One must never underestimate the prescience of Ashton Kutcher. Critics panned his 2004 thriller The Butterfly Effect, but its title popularized an obscure concept of chaos theory--that small acts can beget far-flung consequences, as a butterfly's flapping its wings can trigger a storm thousands of miles away. Deep stuff for the guy who punk'd Justin Timberlake.
Two years later, we have a butterfly infestation: movies and TV are obsessed with stories about the random connections among vast, multinational and multilingual casts of strangers. Crash won the Best Picture Oscar for a story of multicultural Angelenos brought into conflict by circumstance. This year Babel has Oscar buzz for spinning a wider web: an American couple vacationing in Morocco; the goatherd boy who, testing a new rifle by firing it at the tourists' bus, hits the wife; the couple's nanny, who takes their children on a disastrous day trip to Mexico; and the deaf Japanese girl improbably connected to all these events. TV dramas like Lost and Heroes have global ensembles whose lives are intertwined before they ever meet. One man's winning lottery numbers are another man's key to the universe (Lost); the fate of the world depends on a Japanese nerd's saving an American cheerleader he doesn't know (Heroes).
On one level, this butterfly-fiction trend is just a variation on the classic dorm-room-stoner epiphany: that everything is, like, connected, dude. But it also rings true with our lives, which are linked to those of strangers around the world today in ways we sense but can't quite comprehend. We are at "war" against loose networks of enemies with no uniform or flag. Our jobs are at the mercy of vast global webs. We make sprawling (if shallow) ties through social-networking websites. We worry if our emissions will come back to us as global warming, if our foreign policy will come back to us as terrorism. A guy halfway around the world could read your X-rays, take your outsourced job, become your best MySpace friend or crash a plane into your office.
Earlier peoples also believed their lives could be changed by distant, unseen beings. They called these entities angels, demons and gods. Today, the complex world that travel, communications and other technologies have created can likewise seem as if moved by mystic forces. If Lost is a jungle of quasi-shamanistic kismet, it resonates because our world appears that way too. In Babel, Heroes and their forebears--from Magnolia to the novels of Thomas Pynchon--even if the connections may be contrived, they feel authentic. That guy in the next car on the freeway could change my life someday! If I save the cheerleader, I can save the world!
Butterfly fiction is not necessarily political. But when it is, it has an affinity with liberalism, perhaps because of its focus on how individuals can be shaped--or ruined--by social systems. Crash was a 10-car pileup of pieties about race relations. Emilio Estevez's hyperearnest film Bobby (opening later this month) juxtaposes the 1968 assassination of progressive martyr Robert F. Kennedy--portrayed messianically as the last, best hope for the race- and war-torn U.S.--with the imbricated stories of 22 characters. (One of whom is played by ... Ashton Kutcher. Coincidence? I think not!)