Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.
A Sound of Thunder, a liberally-screwed-up adaptation of the classic, and poignant, Ray Bradbury short story of the same name, hit theaters this weekend. Owing to some sort of mixup, I went to the fillums tonight hoping to see something else that wasn’t playing, and opted for this instead. Mistake.
Still, it has often been said that, if you really love films, you like even bad films. This one offers a few things to think about in the midst of its multivalent badness.
The basic premise of the film is the same as that of the short story: scientists in the year 2055 have invented a time machine that can reach any year in the past; they use it to take paying customers to the Cretaceous period to get the thrill of hunting Tyrannosaurus rex. Mindful of time-travel paradoxes, they take elaborate precautions to prevent the hunters from affecting anything in the past that would have repercussions for the world of the future they came from. In particular, they only go back to the exact moment at which they can hunt an animal that was just about to expire from natural causes, so killing it doesn’t change anything, and they set up a floating pathway above the jungle floor so they don’t touch anything and thus alter the course of events that might have been affected by that plant or animal. Naturally, also, one of their clients screws up and knocks history off its axis.
In the original short story, the US has just elected President Keith, a decent liberal who is the antithesis of his opponent Deutscher, “an anti everything man . . ., a militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual”. (The word “Deutscher” means “German”, in German, and can’t have been coincidental in the early 50s, when this was written.) The travelers head back in time, and one of them turns coward at the sight of the dinosaur, falls off the path, and crushes a butterfly. Aghast, they return to their own time:
The room was there as they had left it. But not the same as they had left it. The same man sat behind the same desk. But the same man did not quite sit behind the same desk. [. . .]
Eckels stood smelling of the air, and there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only a faint cry of his subliminal senses warned him it was there. The colors, white, gray, blue, orange, in the wall, in the furniture, in the sky beyond the window, were . . . were . . . . And there was a feel. His flesh twitched. His hands twitched. He stood drinking the oddness with the pores of his body. [. . .]
But the immediate thing was the sign painted on the office wall, the same sign he had read earlier today on first entering. Somehow, the sign had changed:
TYME SEFARI INC.
SEFARIS TU ANY YEER EN THE PAST.[. . .]
“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.
It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it?
His face was cold. His mouth trembled, asking: “Who – who won the presidential election yesterday?”
The man behind the desk laughed. “You joking? You know very well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that fool weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts!” The official stopped. “What’s wrong?”
The story ends in despair.
The story is rightly credited as the first invocation of the now-famed “butterfly effect” (though the role of the butterfly here is not quite the same as that in the modern chaos-theory parable). Bradbury’s version of it – almost 50 years, mind you, before the slide-rule boys quantified it for him – is somewhat different, however. In his version, small changes produce small effects – if you kill a butterfly, you change the general tone of a nation (and its people’s ability to spell), but subtly, almost unnoticeably. (Obviously, somebody killed a butterfly just before the 2000 election, and if I found out who, they’d get a bullet in the head, too, as Bradbury’s Eckels does.) Today, we recognize that the compounded effects of small changes in initial conditions of “chaotic” systems are not necessarily proportional – one tiny change at the beginning can produce any of many unpredictably huge changes at the end. So Bradbury’s scenario is unnecessarily subtle – but all the more chilling for that.
[SPOILERS AHEAD, but who cares?]
Director Peter Hyam’s film version does not err on the side of unnecessary subtlety. Bradbury’s story ends as soon as the travelers return and realize what has happened. Hyam explores the further ramifications of the change, which of course gives him lots of time to introduce scenes of destruction, masculine derring-do, pointless and sketchy love affairs between the likable main character played by Edward Burns and his several female colleagues, a car chase between a Humvee and a flock of gigantic screechy vampire bats (don’t ask), some truly bizarre “evolution run amok” nonsense, and, predictably, the happy ending in which they go back in time, prevent their own mistake, and restore everything the way it was. (Sorry for the spoilers, but if you couldn’t have seen most of that coming, well, you probably deserve to see this movie.)
The movie is, basically, crap, as I believe I’ve mentioned. They hit every cliche imaginable, but so desultorily it seems Hyam hardly even cares what he’s doing. There’s the evil corporate overlord (played by a grinning and skipping Ben Kingsley with a shocking white pompadour and scraggly soul patch that, as the Village Voice hilariously and accurately noted, “makes him look like he lost some sort of bet with Malcolm McDowell”); there’s the doomed black guy who gets sacrificed like a Star Trek redshirt; there’s the flirtatiousness between the strong male and the weaker females that leads him to risk his life to save them from the dinosaurs; there are “futuristic space colony architecture” matte paintings that are so blindingly fake you can actually see the soundstage floor the actors are walking across; there’s the talking computer with its own saucy personality; there’s the amazing computer technology that allows you to unplug a hard drive from a broken time machine, plug it into a linear accelerator (that has a huge hatchway with seats inside it!), boot it up and have it instantly take over the particle accelerator for use as an emergency backup time machine (that was convenient!), and so on.
What’s worst is its attempt to model a changed future. The political angle is gone entirely, except for the (too-prescient, right now) scenes of the population reduced to survival-level violence and fear in a matter of days, as the social infrastructure breaks down. The scientific impact of the time change, however, is neither interesting nor thoughtful. It’s just idiotic.
The movie posits that taking out a butterfly will possibly alter the course of evolution of that line of creatures. The result is large-scale changes, 65M years later, in the results of evolution for the entire world. This is in keeping with the modern reading of the “butterfly effect” (and yes, in this movie it’s also a butterfly – an appropriate act of homage to Bradbury). But, bizarrely, the movie also claims that the effect of the change does not accumulate over the unfolding course of history from the point at which it occurs, 65M years ago, but instead hits the modern day all at once, in successive waves of “time ripples” that you can actually see advancing like tidal waves through the atmosphere. When a wave hits, suddenly the entire world shifts to a new world with a different evolutionary history – but, even more bizarrely, with the same architecture and city structures, now damaged by the sudden upthrusting of newly-evolved, massive plants and vines. As each new wave hits, the “lower” species get more and more evolved, and do more and more damage to the city. One renegade scientist explains that each wave affects a “higher” level of creature, and that the last one will evolve the human species into something new and completely different. This is just freakin’ gibberish, even by the loose standards of bad sci-fi. But it gets worse.
The writers seem to imagine that, not only is the course of evolution unpredictable if the starting conditions are changed (a contentious thesis, but it has its defenders), but it is likely to result in mixing and matching existing species across huge taxonomic divisions. Thus, we get a lot of unintentionally hilarious scenes involving semi-intelligent plants that can make aggressive moves against humans like the trees in the Wicked Witch of the West’s forest, and a long sequence involving huge herds of Velociraptor-type dinosaurs with mammalian baboon faces that hunt in packs, scale walls like monkeys, and sleep hanging upside down from the ceiling like bats! (There is also a very brief shot of the “final stage” of human evolution, in which we apparently are fated to become pale, doughy, sluglike creatures with sad expressions and mouth barbels like a catfish.)
Tellingly, the credits do not list a Science Advisor, though they do list an Animation Supervisor for Baboon Lizards.
Well, this is just a mess. But out of it we draw a few lessons. One is the contingency of human evolution – as I said, a contentious point, but the producers of this film have taken a firm stand on the issue. The other is the truth of the butterfly paradox – though that has as yet little practical significance. And there are the – hardly necessary – lessons about corporate perfidy and lax governmental oversight.
Even more interesting, if not surprising, is the staunchly chauvinistic stance of the film: the world must be preserved as it is right now, and the human species must be preserved as it is right now. At all costs we must not allow the development of a lush natural environment populated with a vigorous biome. (The movie tells us that all naturally-occurring species have been killed off at the time of the original time accident – one result of the time change is that the natural environment comes back with a vengeance, and the time travelers spend the rest of the movie making sure it gets wiped out again.) And at all costs we must keep the human species in genetic stasis – no catfish barbels or bigger brains in our futures. I suppose most people might feel the same way, but I note the lead character – who says his motivation for making trips back in time is to collect genetic information that will allow him to reconstitute some of the extinct species – never pauses for a moment to ask whether a more-alive world, in which his own species has to live with the consequences of its mistakes, but other species get to live as well, might be an OK trade. And, presumably, from the point of view of the more-evolved slug-people, that newer world is much better than the preceding one. (If we had the chance to use a time machine to set the world back 5 million years, and install as the dominant hominid species A. africanus, would we choose to do so? If not, why would our smart but squishy descendents want to give up their place in the world in favor of us?) It’s not obvious that returning the world to the status quo ante is a good thing, even if you get the chance to prevent future temporal accidents and also get hot co-workers turning up naked in your cubicle after a hard day’s time-boppin’.
[Full Disclosure: I am not, as far as I know, related to President Keith, though we seem to share the same politics.]
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