Kayleigh. Evan has managed to do what his father could not, what he had failed to do so many times before: he has made the world better.
He still had the blackouts, and he still saw Dr. Redfield. He still wrote the journals, and probably made a few trips back to discover what happened in those forgotten moments. The impact of those trips we could only guess, but he seems to have eliminated most of the most stressful events in his life, so we do not expect him to try to make any more changes--after all, Niven's Law asserts that once you've fixed the past, you will never have any need to travel to it again. Evan should be satisfied.
He also decides to destroy the journals, and along with them every other piece of memorabilia which he might use to return to his past: the home movies and some photographs are prominent in the pile. This would not prevent him from returning to some point in his past from some point in his future (there are undoubtedly photos of him in yearbooks, at least), but it will make it more difficult and thus less of a temptation to attempt to tweak anything. If nothing else, it is symbolic of a commitment to live with the past he has created.
We never know what became of the Millers--except for Kayleigh. Eight years later Evan sees her on the street, dressed in a business suit. She is not that much different from the girl she was at twenty, and so he recognizes her easily; but although her eyes are held on him for a moment, she cannot recognize the boy who broke her heart when they were six. We would like to think that now, finally, they will connect. They seemed so right for each other, and he has done so much for her. She cannot know that, though, and it is less likely that this Kayleigh will believe his stories than the drug addicted one did. If she even remembers when he broke her heart (which she might), it is unlikely that they will have much of a connection, and it is complicated by the fact that Evan knows so much of what might have happened and nothing of what did, even in his own life.
It is thus a melancholy ending, in which everyone has a good life, but the hero will never have the girl.
Repeatedly the film appears to rely on Niven's Law to avoid anomalies. Yet that law itself would seem to have created a major problem for the entire film.
The essence of the Law is that once someone travels from the future to the past to change the past, the impact that person has on the past is permanent, even if the change prevents him from making that same trip. Thus when Evan cripples himself at the mailbox he does not undo the impact of the trip he made to protect Kayleigh in the basement, even though he now has no reason to make that trip and could not do so if he wished. Yet it appears that when he ends his relationship with her at their first kiss, he somehow undoes every other trip he has ever made, but not this one. He never appears in the basement that first time, nor later when he exploded the dynamite; he never sees what happens at the mailbox nor returns to change it. He neither learns what happened to the dog nor tries to save it. Presumably, too, he has no cigarette burn and no scars in his hands. Niven's Law simply fails to apply; the trips he made have all been unmade.
The argument is that these trips have become impossible, not because the departures are undone but because the destination points have been erased. Since Evan travels to moments in his own past, he cannot go where his doppelganger never was. If seven-year-old Evan is not in the basement, twenty-year-old Evan cannot get there. Since this final trip has completely altered every significant event in Evan's life, he cannot make any of the trips he once made, save perhaps the one to his classroom, the one to the kitchen, and the one to visit his father. He now has no reason to pierce his hands or to grab the knife, but Niven's Law suggests he does not need a reason as long as there was one in a previous version of history.
More problematic is the question of whether he will ever travel in time at all. Nothing in this last time trip will prevent him from having the blackouts, or from seeing the psychiatrist, so he will have the journals, and one day will read from them. They will take him to different memories, and he will have different complaints about his past which he will want to fix. We cannot begin to know what these were, but it is certain that if the worst event in his life was a hangnail, he wlll consider whether he can eliminate the hangnail. Niven's Law breaks down precisely because life is never perfect, no matter how many times we fix it, and even when it is perfect we are likely to believe that something different would be better. It is not beyond possibility that this Evan Treborn deeply regrets having driven away Kayleigh Miller, and will use those home movies to fix that moment.
This leads us to a version of divergent dimension theory in which all those alternate universes are real, all those Evan Treborns are living all those different lives, and many more worlds are being created by his divergent selves as they seek to perfect their lives--and if there is one lesson we can draw from the movie, most of those worlds are bleak.
So perhaps it works, but only if you're willing to accept that for each Evan Treborn eventually the trick does not work, and he is stuck in the world he created. The worst we see is the one who stabbed two fellow inmates expecting to escape to another version of history, only to find himself still there. There might be worse than that.
There is a problem with Butterfly Effect which we have glossed over several times, because it is in one sense an "off camera" problem: although it impacts Evan Treborn, it does not impact this Evan Treborn. That is, where are all the Evan Treborns who have been displaced by the time travel?
To illustrate, consider the moment that Evan travels back and threatens Mr. Miller. When he returns to the future, he opens his eyes in Kayleigh's bed in the sorority house. Note that in this timeline:
For each of the altered histories, there must be this other Evan--the one who always had the cigarette burn, the one who grew up with scarred hands, the one crippled by the blockbuster. But it is even more complicated than that. Once he begins changing the past, he must also change those moments in his past when he traveled to the past. If he changes what happens with the dog, or at the mailbox, he also changes what his earlier selves discover when they in turn travel to those events. If he eliminates those events entirely (as he clearly does, more than once), then when his earlier self discovers time travel he will be changing different events in his past. We have the universe diverging into a great multiverse, but more significantly with every change we must have had an Evan Treborn who lived through the new version of history who now does not seem to exist.
One possible explanation is that we are creating divergent timelines in both directions. If when Evan travels to the past he causes a new universe to appear (without destroying the old), then he has left a version of himself behind to suffer the consequences of whatever happens in the old universe after his in this case failed departure and created a new version of himself in the new universe; then as he travels to the future perhaps he again splits the timeline into one in which he has no memories of any history other than the new one, and one in which he has displaced himself. That's a lot more histories, and all of them are strange and multifaceted, as in each of them at some point his alternate selves will discover the power to travel to the past, and will again make changes attempting to perfect the world they knew.
Evan's father was right: this is a very dangerous power that will create a lot of horrible circumstances for a lot of versions of yourself, half of whom will never escape because the power only works half the time.
The other explanation is that Evan destroys those versions of himself when he displaces them, or forces them into the world he left behind; but if we assume that he has undone the history he left behind, then the fates of all the displaced Evans remain a mystery.
In all of the lengthy discussion of Butterfly Effect, we have failed to determine whether the story works under some model of time. We have discovered numerous obstacles, and looked for fixes for each of them, but it may help to summarize the problems.
The blackouts are a problem only if we assume that they are caused by his visits from the future. Although the implication is that they are, the evidence suggests otherwise, and the best conclusion is that the blackouts and the time travel are consequences of the same condition.
The picture he draws of himself stabbing two men with a knife is very difficult. We know that he will eventually travel to this time to stab his hands on the spikes on the teacher's desk to fake a miracle so that he can get help to stab two men, and he will draw the picture at that time. However, if the picture was drawn by the one who was about to stab two men, that was also the one who pierced his hands, and we would be more worried about the blood than the drawing. More problematic, the picture is necessary to introduce the psychiatrist to Evan, and get the journals started. We must, then, believe that Evan drew some other disturbing picture during his blackout, a picture he could not reproduce on his return trip because he never saw it.
We cannot know what originally happened when he had a blackout in the kitchen; the scene with the knife is obviously a later iteration of time. Presumably he did nothing significant, as he was already scheduled to see the doctor.
When he visits his father, it must be sufficient to trigger the attack that Evan has a blackout in front of the man, but that is not incredible.
The cigarette burn is the first of many problems which are based on the fact that Evan knows the history he erased but not the history he created. It is necessary to the story that Evan know that he has changed the world, but difficult to devise a time travel theory that supports this. The best we can say is that however time works in this world, the time traveler shifts from history to history, taking the body of his self in that version of events but retaining the memories of the other. We assume that the other history is erased, unmade, but we cannot really know what happened to it, or to the Evan that was in it.
Several other time travel events encounter the problem that Evan intentionally changes history in a way which would undo his reason for having done so. The prime example is his first trip to Miller's basement, where he threatens George Miller to treat Kayleigh better. Kayleigh thus will grow up happy and well-adjusted, there never will have been a porn film, and her forever boyfriend Evan will not know that there was any pain to prevent--a classic infinity loop under replacement theory. The film appears to rely on Niven's Law, that once the future changes the past, it holds its new form even if the cause in the future is changed, but it does so inconsistently.
Evan's miracle makes no sense at all. It is one thing for Evan to perceive his body as changing in response to changes in his past, but it is entirely different for those around him to see this. For them, there must be a continuous history of cause-and-effect which leads to the present moment, and so the scars that Evan gives himself when he returns to being seven must have been there for all the intervening years of the history he creates by that act. His cellmate cannot see them suddenly appear. The cellmate that can see the scars would not even know to be looking for a miracle.
Three times in the movie Evan travels back to the same moment in his life twice--the incinerated dog, the exploding mailbox, and the basement scene. In each case, we must wonder whether the later trip changes the earlier one, and particularly in connection with the last, when each of the traveling Evans has an agenda. When it is just changing events as he remembered them, we can rely on the memory trick that he won't change what he remembers; but when he is working against himself to alter history, we have to wonder where his other self is at that time.
We also recognized that sometimes when he travels to earlier times he changes later events, but other times he does not. It barely holds together on this point.
Much more confusing is the history in which there are no journals. We understand why the Evan who remembers the other histories asks about them, but not why Dr. Redfield has heard him ask about them before. We are forced to wonder about the memories of the Evan of this world yesterday, which apparently were not the memories of this world. That, though, is very difficult to reconcile with anything. How could Evan ever have functioned in this world, if his memories have always been of some other?
In short, there are enough points at which the cracks show, the treatment of time is inconsistent and the story relies on impossibilities to make it work, that we have to conclude that Butterfly Effect does not work under any theory of time and offers no coherent explanation of itself. It is still a fascinating film, but not a possible one.