A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, PG-13, 113 mins.

Evan Treborn: Ashton Kutcher / Kayleigh Miller: Amy Smart / Tommy Miller: William Lee Scott / Lenny Kagan: Elden Henson / George Miller: Eric Stoltz / Andrea Treborn: Melora Walters

Written and directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber

“It has been said that something as small as a flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon half way across the world.”

        -Opening title card of THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT                     

Make no doubts about it; we live in a world permeated by acts of chaos.   I am sure that many of us wake up every morning and feel that we are inevitably thrown into the chaotic world without any say in the matter.  Yet, everyday we procrastinate and make individual choices that allow us, hopefully, to make sense of the world.  Unfortunately, the world is like an unpredictable thrill ride in which weird things happen that we could not predict…in other words…shit happens.  Surely, the number of infinite possibilities that we all have in any given lifetime are too many to even fathom, let alone worry about. 

Chaos Theory essentially is defined as extreme sensitivity to initial conditions.  To elaborate, seemingly small changes to these initial conditions can lead these conditions to radically change and behave differently.  In the simplest terms – the smallest amount of input or change can alter everything around us.  Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of technology, coined the term “butterfly effect” as one apparently insignificant event that, subsequently, causes a chain of events over time that leads to unpredictable outcomes.  The problem with this is the fact that these ‘insignificant events” are infinite.  They are just innumerable amounts of possibilities to one’s actions, so many that we could go crazy just thinking about them.  Nevertheless, we are a species that is always plagued with the thoughts of what “could have, should have, and would have” been. 

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, an ingenious new thriller, speculates on many of these notions.  It’s the ultimate "what if" film on chaos.  What if you had the ability to consciously make changes in the past by revisiting periods in your own life and changing things for the better (think QUANTUM LEAP, if you are still with me)?   What if you could willfully time travel back and ensure that your dog does not get killed by a local teenage bully?  Sounds good in theory.  Yet, if you prescribe to Chaos Theory, perhaps changing that one event could lead to a vicious and unwanted serious of changes that you never wanted in the first place.   That’s really what THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is all about, and after watching it,  I honestly don’t think I’ll ever want to time travel within my own life ever!  The world is just full of too many unpredictable variables and that could drive the average time traveler insane.  That sort of happens to Ashton Kutcher in the film, where his abilities to time travel seem like some sort of Machiavellian plague than a gift. 

Ashton Kutcher, in a very effective performance, plays Evan, a college student whom, as a young child, used to experience strange black outs at moments where he seemed stressed or anxious.  The problem with this, of course, is that his memories of what happened also go with the black outs.  At the advice of his doctor, Evan starts to write down his daily thoughts and actions in a journal as some sort of personal therapy for him.  These journals will prove to be enormously integral to Evan, as I am about to explain. 

Seems that Evan looks through his journals one day just randomly when a pesky and nosey date finds them in his dorm room at college.  Miraculously, when Evan reads a passage from a particular day in his childhood, he is teleported back to that time and now re-experiences that time as his childhood self, especially the important things that he missed when he previously blacked out.  Reading from his journal once and time traveling to the past is not adequate for Evan.  After realizing that going back and making minor changes affects a lot in the present, he finds himself in some sort of addicted web of self-time travel. 

This allows him, of course, to witness everything he missed, some of them being things he might as well have not known about.  In one case, he discovers that he and his best friend were molested by her own father (a very creepy Eric Stoltz).  Another case allows him to witness how the molestation has made his friend Kayleigh (Amy Smart, in her best performance) depressed as an adult and later commits suicide.  Of course, he picks a pertinent journal entry and time travels to the past to change it so Kayleigh will live and, more importantly, so they can be girlfriend and boyfriend.   

Okay, sounds good to me, because who would not want to go back in time to change things so that you can have the girl of your dreams?  But, as Chaos Theory dictates, that one small change can have grave consequences.  Kayleigh may be his girlfriend in his new reality, but it is in that reality that leads Evan to commit murder and is later sent to prison!  No problem.  Evan gets a hold of his journal and teleports himself back to the past to change things for the better.  The only problem is that things keep snowballing downwards for him.  The more he goes back the worse it gets in the present.  Chaos, it seems, feeds and creates more chaos. 

The imaginative possibilities are absolutely endless for Evan, and this only feeds his addiction to go back to make things right.  Things do go very, very bad.  One change in the past alters Kayleigh from his loving girlfriend to a drug addicted prostitute with mental and physical scars.  Another trip causes his mother to become addicted to smoking and, thus, gets lung cancer.  Another trip back makes his best friend end up with Kayleigh.  One trip in particular results in disastrous physical consequences for Evan himself. 

The metaphysical implications are absolutely fascinating, and THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is one the more effective and intriguing time travel films to emerge from Hollywood in quite some time.  Time Travel is a plot convention that is as old as the cinema itself (the earliest French silent films were about time travel, and just look at the literary works of HG Welles and I need not to elaborate).  Time Travel has always appealed to me because the “what if” factors are some that we all deal with everyday.  That is the ultimate question of time travel, the problem being that there are endless possibilities. 

There are really two reasons why anyone would want to go back in time.  One would be out of inescapable curiosity.  The other would be for control.  It is the illusion of control to help give definition to some of the meaningless of our lives that makes time travel so appealing as a prospect.  Lots of films deal with this, and some explain time travel on a scientific basis.  BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE TERMINATOR films all deal in causality and have scientific instruments to teleport people back into history.  As good as those films are, they still allow us to think too much and the premise eventually caves in under its own paradoxes.  What makes THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT so different is that there’s very little science in it (Evan basically wills himself to the past) and the film allows us to not so much think about the paradoxes as it does all of the little changes in the past that have huge ramifications in the present. 

The film is a big jigsaw puzzle of “what if” and can be viewed almost as a tragedy in the way Evan immerses in his own ignorant and selfish view that he can go back in time and fix things for everyone.  It's sad because, ultimately, the character realizes that he can’t continue to do so because of the unforeseen effects it has on others, especially his loved ones.  The only real way for him to fix things is to essentially stop, which could cause him to loose the things he worked to get.   

The film is wonderfully plotted and acted, especially by Amy Smart.  She’s genuinely been delegated to teen comedies over the last few years, but here’s she given a tough and thankless role of playing the same character that is radically different in her respective alternate time periods.  Ashton Kutcher is also a real surprise, as he gives his character that right blend of sensitivity, determination, and resolve combined with a naïve drive that is all for not.  Kutcher is clearly good in comedies, but he shows here what a fine dramatic actor he is.   

As good as the performances are, the film has a small weakness in imploding under its own weight in the final ten minutes.  It’s such a complex and convoluted journey that the film does not have the patience to have a good final act.  It feels rushed to its conclusion where more patience could have been exerted.  It ends on the exact right note, but the journey there is too hasty. 

Despite all of this, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is really a surprisingly entertaining thriller, and one that lies on a truly fascinating premise.  It’s not that standard time travel film where people go back and end up in the future and things are fine.  This film sees time travel as a curse that acts as a catalyst for people to continue to go back and back and back without realizing the larger implications.  This film is ALL about the implications, and is quite chilling and scary at its core.  Less interesting time travel films would simply deal with the fun and allure of going back in time because, let’s face it, the prospect is cool.  THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT shows us that it’s not cool, but extraordinarily dangerous.

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