Released: 6 July 2004
Originally Released: 23 January 2004
Director: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $13 million
Stars: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, William Lee Scott, Elden Henson, and Eric Stoltz
All his life, Evan Treborn (Kutcher) has suffered from mysterious blackouts and a traumatic childhood but, in his twenties, he finds he can travel back in time to inhabit his former self during those periods of blackout. However, while he attempts to improve the present by changing his past behaviors and set things right for himself and his friends, there are unintended consequences for all.
The Butterfly Effect was the brainchild of writer/director duo Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who initially faced some difficulty in shopping the concept around Hollywood due to the film’s dark and complicated premise; they wrote the first screenplay in 1995 but no one would touch it until they proved themselves with their work on Final Destination 2 (Ellis, 2003). The duo traded different ideas for sequences in the film and enjoyed working in new twists and turns to the script, and even defended casting the somewhat-controversial Ashton Kutcher since they absolutely believed in his ability as an actor. To his credit, Kutcher fully committed to the role; in spite of his tendency to misbehave when bored, he brought a lot of his own emotions and experiences to the main character. However, despite making over $96 million at the box office, critical reception to The Butterfly Effect was generally poor; reviews criticised the inconsistency of the central premise and saw it as an unpleasant and sloppy affair, though many have come to regard its harsh criticism as being unjust and see it as a flawed but entertaining thriller. For its home video release, The Butterfly Effect was accompanied by this Director’s Cut edition, which added about five minutes of extra footage alongside a completely new, far bleaker ending and the film was followed by two pretty dire, barely-connected, straight-to-DVD sequels and is apparently tapped to receive a remake at some point.
It think it’s only fair to start this review by saying that I’m not really, and have never been, much of an Ashton Kutcher fan. Or Amy Smart fan, for that matter. In my teenage years (and still to this day), I enjoyed my fair share of tweener sex-comedies like the American Pie films (Various, 1999 to present) and was more a fan of guys like Seann William Scott rather than Kutcher and, while I enjoy Road Trip (Phillips, 2000), Smart didn’t exactly do much to stand out for me against a sea of other attractive blondes so, in terms of the casting, The Butterfly Effect wasn’t exactly my usual forte. In fact, thinking about it now, I’m not even sure how I became aware of the film; I think it must’ve come to my attention around about the same time I was discovering Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001), and certainly must’ve been added to my film collection around this time, and I was more than surprised to find how much I enjoyed both the performances and the premise of this movie. To begin with, the film subscribes to a very linear format as we follow young Evan Treborn (Logan Lerman at seven and John Patrick Amedori at thirteen) and his childhood friends, Kayleigh Miller (Irene Gorovaia), her brother Tommy (Jesse James), and Evan’s best friend Lenny Kagan (Kevin G. Schmidt). Evan is the only son of hardworking single mother Andrea (Melora Walters), who grows disturbed by his frequent blackouts; rather than fainting or going into a catatonic state during these moments, Evan simply loses all awareness of what’s happened around him and “comes to” only after the moment has passed, meaning he has no memory of drawing a disturbing picture of a knife crime in school or of why he’s standing in the kitchen holding a knife. Concerned for his wellbeing and desperate to avoid him becoming institutionalised like his father, Jason (Callum Keith Rennie), Andrea takes Evan to Dr. Redfield (Nathaniel Deveaux) who suggests that he start keeping regular diaries to help jog his memory and that his blackouts may stem from abandonment issues with his father.
To try and rectify this, he’s granted a heavily supervised visit to his father in hospital, only to blackout and awaken to find his father ranting and raving and attempting to throttle him to death, subsequently witnessing Jason being accidentally killed right before his eyes. Not only do Evan’s blackouts continue as he grows into a teen, but his childhood traumas quickly mount up as well; he blacks out during a trip to the basement of Kayleigh’s disturbed father, George (Stoltz), whose physical and sexual abuse of his kids causes Kayleigh to grow up ashamed of her body and sexuality and Tommy to become more than a little disturbed. Tommy constantly manipulates and insults both Evan and Lenny, flies into a rage at the slightest provocation, and even sets fire to Evan’s beloved dog after seeing a tender moment between him and Kayleigh. Eventually, Andrea reaches her breaking point and moves them away, much to Evan’s anguish as it means leaving his childhood sweetheart behind, though he vows to come back to her. When the story jumps ahead to find the now grown-up Evan acing his way through university, he’s stunned to find that reading his diaries triggers a reverse blackout; while his older self spaces out and becomes unresponsive, his conscious mind inhabits the body of his younger self, allowing him to experience moments he missed out on as a child and understand just how depraved George was. Confused, he turns to the only person who can corroborate what he experienced and finds Kayleigh (Smart) working as an abused waitress and deeply traumatised by her disturbing upbringing; when Evan’s questions only cause her further distress and drive her to suicide, he’s devastated when an angry Tommy (Scott) calls vowing to make him pay. Realising that he has the power to change events for the better, Evan travels back in time and delivers a scathing and unexpected tirade to George, altering events so that Kayleigh was spared her father’s wrath and lusts and resulting in the two of them being together in a fraternity at university. However, all is not entirely right in this new timeline; not only does Evan suffer a painful and disturbing convulsion as a new set of memories is crammed into his brain, but he’s now seen as a rich, douchebag frat boy who’s failing his classes. To make matters worse, George misinterpreted Evan’s message and poured all of his abuse into Tommy, who becomes even more maladjusted as a result and, during a violent confrontation between the two, ends up bludgeoned to death at Evan’s hands as payback for killing his dog and ruining Lenny’s life.
This timeline thus goes from bad from worse for Evan as he ends up in prison alongside some seriously depraved inmates who attack him, sexually violate him, and end up in possession of his only way of escaping: his diaries. Thanks to using his strange abilities to convince the religious Carlos (Kevin Durand) into helping him, Evan is able to jump back into his teenage body to try again. Unfortunately, this time he makes things better for himself but much, much worse for Lenny and Kayleigh; in an attempt to keep his dog from being burned alive, Evan unwittingly gives Lenny a sharp tool to stab and kill Tommy, leaving him (as in Lenny) in a vegetative state. As if this (and carrying the memories of his time in prison with him) wasn’t bad enough, Kayleigh has resorted to drugs and prostitution to get by and offers Evan little more than scorn, resentment, and derision when he tells her the truth about his condition and prepares to give up altering the timeline since he constantly makes things worse in ways he cannot predict. Despite her vitriol, however, Kayleigh offers Evan one last inspiration to set things right and he goes back in time to find out what happened when he and his friends left a stick of dynamite in a neighbour’s post box. Originally, this left Lenny psychologically broken as he was coerced by Tommy into placing the explosive that caused the death of her mother and baby but, this time, Evan tries to save those lives and ends up a multiple quadriplegic as a result of being caught in the explosion himself. However, things are much better for Lenny and Kayleigh, who are at university with Evan, caring for him, and in a loving relationship, and even Tommy has turned his life around and found God after tackling the neighbour and seeing himself as a hero. While Evan’s disabled alternative self is seen to have accepted his lot in life, he’s left a broken shell of his former self as he’s now completely helpless without the aid of others, his mother is suffering from lung cancer after taking to chain smoking, and he’s distraught to find that he can’t even kill himself since he’s so immobile. At the end of his tether, Evan tries one last time to set things right, returning to George’s basement once more, only to cause an even worse result when Kayleigh is killed, and he awakens to find himself in an institution under the care of Dr. Redfield and believed to be as crazy as his father was.
I couldn’t talk about The Butterfly Effect without mentioning Michael Suby’s haunting, deeply affecting score; an evocative melody that perfectly captures the desperation, action, and emotion of every scene, the soundtrack really hits its apex during Kayleigh’s funeral. As if Evan’s heartbreak wasn’t evident enough from his stunned, stoic, regretful poise and features, Suby’s rising, poignant music really hammers home the pain and sorrow he’s feeling in that moment. While I remember being mildly invested in the film up until that point, it was this moment that the film really caught my attention and, even now, it often makes me a little teary-eyed; it’s just such a great, incredibly moving score (and scene) and it never fails to draw me into Evan’s anguish. Also key to this is Kutcher’s performance in the role; while I’m not really normally too fussed about him either way, he really impressed me here with the ease at which he jumped between being a relatively well-adjusted young man, to realising how screwed up his childhood was, and the lengths to which he went to try and make things better for himself and his friends. His joy at creating a world where he and Kayleigh are together is quickly dashed when he realises that he’s seen as a privileged layabout in this timeline and his hopes sink into depression and suicide once he accidentally blows his limbs off.
The time travel mechanic, while somewhat flawed, is extremely inventive; Evan can inhabit his younger body and relive pockets of time he missed, which then fundamentally changes the present, and he’s able to retain full memories of every lifetime upon returning. While this causes brain haemorrhaging that eventually threatens his life, he’s pretty good at keeping track of where he’s been and what he’s lived through, thanks in no small part to his diaries. However, as the world changes in more drastic ways, he loses pages and even entire books of his journals and has to resort to violence and other extreme methods to make a jump. It turns out that his condition is hereditary, passed down from his father who was able to make similar trips using photographs, which makes his name (“Evan Treborn”, as in “Event Reborn”) take on a double meaning (if you think this is lacking in subtlety, I’m pretty sure the directors say in the movie commentary that they originally named him “Chris Treborn”, which is about as subtle as a brick). Quite how the males in the family have this ability isn’t explained, though Evan finds that his grandfather also had it but, when he tries to get answers from Jason, he ends up being strangled by his father for his arrogant assumption that he’ll be able to succeed where Jason failed and create a better life for everyone. Of course, Evan’s aspirations are doomed to fail; every time he makes a change, it has disastrous ramifications for either himself or those around him. He’s able to “fix” him and Kayleigh but at the cost of turning Tommy into even more of a psycho; when he tries to fix this, he improves his life at the cost of Tommy’s, Lenny’s sanity, and Kayleigh’s health; and, when he tries to fix that, he ends up a quadriplegic with a dying mother, but his friends are much happier in this timeline.
His repeated attempts to save and change lives result only in failure or further suffering, driving him to the point of suicide but, desperate to fix his mother and regain his limbs, he tries one more jaunt to his boyhood and ends up accidentally killing Kayleigh and making it so that he didn’t write any diaries beyond that point due to being committed to a hospital. It’s at this point that The Butterfly Effect briefly toys with the notion that everything we’ve witnessed up until this moment has been a delusion of Evan’s, a manic fabrication to cope with the guilt of Kayleigh’s death, since Dr. Redfield sees the same similarities between Evan’s demands for diaries that don’t exist and Jason’s requests to view photographs he never took. Suffering from irreparable damage to his brain, which has been strained to breaking point after being overloaded with about eighty years’ worth of memories, Evan sees only one way out; he makes a daring escape from his room to view footage of his birth, and leaps into the body of his baby self to strangle himself to death with his umbilical cord. Although this leaves Andrea devastated at having lost another child, the knock-on effect is the birth of a happy, healthy girl not afflicted with the time travel curse and better, healthier lives for Kayleigh, Tommy, and Lenny without Evan’s influence. This harrowing and disturbing ending is, of course, very different from the theatrical cut, in which Evan simply scared Kayleigh off when they were kids and seemed tempted to woo her when their paths later happened to cross, but remains one of the bleakest and most affecting examples of self-sacrifice I’ve ever seen. Although Evan wasn’t a disruptive or toxic influence on his friends (at least he wasn’t before he started meddling with time travel), his absence means that Kayleigh and Tommy never went to live wither their father, sparing them from his maltreatment and Lenny from Tommy’s abuse, and effectively ends his family curse and results in improved lives for all at the cost of his own, something hinted at in an earlier scene also new to this version where a fortune teller (Chapelle Jaffe) reveals that he has no lifeline and was “never meant to be”.
Believe me, no one’s more surprised than me at how much I enjoy The Butterfly Effect. While I’m a big science-fiction fan, enjoy time travel stories, and have a twisted appreciation for a good old bleak ending, it definitely helps when actors I actually enjoy or believe in are involved but Ashton Kutcher really surprised me in this one. It’s a shame that I haven’t seen him do more thrillers or more serious roles as he really brought a surprising level of emotion and anguish to this film, which was a necessity given how dark and unsettling The Butterfly Effect’s content can be. While flawed at times (Evan’s “stigmata” trick really shouldn’t have worked, for example), the time travel mechanic is very unique; I liked that Evan was limited to where and when he could travel back to and how his attempts to improve things had devastating knock-on effects. All of the characters are traumatised in some way, having experienced some horrifying events throughout their childhood, and I liked that Evan wasn’t just trying to make things better for him; he wanted to improve Kayleigh’s life, then Lenny’s, then save his mother, alongside his own selfish desires for happiness. It’s only when he’s been left a heavily disabled shadow of his former self that he acts selfishly, and he pays the ultimate price by first losing his diaries and then having to give up his life to ensure a good future for everyone else. Those who find child sexual abuse, suicide, and the unsettling ending particularly triggering may lash out at this film, but it never fails to make an impression on me, and I feel it’s unfairly overlooked. The score, performances, and concept are all executed really well and it’s definitely a top-tier harrowing, sci-fi thriller for me that I often find myself returning to.
Are you a fan of The Butterfly Effect? Which version of the film did you prefer and what did you think to the Director’s Cut’s new, disturbing ending? Were you a fan of Ashton Kutcher’s performance in this film and what did you think to the traumas he experienced throughout? Which of the alternative timelines was your favourite and how do you think you would use Evan’s power? Have you seen any of the sequels and, if so, how do you rate them compared to this film? What are some of your favourite time travel and Ashton Kutcher films? I’d love to know what you think about The Butterfly Effect so sign up to leave your thoughts below or drop a comment on my social media.