Free-Will versus Predetermination:
Hollywood’s Portrayal of a Timeless Question
John Anderton rolls a ball towards Danny Witwer, who catches it just as it’s about to fall off a table. “Why did you catch that?” “Because it was going to fall.” “You’re certain?” “Yes.” “But it didn’t fall. You caught it…The fact that you prevented it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen.” The preceding dialogue was from the 2002 movie Minority Report. Minority Report is one of the many movies released over the last decade that have been designed not only to entertain their audiences, but to also cause them to think. Ever since man began to think and question, the problem, or paradox, of freewill versus predestination has always bothered humankind. Now, not only is this issue being discussed in philosophy books, but it has emerged in popular culture through the media of film.
The film Minority Report uses the concept of a “pre-crime” division in order to portray this theme. It takes place in the year 2054, during a time when man has utilized science in order to prevent the act of murder from ever occurring. This is made possible through the use of advanced technology with the capability of viewing images of future murders. These images are output by three brain-damaged humans referred to as “precogs,” who are able to transmit the image of the murder, the name of the future victim, the perpetrator, and the time of the future offense. Pre-crime officers then analyze the images to determine the location of the murder, and a unit is sent to prevent it if from occurring. The would-be perpetrator is immediately arrested and locked away for the alleged future murder seen in the precog images. The very system of pre-crime automatically poses the question of whether or not the person would have actually committed the crime had they not been stopped. In the film, the pre-crime division proclaims itself flawless—a perfect system. Yet this “perfect” system implies that humans lack the free-will to change their fate. With the creation of pre-crime, a person’s life became automatically predestined. However, the eventual closure and defeat of pre-crime shown at the end of the film leads the audience to believe there is hope. John Anderton possessed the free-will to change his fate, but he did so by knowing his future. Herein lays the inevitable paradox of free-will versus predetermination. The film is constructed to imply that free-will prevails, but is it truly free-will if you changed something because you knew exactly what the outcome of your choice would be?
The following year another sci-fi thriller made its way to the big screen that again dealt with a free-will versus predetermination question. The 2003 released movie Paycheck built its storyline around a reverse-engineer who is hired to spend the next three years of his life working on a top secret project with the promise of an eight-digit paycheck upon completion. The only drawback is that every memory he creates in those three years will be erased from his mind the moment he finishes. After completing his assignment and being brought immediately in by the FBI on suspicion of espionage, the main character realizes he has created something terrible. His only hope to fix what he has done is an envelope he sent himself with 20 seemingly unconnected objects he collected before his memory was erased. He soon realizes that what he created was a machine with the ability to look into the future. When he built the machine, he used it himself to look into the future, allowing him to see what would happen if he allowed the machines use. Now he must embark on a quest to change the future, to escape predetermination. Like Minority Report, free-will again triumphs when he changes the future and destroys the machine. But this triumph is again dependent on the fact that knowing your future empowers you with the ability to change it.
“Change one thing, change everything.” This was the tagline for the movie The Butterfly Effect, released the following year in 2004. This film, along with the 2001 cult film Donnie Darko, moves away from the high-paced action of Minority Report and Paycheck into a darker realm of drama, dealing with the more catastrophic risks you run by attempting to change your fate. These two films also expand on the exploration of free-will and predetermination by incorporating the concept of time travel into the plot, and its implication on this concept.
The Butterfly Effect revolves around Evan Treborn, who as a child blocked out harmful memories of his life. As he grows older, he discovers a way to not only retrieve these lost memories, but to actually send himself back in time to the day of their occurrence. With each attempt to change the destiny of himself and those closest to him, unforeseen and often horrific consequences occur. Unlike the characters of Minority Report and Paycheck, Evan attempts to change destiny without knowing the future. All he knows is that maybe if something in his past is changed, he can prevent his childhood friend from committing suicide. But without a way to know what to change, his attempts all end in disaster. His journey entirely revolves around free-will over predestination, and presents a negative and dark view of the subject.
Along with The Butterfly Effect, Donnie Darko is a very dark, mysterious, haunting, and disturbing film dealing with the concepts of time travel, and changing the outcome of your future. The film centers around the principal character of Donnie, who escapes death in the beginning of the movie. He is told, however, that survival was not his destiny, and if he lives the universe will collapse and be destroyed in thirty days. Armed with this information, Donnie struggles with the knowledge of his inevitable fate and knowing he must find a way to go back in time and prevent his life from being saved. The film uses the question of free-will versus predetermination to imply that a human’s future is predestined, and altering it will result in the destruction of mankind.
Not all movies are made purely for entertainment value. In my paper, I plan on using the aforementioned movies in order to demonstrate how the film industry uses movies to portray philosophical and theological questions to their viewers; in this case, specifically the question of free-will versus predetermination. I will also demonstrate that just as different philosophers hold different beliefs on the subject, the movie industry tends to portray this theme in two separate ways: humans either possess free-will and are able to change their destiny, or their futures are predestined and any attempt to change their fate will result in disastrous consequences. By comparing the action packed sci-fi movies Minority Report and Paycheck, to the darker dramas Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect, I will show how these films are used to make their viewers ask the ultimate question: Can knowing the future change our actions, or are we doomed to unalterable destiny?