The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

The Butterfly Effect first published by Movie Gazette, 26 Feb 2004

Eric Bress and J. Mackye Grubo, who previously collaborated on the brilliantly fatalistic way-of-all-flesh shocker Final Destination 2, have pooled their considerable talents once again in writing and directing The Butterfly Effect, an intricately plotted time-travel psychodrama which mixes mind-bending inventiveness with engaging moral dilemmas – and which explores the darker side of miracles and messianism, suffering, sacrifice and salvation far more intelligently than, say, The Passion of the Christ.  

As a boy (played variously by John Patrick Amedori and Logan Lerman), Evan Treborn suffered his fair share of traumatic formative experiences – an institutionalised father who almost killed him, abuse in the family of his two best friends, a prank gone horrifically wrong and a friend becoming increasingly unhinged – but Evan had only the sketchiest impression of these events thanks to the strange memory blackouts which regularly accompanied them. So when he moved town with his mother, Evan’s memories were already dim and his troubled past seemed well and truly behind him.

At age twenty, however, seven years to the day after his blackouts ceased, Evan (Ashton Kutcher) finds his childhood journals and discovers that by reading entries from them he is able to transport himself back to those forgotten episodes, and can even change their course before returning to the present. Evan is determined to ‘fix’ things in his rediscovered past so that he and his old friends can have happier lives, but he soon learns the hard way that even the tiniest alteration to the past can have gravely unpredictable consequences for the present. 

Possible worlds, chaos theory and alternative reality are normally the exclusive province of philosophers and quantum physicists, but such tricky concepts have also often lent themselves well to the accessible narratives of feature films (from It’s a Wonderful Life to Sliding Doors to Donnie Darko) – and feature films have always specialised in alternative realities of one kind or another. In The Butterfly Effect, Bress and Grubo ingeniously make cinema itself a clarifying metaphor for alternative realities, using recognisable changes in genre to demarcate the changes in Evan’s circumstances.

The early scenes of Evan’s childhood recall coming-of-age films like Stand By Me or The River’s Edge, the later realities that he engineers evoke in turn the (über-cheesy) campus comedy, the prison flick, and the asylum drama, while Evan’s transformation into a self-pitying paraplegic takes inspiration from Born on the Fourth of July. These radical shifts in genre are an economic way of depicting the differences between Evan’s parallel realities, but  – just as importantly – they give The Butterfly Effect a variety of texture that is unusual, disorienting and very diverting. 

Equally unusual are the demands which The Butterfly Effect makes on the versatility of its actors. Amy Smart plays Evan’s would-be girlfriend Kaylee as sorority babe in one scene and crack whore in the next, while William Lee Scott as Kaylee’s brother Tommy goes from psychotic badboy to preppy bible-basher. As the adult Evan, Kutcher grows ever more desperate and deranged (and looks more and more like Jesus) as each attempt to improve reality engenders greater problems. Previously best known for being Demi Moore‘s beau and one of the dudes in Dude, Where’s My Car?, here Kutcher proves that in the right kind of alternative reality he really can act. 

The Butterfly Effect is a true original – and while it quite possibly contains as many (worm)holes as Evan’s memory, half the fun is finding your way through them. 

strap: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Grubo’s ingenious fable of time-travel, chaos theory and self-sacrifice is 2004’s answer to Donnie Darko.

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel