At the heart of the story is a young man named Sam who travels from the future to find and meet a girl named Ruby. He seems to have fallen in love with her photo. There are a few complicating factors.
One of those complicating factors is that he knows that she is going to die, and he is intent on preventing that from happening. This of course creates our primary anomaly, and it will have to be examined in detail. However, in reconstructing the facts we also have to deal with the problem that he never, through the entire movie, tells her the entire truth. Midway through the film she discovers the name Christie Delaney, and becomes convinced that this is some other woman in his life. He maintains that it is his contact, the person to whom he came upon his arrival in the past who provided him with his identity materials. In fact, it is not a person at all. Ruby is killed, hit by a car, at the corner of Christie and Delaney. He never tells her this within the film. (It can be noted in this regard that it is an inconsistency in his story in general. He suggests at one point that all "backtravelers" take names with three letters followed by four, such as his own Sam Deed, so that they can recognize each other. Maggie Ann Ford, the therapist, reveals that she is also a backtraveler by giving her name as Meg. The shortest nicknames that can be easily made from Christie are Kris and Tina, both four letters, and Delaney is clearly not short enough. Christie Delaney cannot be a time traveler, and backtravelers are not allowed to reveal the truth of their origins to others, and so she cannot be his contact.)
Also of interest are the moments during which the time traveler sees the world running backwards. It is difficult to know what is happening at these moments. It sometimes appears to be a sort of cognitive dissonance, entirely perceptual; but at the critical moment it seems to be an effect on reality, a rewinding of time itself perceived only by the time traveler. This will be considered as well.
There must be an original life of Ruby. We know precious little about this; in fact, nearly everything we can say with any certainty about Ruby's life is a negative.
Obviously, we can say that she never met Sam. Sam is a time traveler; at one point he says he came back from the future because, like Richard Collier in Somewhere In Time, he fell in love with a girl in a photograph, and traveled back to meet her.
That photo does not need to exist at this point. For reasons that will be seen as this unfolds, Sam's trip creates a sawtooth snap. Therefore he does not need to see the photo or fall in love with Ruby while in the future. We know that his sister is killed, and that he is framed for murder, and that this is his primary expressed motive for fleeing to the past. It is likely that he traveled back from 2470 to sometime shortly before 2000 to escape the injustice. However, it is still the case that he must be born in the future and leave the future before she can meet him in the past. Thus we know that in her original history she did not meet Sam.
It should not escape notice, however, that her therapist is also a time traveler from the future, from 2457. That means that before Ruby can meet her therapist she must live a life without the therapist, and then a couple hundred years after she dies the therapist is born and travels back to the past, creating a separate anomaly from that established by Sam.
It is implied that there are many other time travelers. Only one of these becomes involved in the story, and that is the person pretending to be Sam's father for purposes of his cover story. We do not know enough about that person to reconstruct the timeline he creates. However, it is likely to be a simple N-jump. Also, these others have little impact on Ruby's life until after Sam is involved; his is the primary anomaly of the story, and the most troublesome one.
The first time traveler to impact Ruby's life is a therapist named Meg Ford. Ford's impact on Ruby is probably not different from that any other therapist would have had. However, there are two things highlighted by her presence here.
We can see in Meg Ford the attitude most backtravelers have toward what they have done. It is necessary to keep a low profile, have as little impact as possible on the world, and reveal your identity as a time traveler to no one. This is what the therapist has done; when she discovers that Sam has done otherwise, she is horrified, and chews him out terribly. She also makes every effort to undermine his attempts to save Ruby by lying to Ruby about their conversation and telling her to distance herself from him as soon as possible. If Ruby is supposed to die at the corner of Christie and Delaney on Friday afternoon, as far as Meg Ford is concerned, she'd better die.
We also see in stark relief one aspect of the backtravel process: the fact that money buys a better life in the past. It occurred to me to wonder how Meg Ford managed to get a license to do therapy in New York City. The obvious answer was that she, the tax evader from the future, had a lot of money, and could buy a better backstory. Sam, by contrast, complains about the poor backstory he bought, because he was poor. All of this makes sense--until you ask how payment was made. Sam was unable to bring a photograph back with him (something about non-living inorganic matter, but photos are largely paper, which is organic, and although there are other chemicals such as silver and nitrogen, these are found in some quantity in life forms as well). Yet how does anyone from the future pay for their backstory? Do they pay someone in the future to set it up in the past, and if so, how are the things in the past arranged? Or do they bring something of value from the future to the past and pay for their backstory once they arrive? It's difficult to guess how it is done (money is not much different from photographs in composition); the initial plausibility does not withstand much scrutiny.
In 2470, Sam abandons his life and his name in the future and travels to the past. There is an important question that must be answered: Why did he do this? The answer is not so easy.
He tells Ruby that it was because he saw her in a photo, and wanted to find her. Then it turns out that he saw that photo in a case file while researching precedents for accidental deaths. He had been accused of murdering his sister because she drowned when he was supposed to be watching her.
Many things complicate this. One is that the photo he sees is one in which he appears; it is taken after he reaches the past. Another is that she is at the scene of the accident because she was upset with him and now had just seen that photo herself for the first time. It is difficult to explain how the photo could exist, or how she could have been at that same corner, had he not traveled from the future. It is equally difficult to see how he could have known to try to prevent the accident when he is so wrapped up in its cause.
The answer would seem to be that Ruby was not part of the original reason for his trip to the past. He never saw her picture. She never was killed by that taxi. Sam was being framed for the murder of his sister, had no family left, saw no way out, and fled to the past. He happened to pick a time shortly before 1999, four hundred seventy-one years prior to his departure. Most fugitives vanish into larger cities; it's easier to become anonymous in the great population centers. Sam goes to New York, and creates the CD segment of the important anomaly.
This is the CD timeline that matters to us. There are, of course, other CD timelines created by other backtravelers, including Meg; but we've decided those travelers are making every effort to conform to a low profile low impact life creating an N-jump.
It seems reasonable to suppose that Sam would hold to the same view at this point. He has no agenda. Like most backtravelers, he wasn't really coming here, he was leaving there--it is an escape from the future that motivates these people. As Sam quips in the art gallery (quoting Yogi Berra), "The future isn't what it use to be".
He then meets Ruby. It is an accidental meeting; he knows nothing about her. However, he immediately likes her, and she likes him, and this leads them to get together. He probably doesn't tell her anything about coming from the future, or about the RTDS (Drag) which affects his perceptions at times. He sticks to his backstory.
He also doesn't tell her about her death, because he doesn't know about it. There's no Christie Delaney. However, there are problems with their relationship. Part of it is that he says some of those stupid things, like coming from the Atlantic Coast of Dubuque, Iowa (a clever touch, but would a flood from melting ice caps really submerge the Appalachians and leave Iowa dry?). His lack of knowledge base about our world would similarly creep up regularly. There would be a critical moment when Ruby recognizes the photos in the stores as matching those in Sam's wallet, and another when he similarly recognizes those photos and gets upset about it. But everything would be very different.
They would make it to that beach party. The zoom lens on the camera malfunctions, and takes a picture of Ruby that's a bit distorted. How much of Sam is in the shot is unclear, but his hand certainly is. This photo is somehow saved. Perhaps Ruby sees it and takes it with her when she leaves to go find Sam; perhaps it remains behind, and is included later as the best photo her friends could find of her. However it happens, on Friday afternoon Ruby is crossing the street at the corner of Christie and Delaney, and gets hit by a taxicab.
There is a lawsuit in this case. Details about Ruby, including her photo, are included. The identity of the cab driver is also given (he's probably the defendant). The date, time, and place of the accident present themselves as well. All of the crucial information is there. Ruby is killed.
Unlike most of our romantic movies, this one tries to create at least the illusion that there is logic to the process of time travel. To do so, it gives us several rules and an explanation. All of these are explained by Sam, mostly to Ruby, so they aren't terribly clear. But before we continue the analysis, it may help to put these together.
Sam explains time travel by suggesting that time might be able to bend, such that the future and the past were next to each other, and you merely had to step across. This is a nice picture, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. It reminds me of the guy who explained flying as throwing yourself at the ground and missing. As Alice said of Jabberocky, it puts ideas in my head, but I don't know what they are. This explanation has the advantage that it makes us feel like it's been explained without giving us any real information. That's fine; we can't really expect a time travel movie to tell us how it's done with any accuracy. Time folding is a popular idea. It doesn't really do a thing about the essential problem: how do you step across? Whether the distance is shorter or longer doesn't really answer the problem, but it does make us feel like it's not as big a problem, so we're lulled into thinking we've been answered.
Sam suffers from Residual Temporal Drag Syndrome, or RTDS. This actually seems contrary to the theory he puts forward for time travel. It is suggested that traveling backwards through time so far has created a perceptual distortion such that periodically he sees the world running backwards. If his explanation of time folding as the means of such travel is correct, then his explanation for RTDS doesn't follow from it, as he has not traveled far nor even backwards, but merely stepped a short step from one point in time to an adjacent moment in the past. However, the idea should be taken on its own merits, and as such there is no inherent reason why someone who has traveled back in time a long temporal distance would not experience temporal instabilities of one sort or another. The idea of seeing the world running backwards is a bit silly on one level, but not impossible. As story color, it works pretty well.
At the end of the film, it seems to be more than story color; but we'll cover that when we get there.
We are introduced to three formal laws of time, along with the suggestion that there are several more. The big ones are Blinovitch's Second and Fifth laws. The important one is Cheeseman's.
Blinovitch's Second Law of Temporal Inertia maintains that it is impossible to travel back to a point within your own lifetime. Time travel is only possible to the distant past, and those who travel to the past are only capable of making small changes which will dampen out by the time of their own births. This law seems to be some effort to compromise with the fixed time theory without having the strict determinism that theory demands. In this case, you are free to change the past, but will not be able to change it in any way that significantly changes the future. It's a fascinating idea, but it doesn't really accomplish anything. Cursory consideration will show that minor events often have major consequences. Let us suppose that you were to travel back to around 1914, somewhere in Serbia or Croatia, and stop a stranger on the street to ask directions. This stranger was then delayed, and did not reach his destination in time to fulfill his mission. He had intended to kill the Archduke. The death of the Archduke plays a major role in twentieth century history, more so than you might realize. It immediately started World War One, which meant the end of most remaining European monarchies. During this conflict, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in Russia. It is plausible that the added stress of fighting this war drove more Russian peasants to the cause of the communists; it is certain that the Czar could not get aid from his allies in England and France when things turned against him, due to their involvement in the war. Thus Communism got its foothold in Europe thanks to the death of the Archduke. Then when the war was over, the victors imposed impossible war debts on the vanquished. As a result, Germany remained in the global depression long after other countries had escaped it, trying to pay off the crushing debt, and the nationalist party was able to garner support, leading to the election of Adolph Hitler, and inexorably to World War Two. That one assassination defined most of the century. Delaying the assassin would have changed all of history. Thus, identifying significant versus insignificant events requires a sort of omniscience which cannot be attributed to either the universe or the time traveler. If the law means "you mustn't do this", then it's not a scientific law but a warning. If it means, "you can't do this", it's got a lot of explaining to do, like what is it that you can't do and what happens if you try.
Blinovitch's Fifth Law of Causal Determination is also mentioned briefly. We are told that this law resolves all the paradoxes. I'm sure we'd all love to read this one. I'm wondering whether it matches my own theory. We are not told what it is.
Blinovitch, incidentally, is a known character in science fiction. He is a temporal physicist from Galifrey, who propounded the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which prevents time travelers from meeting themselves (or, perhaps, brings severe consequences from any such meeting). He was created in an episode of Doctor Who, and referenced occasionally in that series. Artistically this is a nice touch, as semi-serious science fiction fans are likely to recognize the name and think reference is being made to a real theorist in the field.
The one temporal law that is critically important to the story is Cheeseman's Emotional Energy Theory, which holds that if you can concentrate enough emotional energy on a particular moment in time you can alter the past and create a new future. It appears that this new future is believed to be what we've elsewhere identified as a divergent history in the parallel dimensions theory of time travel. It is from this theory that Sam gets the important phrase, Break the causal chain. He is trying to save Ruby's life, by changing that moment in history when she died. It is his hope that if he can get Ruby to truly and deeply love him, he'll alter the moment of her death so that she lives, and incidentally prove Cheeseman along the way.
As you recall, Ruby died in Sam's CD timeline. Sam lived the rest of his life in the past without her, died in the past, and then all time advances to his birth, the death of his parents, his life, and then the moment when his sister again drowns; and he is again framed. Nothing about his trip to the past would have altered that. However, now as he begins doing research, he discovers Ruby's picture connected to the case concerning her death. He falls in love with the girl in the picture.
There is an aspect of this that is never quite clear in the film. Sam sketches Ruby's face from that picture, and also the hand which hangs next to her, which we discover is his hand as he has her arm around her at that moment. The face is slightly distorted from the zoom malfunction on the camera. What is not certain is whether Sam is also in that photo. This might be critical in his determination to find Ruby. If he saw a photo of himself with this girl, and he looked happy in the photo (as indeed he looked happy when it was taken), he would have every reason to want to find the girl. Her identity is in the case file, as is her location, at least that she was in New York and that she died at the corner of Christie and Delaney. Now he has a positive reason to travel to the past: he is not merely escaping conviction for a murder that never happened, he is also seeking the girl in the picture. But this picture comes to him as part of a file about her death. Seeing the happiness of that moment, he must believe that there is real happiness for them together in the past, and will want to prevent her untimely death in any way he can.
Now when he meets her, he's trying to make things work. He's still starting from the core propositions that he shouldn't tell her who he is, or reveal to her too much about her own future; but he's too intent on saving her, and doesn't keep the details safe. He invents the contact named Christie Delaney to hide the fact that this is the corner at which she is killed. She, of course, doesn't believe it. We see the events as they unfold in the film.
The unfolding of these events is problematic, because they play like a fixed time theory story. Sam doesn't want the cab driver to hit her, so he beats the cab driver severely and is going to kill him, relenting when he sees the man's young daughter and trying to warn him away from driving. Arguably part of the reason the cab driver hits Ruby is that his eye is bandaged and he is uncomfortable and inattentive due to the beating--had this not happened, he might well not have run the red light at all. Ruby is going to stay home with Sam, but that inevitable disruption arises as Sam is called to work despite having arranged to be home, giving us the something will prevent it syndrome so common to fixed time stories. Ruby rushes to her friend's apartment to commiserate, and so discovers the photo of which he had told her, which looks like the sketches he had drawn. She is at the corner of Christie and Delaney when the cab runs the light precisely because she has seen that photo. It looks like one of those uncaused loops that are so annoying about fixed time stories. Everything that has been done to prevent her death has either contributed to it or been thwarted. It seems inevitable.
We then see Ruby hit by the cab; but it is an instant, and it is erased. Sam has one of his episodes of RTDS, and Ruby is backed up toward the curb and then moved forward again. This time she's out of place, and the cab misses her. She and the driver trade appropriate expletives, and she and Sam embrace for a happy ending.
In the end, Ruby lives. It is thus obviously not a fixed time theory story. However, it doesn't play like a parallel dimension story either. Much emphasis is placed on the idea that history cannot be changed in any significant way unless Cheeseman's theory is true. If this were parallel or divergent dimension theory, there would be no big deal about whether you could change the past. It would be accepted that every backtraveler created a new past, a new history, a new universe, based on whatever changes, however minor, they made.
The film may be attempting to create a hybrid of the two theories, a notion that time is fixed, but that this can be broken to create a divergent timeline if enough emotion is focused on the critical moment. The question is whether this manages to solve the problems inherent in both of the theories when they are so combined.
The principle problem with the fixed time theory is generally the problem of the uncaused cause, that loops of mutually dependent events are thought to appear which have no cause outside themselves. This is discussed elsewhere, most recently in Minority Report, where it is shown that such events cannot happen unless they happen, and thus they cannot happen. In this case, Ruby dies because Sam tries to save her; he tries to save her because she dies. Had she not died, he would not have tried to save her; had he not tried to save her, she would not have died. The problem of the fixed time theory is here in full force.
The problems with the parallel dimension theory are a bit more difficult to examine here. However, if Sam is correct, then at the moment Ruby is not hit by the car, there is also another universe in which she is killed. That's interesting, but it's also problematic. What is the force that causes the universe to split into two at this instant? It is the love that Ruby and Sam have for each other. That's very sweet, very sentimental. It's not terribly good physics. I'm not sure it's even terribly good metaphysics. From a scientific viewpoint, there doesn't seem to be any reason to imagine that emotion would or even could have such an effect. It seems ultimately to be a terribly religious notion--and for a movie that rails so vehemently against religion, daring to say even that it will cease to exist once scientists find the gene that controls fear, to come to the conclusion that the human soul has within it the power through love to create another universe is so jarring as to challenge everything the film tries to say. It suggests that emotions are not mere survival mechanisms animals have that cause them to act in self-preserving ways, but have a transcendent reality, a spark of some divine nature, that makes them more powerful than the laws of physics. It's a wonderful sentiment; it just demands a religious viewpoint which the film otherwise rejects at every turn. It also doesn't hold up well as a scientific theory of time, although if one takes a religious core assumption it might work metaphysically.
There actually is promise to this version of time theory. It doesn't work very well as presented in Happy Accidents, but a hybrid theory in which time is fixed unless something powerful causes the creation of a divergent timeline might be functional. What power could cause such divergence is difficult to guess. Meanwhile, it is still the case that the theory could never be disproved. Anyone who traveled to the past intending to create such an alternate universe would, on this theory, both succeed and fail. In the case of Sam and Ruby, it is the case that Ruby was both killed and not killed at that moment, and that there is one Sam who saw her death and another who lived happily ever after. In the world in which he had hoped to make the change, he can only report that he failed. Cheeseman's Theory has been proved in one universe, but not in the other. Although given the nature of the theory, scientists should recognize that it has not been disproved (it is inherently not falsifiable) and that Sam might actually have succeeded in doing what he hoped (create an alternate reality which cannot be reached from this one). However, even after the experiment, there will be no observable evidence to support Cheeseman's Theory, and so it will remain speculation. The critical problem of the parallel dimension theory has not been avoided, either.
Unfortunately, by the theory propounded on this site, this film ends in disaster. Sam has saved Ruby, but he has caused an infinity loop.
Remember that all of Sam's efforts to save Ruby are based on a photo he saw in a case file about an accident case in which she was killed. He has undone that accident. In four hundred seventy-one years, that case file will not exist because that case was never heard. To make matters worse, that photo is now lying on the street at the corner of Christie and Delaney, so he's not going to see it anywhere else--it won't be in a curio shop, for example. The information ceases to exist. Thus in 2470 he will be charged with murder and will flee to the past, but this is the CD timeline all over again, and he knows nothing of Ruby. He is caught alternating between the CD timeline in which Ruby dies and the EF timeline in which he saves her.
I'm sure neither he nor Ruby particularly cares, actually. They have this life together, and will grow old together, probably very happy. Then they will die, as people do. The end of the loop doesn't come until 2470, long after they will have died; the beginning of the loop comes somewhere shortly before they met. They get to relive it, albeit without remembering it, once the short relationship ending in tragedy, once the long happy relationship, and back, perpetually.
I'm not sure whether we should care, either. The description Sam gives of 2470 is not a future any of us would wish on our descendants. It may well be that in this case the destruction of a future beyond that is a good thing. Sam and Ruby are happy, and the future misery of a world in which good things are all replaced with efficient ones is ended.
Perhaps the complete destruction of the future is not always a disaster.