tek's rating:

The Butterfly Effect (R)
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Caution: spoilers.

So, this came out in 2004, I guess. I just watched it in 2012. I have it on a DVD that also includes the sequel, which I look forward to watching, even though it's apparently not closely related to the first movie. Which I wouldn't expect it to be, based on the ending of the original. (I mention this DVD because it has only one cut of each movie, but there are other versions of the first movie that I haven't seen. I read a bit online about alternate endings, and I think the one on this DVD sounds like the most appropriate.) Anyway, as I've been checking out links to include here, prior to writing my review, I see that this movie did not do well critically, which I have trouble understanding. Sure, the movie is flawed... there are some things that simply don't make sense. But I don't think it goes too far beyond the suspension of disbelief that's required for pretty much any film of this type. I mean, it's noticeable enough that I wouldn't call the movie science fiction, but I probably wouldn't do that, anyway. I really see it more as paranormal. The main character (as well as his father) has an ability which is never really explained in any way. And even if you just accept the premise without explanation, there are still aspects of what happen that are questionable at best, and which in some cases might flat out contradict whatever kind of pseudo-logic one might build up to try to get a handle on everything that's going on. But for the most part, I think the story's internal logic remains intact. Sort of. And in any event, I found it to be a very engaging story. However, it is very dark. Not an easy thing to watch, by any means. But not all stories should be easy to watch, and this is certainly a premise that is better off being as traumatic as it is.

It starts in the present, I guess, with a psychiatric patient named Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) breaking into his doctor's office one night. While guards search for him, he frantically writes in a notebook about having a plan to "save her." The story then flashes back 13 years, to when Evan was 7 years old. We'll see that his mother was raising him alone, because his father, Jason (Callum Keith Rennie), was himself in a psychiatric institution. We also learn that Evan has blackouts, apparently stress-induced, where he loses time. Just can't remember things that have happened. This is apparently similar to his father's condition. His mother takes him to see a psychiatrist (who also treats his father, I guess), and he has Evan start keeping journals of everything he does, to try to jog his memory. Anyway, we also get a hint of a traumatic event he experiences with his friend, Kayleigh Miller, and her brother Tommy, and their father. (Though we don't actually see it, because Evan doesn't remember it. Which is good, because seeing it would've been far too disturbing to watch. It's funny though that it seems like neither Evan, his mother, his doctor, nor anyone ever seems to have read his journals. So that's... just a sticky point you'll have to accept.) And we'll see other traumatic events from six years later, involving Evan, Kayleigh, Tommy, and their friend Lenny Kagan. Though, again, we only ever see the setup and aftermath of these events, because Evan doesn't remember the events themselves. Not long after all these events, his mother decides that she and Evan should move out of town.

The movie then flashes forward to the present... but not the present we saw at the start of the movie. In this reality, Evan is a psych major in college. And he has a sort of goth/punk roommate called Thumper (Ethan Suplee). Things seem to be going well for Evan, considering he hasn't had a blackout in seven years, since he and his mother moved. But then one day he reads a passage from one of his journals, about one of the events we sort of saw when the kids were 13. And suddenly, Evan's present-day mind is back in his 13-year-old body, witnessing part of what he'd missed the first time he lived that experience. Then he finds himself back in the present. He goes back to his old hometown, where he learns that things haven't been going great for Lenny, who he hasn't seen since he moved when he was a kid. But he also learns that something he heard in his regression was something that had apparently been actually said in the past, during his missing time. Later, he tries reading another journal entry, and went back to another event. This time he caused himself a small scar in the past, and when he returned to the present, it was still there, though it hadn't been there before. After that he goes to see Kayleigh, who he also hadn't seen in years (in spite of having promised to come back for her). Things weren't much better for her than for Lenny. And when he got back to school... he got a message from Tommy saying that Kayleigh had killed herself after his visit. So, he decides to try changing history for the better, to save her, by going back to when they were 7, and preventing an event which had originally left her emotionally scarred.

At this point I want to stop and mention that the title, "The Butterfly Effect," refers to an aspect of Chaos Theory, which you've probably heard of. Something about a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon on the other side of the world. This is an idea which is often used in time travel stories. It doesn't have to be about butterflies, the point is just that seemingly inconsequential things can snowball into major consequences, potentially. Which is why it's best not to time travel at all, and if you do... Don't. Change. Anything. You never know what the effects will be, no matter how small the change. But the thing that bugs me about using that as the title of the movie is that... we're not talking about small changes here. We're talking about intentionally changing very important events in characters' pasts, which is obviously going to have a profound impact on their futures. Of course, the same caveat still stands, because even if the change you make has the desired effect, there's no way of predicting what other effects it will have. And that's the point of the movie, so, whatever. I'll let it slide. But on another subject, there's a part of me that had been wondering from the beginning if the reason Evan had blackouts in the first place was that... his younger self simply couldn't remember events because his mind had been taken over by his future self. Eh? That'd be an interesting bit of causality, though I figured that was impossible, since he'd been having the blackouts since before he ever started keeping journals. Though later on we'll learn journals aren't the only possible triggers for these trips, which actually stands to reason. But... I still tend to doubt my theory. It probably really was your basic repressed traumatic memories scenario... though when you're talking about someone who has this ability, who knows? Either way... there are definitely some things we saw in the original version of history that can only be explained by future Evan having been there, which means his first lifetime was an inexplicable mix of predestination paradoxes and... not predestination paradoxes.

Anyway, Evan gets back to the present after averting a childhood trauma, and finds that Kayleigh is not only alive, she is also his girlfriend, as they're both attending the same college. But there are other changes to the timeline, such as Evan being in a fraternity (which he wasn't before), and obviously he's neither roommates nor friends with Thumper, this time. I should also mention that when he first got back to the present, he got a nosebleed, because his memories were rewriting themselves. Thirteen years worth of new memories... overlapping his old memories of those years. So naturally, it's hard to adjust. He mainly seems to be the original version of himself, though it also seems like he could get used to the new timeline, and become the new him. Alas, something happens that pretty much ruins his new, relatively ideal life. I won't say what, but just know that things get really bad for him.

And then... with a great deal of trouble... he manages to make a quick trip to the past just to give himself more scars, to prove to someone that he can do this, so they'll help him. I won't explain why. I'm just mentioning this because it seems strange to me that after he got back, the person he was proving it to didn't retroactively remember Evan's new scars always having been there. But again... I shall overlook it for the purposes of the story, in spite of it not making sense. But he needed this guy's help before he could... fix his larger current predicament. Which he does, but of course it makes things even worse for his friends. So he has to continue trying to change history... until eventually, things seem pretty good for Kayleigh and Lenny and Tommy and others... but pretty bad for himself. Still, he would have left that reality alone, if not for the fact that his mom was worse off, now. Finally, we get to the time trip that ends up with him as a psych patient in the present, and this time... it also prevented him from ever having kept journals in the first place. And yet, he gets an idea based on something the doctor said about his father... And that brings us back to where we started.

His plan. To save Kayleigh. Well... I should say that for a little while, we have to wonder if it's possible the entire movie up to this point had been delusions Evan had had ever since he was seven years old. (Which wouldn't really make sense, because it would require his younger self to have told people about his time travel, which his younger self couldn't have known about. But hey, we've suspended enough disbelief already, why not throw that in, too?) Anyway, his plan entails one absolute last trip to the past, using something other than journals, which means it would predate any of the trips we've seen so far. And it was something you had to realize would be necessary (even if it was somewhat heartbreaking) based on something he learned from Kayleigh in the previous reality. It almost seems like something that should have been obvious all along, except it hinges on this one little thing... that could not only undo all of Evan's previous mistakes, but also... fix the problems they all had in the original timeline, anyway. But fix the problems at a price Evan couldn't possibly have been willing to pay until he'd gone through all the shit he'd been through by the end.

Ahem. I said he had a plan. And I said it's possible everything was a delusion. I'm not giving the details of the plan, and I'm not saying whether it worked or not. I'm not saying whether all the time travel was a delusion or not. In fact, for all that it may seem like I've spoiled, I've left out a ton of details. Most of the alternate realities that were created, I haven't given details on at all. So really, I haven't truly spoiled much of anything. I will say that after Evan attempts his plan, there's a flashforward to eight years later, but I won't say what that entails, either. But I will say that things could be a hell of a lot worse than they turn out. And if the movie doesn't have a typical 100% happy Hollywood ending... well, the ending it does have is still better than Evan had any right to hope for. At least he seems to have learned his lesson to leave well enough alone.

Anyway... that's it. The movie is very dark and made of twists and deeply disturbing and painful. There's occasionally a bit of humor, but not a lot. And there's plenty that simply doesn't make sense even in theory. But I still found it to be a very intriguing, deeply moving and well-acted mindscrew of a movie. I thoroughly enjoyed every gutwrenching minute of it. As horrific and nonsensical as it could be, I still found it brilliant.

Edit to add: I did eventually watch the sequel, which was a sequel only in the sense that it had the same basic premise as this movie, but totally different characters. And I didn't care for it enough to bother writing a review (though I probably would have done if it wasn't sequel). It was okay, but I'd probably only rate it "meh and a half," maybe "meh and three quarters." I dunno. Definitely not something I feel any desire to ever watch again.

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