J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress’ thriller-like thing The Butterfly Effect is ten years old today. You’ve probably seen it. The Butterfly Effect, is – to put it mildly – a pretty dumbass movie. It’s a time travel flick that is less about adventurous historical swashbuckling, and more about the philosophy of causality, but it’s presented in a clumsy and melodramatic fashion, involving suicide, child molestation, explosives, mental illness, jailtime, and a quadriplegic Ashton Kutcher. It’s also oddly memorable. I have run into many people who have seen this film. It wasn’t a big hit when it was released (it was a January film, after all), but it somehow leaked onto cable TV or something, allowing almost a generation-wide consumption. And while the phrase “the butterfly effect” had been in use before this film, it was the movie that kind of popularized it.
The actual butterfly effect refers not to time travel, but to the universal synchronicity of all things as detailed in complicated chaos theory, that field of mathematics that skews so theoretical that it almost reads like theology. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, does it effect the weather in Texas? Everything you do has a ripple effect on everything else. Every single thing has a vital presence in the universe.
The premise is a bit odd: A young man named Evan (Kutcher) has been experiencing blackouts throughout his life, usually during dramatic moments of his childhood. The time he and a childhood friend were molested by a neighbor (Eric Stoltz). The time he not-very-accidentally set off a stick of dynamite in a neighbor’s mailbox (and where do 11-year-olds get firecrackers that powerful?). Evan has also held a lifelong crush on his friend Kayleigh (Amy Smart), whom he has never had the courage to pursue. Evan eventually discovers that, when he stares at a childhood photograph, he can shunt his consciousness back in time to the periods when he blacked out, and take control of his childhood body. Um… ‘Kay. It’s not a premise that I had seen before, although it was repeated in 2005 with The Jacket.
So Evan, as we all would, goes back in time to “correct” the mistakes of his childhood. Can he undo the explosion? The molestation? The time he nearly had a shot with Kayleigh? And, of course, every time he tries to undo the damage, he ends up altering something else about his own life, making it worse in the present. This makes for a series of largely unconnected vignettes, wherein Evan lives a few scenes in a new environment, all created by the causal ripples created by his timeline tinkering. And while the vignettes aren’t necessarily deep or interesting, the viewer gets to feel smart in participating with the intellectual “what if” exercises. I did like the aside wherein Evan stops a bomb from going off, and then wakes up in the present with no working arms or legs.
For a film about causality, The Butterfly Effect is actually interesting in that it’s not fatalistic. Most time travel stories end up being circular in some way; some events are inevitable, or will repeat throughout a person’s life. The Butterfly Effect alters characters, lives, storylines, and settings in a strangely logical way; Of course Ashton Kutcher is in prison now! No particular event is destined to happen, and no character is so strong that they’ll be immutable through the ripples of history. The only thing that we can count on is that Evan will mess up. It is Evan’s historical fate to fail. And there’s something poetic and tragic about that.
Another cool thing: Since Evan is doing all his time travel psychically, he’s actually accruing memories of every single timeline each time he creates a new one. This means that he is going slowly insane over the course of the movie. This is a neat idea on paper, but, sad to say, Ashton Kutcher doesn’t have the maniacal acting chops to really come across as “dark” or “unhinged.” In 2004, Kutcher was still largely only known for “That ’70s Show” and for Just Married (if anything could be remembered about Just Married), so his reputation as a comic buffoon undid his ability to play drama. It’s about as seemly as watching Jim Carrey in The Number 23. But Kutcher’s mad rambling and his character’s illogical time travel choices now have a dramatic reason to be bad. So when he goes back I time to woo Kayleigh, it backfires every time, and often leads to Kayleigh coming about some horrible harm. There is no fate, but Ashton Kutcher will screw it up.
The end result of all this will be a final last-ditch time travel trek to when Evan first met Kayleigh as a toddler and alienate her right away. That way they’ll never be friends, and they’ll both end up surviving. I’m wondering if the child molestation still happened in the last timeline. How is it I still remember this film? Not all average films are forgettable. Evan may be destined to be a screw-up, but his final gesture rights the world. He just had to sacrifice his friendship with the woman of his dreams. A noble sacrifice, and a slightly optimistic ending.
But dig this: There was an alternate ending on the DVD for The Butterfly Effect that wasn’t so rosy. Evan alienated Kayleigh, but eventually learned that even that action led to some sort of disaster, so he had to “shunt” again, all the way back to when he was in utero. There is a shocking and totally ridiculous shot, then, of a baby, in its mother’s womb, strangling itself with its own umbilical cord. And while this ending is hopelessly bleak – it turns out Evan’s very life was a blot on the face of history, and everyone would actually be better without him – I appreciate its balls-to-the-wall impact, and the utterly stupid image of a baby intentionally strangling itself with its own umbilical cord. For that one unseen moment, The Butterfly Effect felt like a proper grindhouse movie. Its Kafaesque sense of personal hopelessness made stronger through its trashiest scene.
So ultimately, The Butterfly Effect is an utterly depressed cry about trying to remove one’s self from the world. I mentioned Kafka because of Kafka’s views toward depressive suicide. Kafka thought that suicide was too theatrical to be tasteful. Suicide, to Kafka, was an obscene gesture and not representative of the empty depression he felt. Kafka didn’t want to kill himself. He just wanted to vanish from the world altogether. To be forgotten. Think about The Metamorphosis. A man becomes a vermin, is rejected by his family, and then is ultimately forgotten while his family goes on to live happy lives. The vermin this time is Ashton Kutcher, and he longs to disappear.
Ironic that a film about trying to remove yourself should, then, remain stuck in our minds so firmly. Ironic too that the actual butterfly effect leans toward a form of cosmic hope (no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you’re having a profound effect on everything in the universe; i.e. you matter) while the movie The Butterfly Effect should lean toward the negative and harmful impact a single person can have on the lives of people around them.
The Butterfly Effect: Kinda crappy sci-fi thriller with a lasting impact. Thank you, 2004.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.