Most people play the what-if game at some point or other. Many of us look back on a specific moment when we made a decision that had ramifications far beyond our own lives, and we wonder if we did the right thing. For example, what if I had not skipped grades when I was 12 years old? I came to regret that decision frequently during my high school years, and if I could revisit any moment in my past, that would probably be it.
But I was not the only person affected by my choice. Had I not skipped grades, I would probably not have gone to Bible school, and I would not have become friends with a couple of fellows who ended up moving to Vancouver and becoming my first roommates. Two of my roommates went on to marry women who lived in the suite below our own, and one of these couples already has children. There are times when I wonder if those kids will ever know that they owe their existence, in part, to the fact that I said “yes” and not “no” when I was offered a chance to accelerate my education.
If my actions affect the lives of others in ways that cannot be foreseen, then the decisions of others have affected my life, too. And all of our decisions are made in the context of seemingly random events, which provide yet another opportunity to play the what-if game.
Several films have been playing that game lately. Last year, in Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow played a woman named Helen whose life goes in two separate directions following a fateful run through a train station. In one timeline, Helen catches the train and arrives home in time to discover that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. In the other, Helen misses the train, and in the extra time it takes her to get home, her boyfriend’s lover leaves the apartment undetected. Through a combination of chance and choice, the Helen who discovers her boyfriend’s infidelity meets a fate very different from that of the Helen who doesn’t.
Run Lola Run, an energetic German film released in North America several months later, ups the stakes by diverting our attention away from the protagonists every now and then. Lola (Franka Potente) gets a phone call from her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), who has just lost a bag containing 100,000 deutsche marks that he is supposed to deliver to a gangster he’s meeting in 20 minutes. In desperation, Manni decides to rob a store. Lola, hoping to stop him, runs out the door, down the stairs, and out into the streets, in search of money. She does this not once, but three times, in three different timelines, each the result of an encounter with a bully and a dog in the stairwell. And as Lola passes people on the street, director Tom Tykwer gives us flash-forward glimpses of the lives they will go on to live. The person who meets a spouse or experiences a religious conversion in one timeline might die a horrible death in another.
More recently, the Australian comedy Me Myself I stars Rachel Griffiths as Pamela, a lonely single woman who wonders if she made a mistake by turning down a marriage proposal from an old flame named Robert (David Roberts) 13 years before. One day Pamela, while fleeing a street evangelist, is hit by a car, and the driver turns out to be an alternate version of herself who accepted Robert’s proposal and went on to have three children with him. Married Pamela takes Single Pamela home, then mysteriously disappears, leaving Single Pamela to figure out the exhausting intricacies of motherhood. Still, marriage has its benefits, and Single Pamela comes to enjoy her sex life with Robert. But as time goes on, she discovers that Married Pamela’s life wasn’t all that perfect either; in fact, the marriage had been on the verge of collapse. In the end, we learn that, just as Single Pamela has been living Married Pamela’s life, Married Pamela has been living in Single Pamela’s world; both women needed to see how things would have been if they had made a different choice. And, now that they know, both return to their original lives.All three films hinge on a single happenstance or a single moment of decision. But life is made up of lots of little moments when things could have gone one way or the other. Enter Frequency. In this imaginative but very convoluted film, a Brooklyn firefighter named Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), fiddling with his ham radio in October 1969, makes contact with his son John (Jim Caviezel), a cop who is fiddling with the same ham radio exactly 30 years in the future. It turns out Frank has hooked up with his son the day before Frank was fated to die in a warehouse fire. John, who is still suffering the trauma of growing up without a father, gives Frank a crucial piece of information that ends up saving Frank’s life, at least temporarily. (Instead of dying 30 years ago in the fire, we are told that Frank died from lung cancer just a few years ago, thus keeping him conveniently out of the 1999 portion of the story.)
But then John discovers that his father, by surviving, has inadvertently saved the life of a serial killer. The killer originally died in 1969 without ever being identified, but now that he lives, he is destined to kill several more women, including Frank’s wife. His identity remains a mystery, even in John’s day, so father and son join forces, across the decades, to track the killer down and stop him before he can commit his murders. They do this not only because they can do it, but because they believe they ought to do it. “Those other women were not supposed to die!” says John, but it never occurs to him that, by the same logic, his father was not “supposed” to live.
Frequency strikes a compromise between two competing understandings of the world and our place in it. In the traditional Christian view, history is linear and moves toward a point; God knows the future because he stands outside time. Modernity, with its emphasis on progress, preserved some sense of linearity but was more open-ended; no matter how good things got, they could always get better, and probably would. Both views assume a basic direction in which the world is (or ought to be) moving.
But postmodernity has challenged all that. According to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, the universe is constantly branching off into many different universes, in which all possible outcomes ultimately come to be. Toss a coin, says this theory, and it will come up both heads and tails, but in separate worlds.
There is a hint of this openness in Frequency; Frank is free to go left even though his son remembers him going right. But Frank does not create a new universe; instead, his decisions have tangible ramifications in John’s world. The timeline, however wrinkled it may get, is essentially a closed system.
The other films in this genre put their various timelines on roughly equal footing. Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run end on an upbeat, audience-pleasing note, but the parallel timelines could have been presented in any order, and the theological implications are mind-boggling. If each person “is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), what are we to make of a theory which says that, every time I have the choice to do good or evil, I do both, but in different worlds? Even if we don’t accept the “many worlds” theory, these films confront us with the possibility that our lives, and even to some extent our identities, are the result of blind chance.
Me Myself I, which grants a happy ending to both of its worlds, points in a hopeful direction. In that film, each version of Pamela comes to accept the life that she has made for herself. Similarly, with God’s help, we can learn to accept the curveballs the world throws our way, to live with the consequences of our own decisions, pro and con, and to find new opportunities for growth. Indeed, as Frequency demonstrates, attempts to fix the past could conceivably make matters worse. Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow; he might also tell us not to worry about yesterday. Each day has enough trouble, and enough joy, of its own.
— A version of this article was first published in Books & Culture.