The Butterfly Effect

| February 9, 2004 | 0 Comments

Something odd is happening in the early 21st Century–we are in the midst of a rash of films, on both the large and small screens, about changing one’s destiny. I don’t mean the usual way in which one changes his/her destiny in character driven dramas by looking inside, gaining some insight and having a revelatory moment. No, this newer rash of films bypasses all that mundane stuff to get right to it the fantasy of everyone who has fucked up: the protagonist has a way to change the past (and thereby change the present–they’re not even really interested in the future).
These films are not science fiction in the strictest sense, since the “science” seems more fantasy than logical extension of known technologies or theories. They are wish fulfillment fantasies, like many films are. What’s interesting is that there is such a flurry of them being released, stretching from the past couple of years to the next few years. Several of these films avoid time travel per se, but rather have their protagonists receive messages from the future. Feedback is one of the more interesting variations on this idea, and it is also one of the earliest in this trend, evidently inspiration for an upcoming sci-fi original that also mixes in some of the original premise of DOA. The benchmark for this kind of film, though, is Donnie Darko in all of its disturbing brilliance.
Donnie has nothing to worry about, though The Butterfly Effect does try to give it a decent go for the money. Written and directed by the guys who wrote Final Destination 2 (Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber), The Butterfly Effect stars That 70′s Show (insert irony here) star and Dan Savage lust-object, Ashton Kutcher, along with Amy Smart.
We follow Evan through his childhood and into early adulthood as he copes with disturbing gaps in not just his memory, but his “real time.” Something is different about Evan, though the doctors are at a loss to explain what exactly is happening or why. These gaps are jarringly represented by the editing and sound design of the film and extremely effective in creating emotional jolts out of what’s missing and the sudden “re-entry” into Evan’s reality. There are certainly enough psychological reasons why Evan might black out–he’s living a fairly traumatic life (child pornography, imprisoned father, friends who are victims of incest, etc.). But there’s something different about his brain, and eventually, Evan begins to understand why he has had these blackouts. And more importantly, he realizes that he has the power to go back and change the past.
This is where it all goes wrong, because each time he tries to change the past, he ends up making the present even worse (i.e., the Butterfly Effect: change one thing and every thing changes, even stuff you couldn’t anticipate). Thus he becomes like a dog chasing its tail, and the film presents us with a variety of possible lives Evan could live, none quite what it at first seems.
Okay, yes, there are some gaps in logic here and there. But I found myself sufficiently unnerved, surprised and saddened by the increasing tragedies Evan’s tampering brings about. Time is a complicated issue, more than can probably be addressed satisfactorily in a film that’s supposed to be like a roller coaster ride at the park. The gaps are not as glaring as Gothika’s, and there does feel like a strong effort has been made to keep the threads tied together. So some fray. I enjoyed this film a lot. Finally, a supporting cast of characters that actually seem like they might be people you’d see in real life. As each change plays out, the actors get a chance to show a bit more dimension than most film roles would allow. Kutcher is not in line for any academy awards (and I have no clue why Dan Savage thinks he’s so hot); but Amy Smart just might be academy material someday.
So if the premise sounds remotely interesting to you, this is a film worth seeing as a matinee. If you’re a hard core quantum physics geek, you’ll probably be disappointed — but if you go in knowing that, you just might be surprised.
2004 is off an running…

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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