Once again, circumstances and personal inertia have conspired to insure that I trek to the movies alone again. Gah. This is really not as delicious an experience as when I have someone to discuss the movie with afterwards. My wife was never really a big fan of literary dissection, but even her occasionally reluctant participation was a damn sight better than having nobody with whom to share these often wonderful and terribly interesting experiences. Be that as it may, as ingenuemuse once told me, "Good movies are good for the soul," and they are certainly worth seeing even if one must do so by oneself. The theme of this movie is regret, responsibility, and redemption. The plot that carries this theme is one of time travel by means of a gift/curse of the protagonist whereby he is able to project his consciousness back in time into his younger self where his adult self can alter the past. The weirdest thing about this movie, for me, was that I had already seen this very theme and plot explored expertly before in a short story called "Strangers" written by mishamish, who is a very talented guy with his own web comic, called "CheshireGrin" and more stories at a web page called "Cats Laughing." If you want entertainment, check out any of those previous links. At any rate, you should check out "Strangers" because if the movie had been even a little bit more like that short story the writers would have owed mishamish royalties.
I will start by saying that this movie is a non-stop shocker and a rather poignant love story, and I recommend it heartily. The movie concerns the affairs of half a dozen people with rather problematical childhoods and one person's efforts to redeem the various evils that have affected them through the years. The protagonist, Evan Treborn, played surprisingly well by Ashton Kutcher, (yes, that guy from "Dude Where's My Car?") has inherited a gift/curse from his father -- he discovers that he has the power to project his consciousness back in time into his younger self where his older, wiser, more knowledgeable self can act to effect changes in the past that will carry forward to the present. The story revolves around the relationship of the protagonist to his childhood sweetheart, Kayleigh Miller, played competently by Amy Smart. The conflict in this movie is man vs. circumstance, free-will vs. determinism, discipline and integrity vs. self-indulgence. The premise which drives the conflict is that the flow of time and probability comprise a chaotic system whose effects are highly sensitive to initial conditions, in other words they obey the laws of chaos and are essentially unpredictable and highly uncontrollable. As expressed in the trailer, this idea distills to "change one thing, change everything." Evan can change things in his past, and it will affect his present, but the changes produce effects that he can neither predict nor really control and which have perverse kinds of monkey's paw consequences, despite his intentions. It appears that Evan's relationship with Kayleigh and the incidents which arise out of that relationship are strange attractors. A strange attractor is a phenomenon or phenomena inherent in chaotic systems which tend to drive the system into patterns, often cyclic, which while similar, never ever exactly repeat the same state twice. Unfortunately, the patterns in Evan's life have almost always been bad, and that's what he wants to fix, for himself and his friends, especially after one particular taste of a probability path that looks particularly wholesome and rewarding to him, at least for the short time it lasts. The movie is a novel, almost science-fictional take, on the idea of "star-crossed lovers." As I said above, the movie is one shocking incident with surprising repercussions after another and it is also emotionally gripping.
The question is: for how much is Evan responsible? What can he be said to have a moral duty to do, given the premises of the movie? We are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, this much is true, but then Evan can also act upon hindsight, even though it is a limited hindsight whereby he can see what went wrong, but only generally predict what will happen if he changes the incident. The question is: if regrettable incidences could be changed in the past, would we be obligated to change them, or should we? The movie poses a conundrum similar to the old philosophy chestnut about the magic machine which can either save the world and perfect it into utopia or destroy it utterly, and the effects can't be predicted or controlled. Do you push the button? For Evan, most of the movie is spent trying to resolve this question, and Evan keeps pushing the button, looking for utopia, no matter how many times his friends and acquaintances warn him not to do it and no matter how often frightening and horrible consequences to himself and others keep arising, and even after he comes to understand how the same curse destroyed his father.
How much blame or credit is Evan due? Certainly after Evan first uses the power he becomes ensnared into the Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly dilemma. As Shakespeare said, Is it better to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," or "take arms against a rising sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them?" Evan returns from his jaunts into the past with more information in his head than when he started. He understands the first probability path, which lead him to take action in the first place, and he knows the probability path as it developed after he went back and changed the past. After his first intervention, he is faced with problems not only which he and his friends had a hand in creating as children but also those to which his adult self has contributed. In this tale, time travel becomes a tar-baby which engulfs Evan in webs of circumstance. As the choices become more difficult, the stakes mount, and the consequences for error start to rack up, Evan begins to confront the idea that his immediate desires for perfection may not be compatible with the best interests of himself and his friends. Sarah McLachlan's "Hold On" may not be part of the soundtrack, but the song fits the theme and tenor of the movie to a T.
Is regret really a useful emotion or is it counter-productive to indulge it? Is regret futile? In the end, Evan resolves the question to his own satisfaction, even if he may never know if his solution was the best for which he could have hoped. In one sense, the movie validates free-will. Evan is able to change the past. On the other hand, whenever Evan tries to help himself and his friends he is working against their natures and the natures of the people around them. Indeed part of the puzzle of the movie is in trying to decide how much responsibility for the ensuing chains of events are attributable to each of the characters. The ending closes with a typical Hollywood dichotomy. Up until the last intervention, Evan has retained knowledge of the time line he altered, even as he is forced to painfully adjust to the new circumstances of the modified time line. In the end, Evan becomes the prisoner of time that everyone else in the world is, with no special knowledge of his meddling at all and this is not satisfactorily accounted for by the storyline. On the whole, the movie is excellent and it owes much of its excellence to great writing and surprisingly fortuitous casting, not to mention the good directing that handled the varying tone of the scenes managing both suspense and poignancy competently. Go see this one.
Hold on Hold on to yourself for this is gonna hurt like hell Hold on Hold on to yourself You know that only time will tell What is it in me that refuses to believe this isn't easier than the real thing My love you know that you're my best friend you know I'd do anything for you My love let nothing come between us My love for you is strong and true Am I in heaven here or am I... at the crossroads I am standing So now you're sleeping peaceful I lie awake and pray that you'll be strong tomorrow and we'll see another day and we will praise it and love the light that brings a smile across your face Oh God, if you're out there won't you hear me I know that we've never talked before Oh God, the man I love is leaving won't you take him when he comes to your door Am I in heaven here or am I in hell at the crossroads I am standing So now you're sleeping peaceful I lie awake and pray that you'll be strong tomorrow and we'll see another day and we will praise it and love the light that brings a smile across your face... Hold on hold on to yourself for this is gonna hurt like hell