Civilization and distrust as seen in The Trigger Effect

As I write this my apartment lacks electricity and phone service. Flood waters are messing up buildings and roads in downtown Calgary but most of us have been successfully evacuated. My Facebook account is filled with amazing people offering accommodation to any unlucky soul who needs it. Updating my Facebook status with the two-word announcement “I’m okay!” received dozens of “likes” in the span of a few seconds. Rescue teams are mobilizing citizens are volunteering to help with the clean-up… it’s amazing. This city and the people in it impress the hell out of me.

It could have turned out a lot worse. Waking up in a neighbourhood with no electricity brought back vivid memories of the film The Trigger Effect (1996) a largely forgotten yet thought-provoking drama that might very well be worth re-evaluation.

One of the themes of The Trigger Effect is that the way we treat strangers affects the way those strangers treat the next people they meet. This is illustrated brilliantly in the opening scene as we watch a conga-line of rudeness selfishness and anger snake through a prosperous California suburb. The camera follows one grumpy character after another before settling on Matthew (Kyle MacLachlan) and Annie (Elisabeth Shue) our protagonists who are having just as bad a day as everyone else seems to be having. It ends with a power outage which is greeted with weary groans of exasperation.

The next day the power is still off. What happened? Nobody knows. When will we get our electricity back? Nobody knows. The TVs and radios don’t work and smartphones haven’t been widely introduced yet. The characters argue and complain and begin to wonder if the negative changes they see around them are part of a bigger more permanent change.

Social conventions begin to break down. Faced with a sick baby and a pharmacist who refuses to co-operate (the doctor’s prescription never got phoned in due to the power outage) Matthew steals some medicine and feels perfectly justified in doing so. Fearing that looters might be about people begin arming themselves. The lineup at the gun store is frighteningly long. When Matthew buys a shotgun Annie throws it into the swimming pool. Once retrieved the firearm no longer operates reliably but one in every four shells or so seems to work. This adds a terrifyingly random element to future scenes; none of the characters know if the next trigger pull will result in a click or a bang.

Every character we meet is a regular decent citizen but at his or her worst. Angry frazzled mistrustful of others and concerned with his or her own safety above all else. No heroes or villains just people who are now likely to hurt one another because of circumstances.

The Trigger Effect never attracted much of an audience despite many favourable reviews. Some viewers complained that it ended on too hopeful a note instead of going full Lord of the Flies . They missed the point. People can choose to treat one another better and doing so leads to that useful thing we call civilization. Seeing these characters deciding to break out of a destructive pattern by trusting and helping and behaving heroically is not only a good ending it’s the right ending.

And going by the awesome example set by my fellow Calgarians it’s also true to life.