The Butterfly Effect

butterfly-2The title of this 2004 sci-fi thriller starring Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart refers to the notion of sensitive dependence in chaos theory, whereby a change in something seemingly innocuous, such as the flap of a butterfly’s wings, can have enormous and unpredictable ramifications, such as a hurricane in Asia. The film applies this theory to four children growing up in American suburbia whose young lives have been marred by tragedy. When Evan Treborn (Kutcher), one of the group who is now a psychology undegraduate, discovers he can travel back in time he decides to alter the present by ‘undoing’ the harrowing events of the past.

The story begins with Evan as a child who, though a kind boy, shows definite traits of madness. Rather than sailing boats and flowers, his precocious primary school drawings depict cold-blooded murders; he has frequent blackouts, raids the kitchen cupboard for knives and is eventually referred to a psychiatrist (Nathaniel DeVeaux) for treatment.

As expected, the science behind Evan’s condition is somewhat sketchy, but the shrink does suggest he keep a journal of his experiences. This he does, although neither the shrink nor his mother (Melora Walters) ever read the diary entries. If they had, they would have been drawn to the account of how the young Evan and his childhood sweetheart Kayleigh (Amy Smart) were forced to act in pornography films made by her father, Mr Miller (Eric Stolz).

Having led a teenage life relatively free from trauma, Evan decides to revisit his journals as a student, and while reading them is inexplicably sucked back into the past, offering him the seemingly perfect chance to fix his most painful memories and regrets. His first port of call is Kayleigh, to whom he’d promised “I’ll always come back for you” when he and his mother left the neighbourhood, but never did. The trouble is, when he returns, it’s to a different present from that which he departed, because his earlier actions have changed everything that happened since. The rest of the film sees Evan flirting with different realities – from frat boy to jailbird to amputee – but each trip back in time brings with it ever more hideous consequences, and seriously messes with his brain. It seems likely that Evan will end up in the local mental institution just like his father, whose symptoms match his own.

The premise is a clever one, inspired by HG Wells’ Time Machine and numerous fantasy novels since. However, its logic falls short in several places. How is it, for instance, that Evan can remember every instance from his alternate past lives, even though the moment he revisits the past he effectively cancels previous realities, and everyone else’s alternative memories? The recurring theme that you can make plans but you can’t make results is dramatically illustrated in Evan’s futile efforts to change his and his friends’ lives for the better. Every action he takes to ‘correct’ events in the past results in tragedy, and sometimes in the most unforeseen ways. A scene in which he tries to rescue the family pet from being burnt alive ends with a brutal murder. Another foray into the past results in a bomb blast. Death is Evan’s stalker, though amazingly, it always targets his friends while he escapes unscathed.

Ashton Kutcher has received a lot of stick for a string of pretty-boy roles which require little acting skill or depth. Here he is convincing as the lead role, but we are given only a superficial taste of his inner turmoil. Amy Smart as the requisite love interest gives the most professional performance of the film. She is sensitive and kind, keen to bury the past and understandably bewildered by its consequences.

The Butterfly Effect presents the harrowing events of Evan’s past in gory detail – kiddie porn, animal cruelty, prostitution, blown-up babies and child-on-child murder all feature. But this tendency to tell all and show all is the film’s downfall. Whereas the films of Alfred Hitchcock left audiences haunted for days because he presented them with the unknown and their nightmares filled the gaps, The Butterfly Effect reveals too much. We feel nauseous and uncomfortable for a moment, but are left empty.

One Response to “The Butterfly Effect”

  1. Katie says:

    Ignore what the critics say about this film – it’s fantastic! Some of the subject matter is pretty uncomfortable but from the first few minutes I was hooked, always trying to guess (but failing!) what would happen next.

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