Retrospective: The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Welcome back good readers as we begin a new retrospectives series! If you want to check out previous series, I’ve added a “Retrospectives” link on the pages sidebar that lists all the previous series we’ve covered and links to all the entries – be sure to check it out! Anyway, the franchise that we’re going to be focusing on for the next few weeks is The Butterfly Effect series. And obviously, since this is the first entry in the retrospective, we’re going to be examining the first film in the franchise, 2004’s The Butterfly Effect. For the record, this is easily one of the most divisive movies that I can think of, so much like my review of Live Free or Die Hard, I expect this entry could get heated. That’s okay, we’re all entitled to our opinions, and that’s all that this is. Oh, and this review is based off of the Director’s Cut, which is generally considered the “definitive” version among viewers.

Kind of an odd poster design. On the one hand, I like how sinister it looks, and it plays up the messed-up romance between Evan and Kayleigh. On the other hand though, it doesn’t really scream “psychological-time-travel-thriller”.

The script for The Butterfly Effect was written by J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress, both of which would end up directing the film. Bress and Gruber were also known for writing Final Destination 2, with Bress also having the dubious “honour” of having penned The Final Destination. The story was heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder”, in which a time traveler accidentally steps on a butterfly and changes the future through a seemingly insignificant event. Of course, both stories stem from the butterfly effect itself, an example (and shorthand) of chaos theory. The idea is that small changes in a system can have larger, unforseen consequences. The classic example is a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a chain of events which eventually leads to a sunny day becoming a hurricane instead. It’s also one of the reasons why the weather can’t be predicted with any sort accuracy more than 3 or 4 days ahead of time.

Apparently The Butterfly Effect‘s script had been floating around for quite some time, becoming known as one of the most widely read unproduced scripts in Hollywood. However, when Ashton Kutcher came on as executive producer, the script finally was greenlit and entered production. Seann William Scott and Josh Hartnett, among others, were offered the lead role of Evan Treborn, but it eventually fell on Kutcher himself. Kutcher’s involvement in the film was (and still is) the film’s biggest controversial talking point, as he was (and still is) mostly known for being a horrible actor who appears in terrible movies. Final Destination 2 actress and Retrospectives favourite Ali Larter was offered the main female role of Kayleigh, but the role eventually was picked up by Amy Smart (best known for Rat Race, Road Trip and, uh, Crank…).

The story of The Butterfly Effect revolves around a child called Evan Treborn. When he’s seven, he starts experiencing blackouts, during which he displays seemingly psychotic behaviour (violent drawings, grabbing kitchen knives, etc). His psychiatrist recommends that he begin chronicling his memories in journals as therapy and that he see his father, who went insane years prior. However, when Evan confronts his father, he blacks out, only waking in time to see his father trying to strangle him before being bludgeoned to death. As the years pass, Evan becomes close with his abused neighbour, Kayleigh Miller. He, Kayleigh, her disturbed brother Tommy and another friend named Lenny grow up together, until a prank-gone-awry committed by Tommy ends fatally. This prank gives Lenny severe PTSD, causing Evan’s mother to move away. Evan promises to come back and save Kayleigh from her pedophile father and psychotic brother.

Seven years later, Evan’s a gifted psych major working on theoretical memory assimilation. However, when he uncovers an old journal, he gets a flashback to one of his blackouts, shocking him since he could not remember what happened during them. As he begins to uncover more details about the past, Evan discovers that he can use these flashbacks to not only witness the past, but to change it as well. Unfortunately, as Evan changes things, the consequences of his actions reverberate and cause unexpected tragedy in the future…

Obviously, the film’s plot is fairly complicated (it is a time travel movie after all), and what you think of it will really make-or-break the film for you. On the one hand, the script makes for a very effective tragic thriller. On the other hand, the movie’s rules aren’t particularly well-defined and as a result there are some pretty major logical gaps. For example, in the opening scene, why the hell does Evan bother to write a note? Who’s going to read it if he’s going to change the past anyway? Also, when Evan blacks out he seems to remember some aspects of what happened, because he writes down details he wouldn’t have known otherwise. Why did Evan’s father try to kill him (remember, when Evan goes to the past, he changes the future, so he wasn’t travelling to his own past to make his father kill him)? Probably the biggest, most noticable logical gap though is when Evan goes back in time to give himself “stigmata” – how did he not change his future in the process? The last two points in particular highlight how ill-defined the rules of time travel can be in the film. The movie doesn’t seem to make up its mind whether Evan’s actually travelling to the past without changing the future or not. For the most part, it’s fairly consistent, but there are moments which don’t make a lot of sense under scrutiny. There’s also the fact that when Evan changes the past, only his circle of friends seem to have any changes, rather than the world around them, but this was likely done to simplify things rather than being an oversight.

The blackouts as a plot device are pretty confusing too. For the first viewing or two they’re totally fine because they’re meant to be a mystery. However, when you actually start thinking about them, they don’t make any sense. It’s heavily implied that Evan’s time travelling causing his own blackouts, but since the whole point of the movie is that time travel changes the future, how is this even possible within the movie’s own logic? I’m not even taking time paradoxes into account either with this assessment – the time travel in this movie doesn’t operate with multiple dimensions or alternate timelines. When the past is changed, everything is changed instantly. Then there’s the question of whether Evan can only travel back to times where he blacked out – this is implied as well, but never really stated. I kind of wonder if there’s a deleted scene somewhere where Evan finds out he can only change the past during his blackouts. In any case, the blackouts are a very confusing element of the film once you start dwelling upon them – however, this point isn’t too critical since it’s intentionally kept mysterious and doesn’t detract from enjoyment of the film.

The plot is also notable for just how dark it gets. Sometimes it goes on overload, since it always seems like everything ends up being the worst case scenario. Seriously, how much bad shit can happen to one group of people!? Evan ends up in the worst prison ever, Kayleigh ends up in the dirtiest whorehouse ever, Lenny ends up in solitary confinement at the psych ward, etc. Anyway, think of the most vile evils you can, and there’s a good chance that it’s a major plot point in The Butterfly Effect. It’s hard to choose the worst thing when you’ve got child pornography, molestation, abuse, rape, suicide, animal torture, death, murder, attempted infanticide, sadism, forced prostitution, etc. Hell, that’s not even going into the even worse details of these acts – one murder is committed by a child. A woman, her baby and another child get blown to smithereens by a stick of dynamite. The Director’s Cut ending is perhaps the crowning achievement of darkness though – a baby commits suicide by strangling itself with its umbilical cord. Lovely. As screwed up as all of that sounds (and it’s sure as hell screwed up), the script is kind of enjoyable for how twisted it is. It’s certainly not for the weak-willed, but I struggle to think of a movie outside of the horror genre which is this relentlessly dark.

Of course, since it is a time travel film, one of the most interesting aspects is seeing how the future is changed each time Evan travels to the past, and the unintended consequences of his actions. Honestly, the viewer is rooting for Evan to fix things – I know I’d keep on trying, even if I kept making things worse every time. The changes are a little… drastic though sometimes. How does Evan go from relatively normal college guy to frat boy douchebag, simply because he and Kayleigh stayed together? Why does Kayleigh sell herself to the dirtiest pimp ever when her brother dies? For the most part it’s not too bad, but those two examples are points where the film could have done with some restraint.

As for the acting, Ashton Kutcher is of course the talking point. He takes a lot of shit for his role, but I honestly think he did very well overall… well, except for this scene anyway. The only actor who I thought did a particularly poor job was Melora Walters, who plays Evan’s mother. Almost every line of dialogue she says comes out unconvincingly, but at least she’s a secondary character. Amy Smart’s Kayleigh was also rather inconsistent, although not enough to derail the film by any means. The Butterfly Effect also features quite a few child actors due to the time travel mechanics, which could have been very problematic – after all, child actors aren’t exactly known for being amazing performers. However, the movie dodges a bullet, since I actually quite liked the child and teen actors in the film. The kid who plays the teenaged Tommy might have been a tiny bit over the top, but he really does a great job of coming across as a disturbed, twisted son of a bitch… not to mention that he totally sells Tommy’s implied incestuous desire towards Kayleigh.

The theatrical and director’s cut endings both deserve a mention, as each radically changes the film. In the theatrical ending, an exasperated Evan goes back to his seventh birthday party and tells Kayleigh that he’ll kill her if she comes near him again. This causes Kayleigh and Tommy to move away with their mom, therefore avoiding their father’s abuse, preventing Lenny from becoming traumatized by Tommy and allowing his mother to have a fulfilling life. In the present, Evan destroys his journals and tries to regain a relatively normal life. It’s a bittersweet ending, since Evan has to hurt his true love to keep her safe, although the viewer definitely feels that things are going to be ideal for everyone involved… although it never really addresses how messed up Evan had become throughout this whole ordeal.

However, the director’s cut is another beast entirely. For one thing, the ending is better set up – Evan discovers that his mother has had two stillbirths before him, and that both his father and grandfather both went crazy from their “gift”. This cut of the film also actually sets up the revelation that journals aren’t the only means of time travel available to Evan. In the ending, Evan goes back to his birth and strangles himself in the womb. This ending is just plain tragic and depressing, and you could also argue that it’s preposterous and tasteless… but it’s far more in-tune with what the rest of the film had been setting up and brilliant in its audacity. I prefer the director’s cut ending because it’s very powerful and affecting, although I’m glad that there are alternate cuts for those who want something a little less depressing.

The Butterfly Effect was, and continues to be, an extremely divisive film in pretty much every regard. For as much as its plot, acting or ending are praised, it seems to get an equal number of scorn for the exact same qualities. For my own part, I actually went into this review with a harsh eye on the property to try to see what the haters dislike so much about the film… but I still came out thinking it’s a flawed piece of brilliance. Honestly, I can look past most of the logical gaps, because The Butterfly Effect is so unique and daring that it nullifies their impact for me. If you can stomach the dark content, then I heartily recommend the film.


Be sure to come back soon for part two of this retrospective series, The Butterfly Effect 2!

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