The Butterfly Effect. 2004. Directed & Written by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber.
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, William Lee Scott, Jesse James, Logan Lerman, John B. Lowe, Callum Keith Rennie, Ethan Suplee, Jesse Hutch, Tara Wilson, Kevin Durand, & Eric Stoltz. BenderSpink/FilmEnging/Katalyst Films.
Rated R. 120 minutes (Director’s Cut).
I remember first seeing The Butterfly Effect when it came out. At the time I was in film school and one of our essays required us to go see a movie currently in theatre, do an analysis and write about 1,500 words. Going in, honestly there weren’t any huge expectations. It surprised me, though, and coming out I felt heavily affected by what I’d just seen. Along with Donnie Darko that I recently reviewed, this is a film I truly dig, but one I haven’t watched in years despite having viewed it a bunch after it first released. Coming back to it now there’s still a lot to enjoy.
While I may not see it as near perfect how I did a little over ten years ago, directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber does some great stuff. The Butterfly Effect looks at the power of memory, the repercussions of events from our past that bleed into the present. Above everything else, it makes us wonder whether revisiting the past is worth it. Of course it does so in the sense of exploring its thematic material through a science fiction lens. At the same time, the core story is rooted in a deeply intense and personal drama about a young man whose life, as well as the life of anyone around him, has been altered by significant, damaging events. Not everything works and there are points in the screenplay that could’ve been tighter, but on the whole this is an exciting, at times disturbing, always interesting bit of science fiction wrapped in a thriller concerning the power of memory to affect a person, as well as the enduring effect on a person’s loved ones and relationships if memory cannot be conquered.
There’s some disturbing content at the heart of this film. Not too long in and we discover Evan (Ashton Kutcher) was molested as a boy by his friend’s father Mr. Miller (Eric Stoltz), and this is one of the bigger actions that causes repercussions. Because even before Evan goes about changing his memories and the past there’s that knowledge that events reverberate into the future, they shape a person’s character. So later when Evan does change things, bouncing between various decisions and making mistakes, there’s a further sense of these reverberations. Bigger now. Gradually, the lives of those involved with Evan over the course of a lifetime get worse and worse. From the upper class university life to a dilapidated crack house where Kayleigh (Amy Smart) winds up, the situations only get worse.
Beyond the disturbing elements, The Butterfly Effect is emotional. The foundation is built upon the relationship between Evan and Kayleigh, which shapes the thriller portions of this film. Evan’s love for Kayleigh, his desire to change her life for the better turns the story into a heartbreaking tale of failed redemption and a story about loss. Essentially, the plot concerns his desire to be the hero; of his own life and his others. The most devastating point in the plot is where Evan tries too hard to be the hero, for everybody, and effectively puts himself in a wheelchair, his arms blown off. All to try saving both Kayleigh and Lenny (Elden Henson), stretching himself too thin. Seeing him relegated to that chair and Evan having to watch his best friend be with the girl he loves so deeply is beyond tough. Despite flaws, this story is a tough ride, but in such an excellent sense. This is what makes the movie both memorable, as well as a so remarkable.
In the end, Evan realizes there’s no escaping the past. No matter his abilities in travelling back through his memories and the past in general, something worse or undesirable always happens. Nothing can alter what has already happened, only what comes afterwards. And the more Evan tries playing hero, the worse his eventual future becomes until he’s finally backed into a corner with no more options.
For me, one of the largest downfalls to this movie is Kutcher himself. Not only him, though. Some of the acting is just weak. At times, I do like Kutcher. When Evan goes to jail I found his portrayal of the character genuine, his fear and the apprehension, not knowing how to act in that terrifying social space. Likewise, a young Logan Lerman plays Evan as a boy and he does a fantastic job; in certain scenes he retains that innocent childlike essence necessary, in others he feels old beyond his years when Evan is travelling back through memories to try changing the past. But too many times I felt the cheesy qualities of Kutcher’s acting. A few times you can forgive. Yet there are times I couldn’t take him seriously when the plot demands it. Such as when Kayleigh gives Evan a granola bar, in the future where he has no arms, and he crushes it with his prosthetic hand – normally, this wouldn’t make me laugh at all. Kutcher makes me chuckle at this, simply because there are times he’s just not believable. So with a mixed performance like this one it’s tough to love the movie more. Aside from him, Smart gives the same type of performance. Later when Kayleigh is a prostitute, down one particular avenue to the future which Evan mangles, Smart does well with portraying this tragic side of the character. The rest of her performance is slightly bland. One moment in particular kills me: in the future where Evan has no arms he falls from his wheelchair purposefully, while on the ground people laugh at him and Kayleigh tries defending him by yelling at everyone, but Smart’s acting feels much too forced and this brief scene comes off terribly. There are some instances of good acting throughout, don’t get me wrong. Considered as a whole, the cast is all right. Enough to convey the basics and to make things emotional at the right times.
What the movie lacks in solid performances it makes up for with an interesting plot with equally interesting execution on the part of the directors. The visual style is dark, which mirrors the plot and the film’s story. Moreover, the actual atmosphere itself gets darker or lighter depending on how Evan and his actions affect the future’s outcome. So when things feel rosy and wonderful in the college lifestyle, Evan exists in a bright, colourful space. The more sinister everything becomes, the grittier each scene gets and the more shadows hang over every frame.
No qualms giving this a 3&1/2-star rating. There are plot holes, some cheesy moments of acting, and at times there are good scenes which fall flat for various reasons. However, The Butterfly Effect is engaging because of its emotional hook, and despite missteps in acting along the way Kutcher is still able to make us care about Evan, investing ourselves in his emotional journey across the past through his shattered memories. More importantly, this is an innovative feature, as it dives hard and deep into territory we’ve seen before, but with its own interesting premise.
Also, if you can, see the Director’s Cut. I much prefer the ending to this one. The original Theatrical Cut is good enough. Although the ending doesn’t fit well enough with the vibe of the film. The Director’s Cut ends things off properly grim, yet by the same token there’s this glimmer of hope which stays in-line with the character of Evan and his desire to try and rewrite the past to positive ends. Either way, check out all four of the endings and judge for yourself. This is a nice little flick that I can always go back to now and then for an edgy thrill with heavy hints of science fiction in its bones.