Movie Flashback: The Butterfly Effect
February 23, 2013

Movie Flashback: The Butterfly Effect

Many filmmakers and science fiction buffs alike don’t dare to go near the mechanics of time travel in films and fiction because of how easy it is to screw up the story. The level of failure ties mostly into how analytical the individual or audience wants to be, which is usually determined by the inferiority complex of moviegoers. The Butterfly Effect is no exception to the failures and mistakes that are made when we try to imagine characters in various alternate realities.

The Butterfly Effect is a science fiction psychological thriller from directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, starring Ashton Kutcher as Evan Treborn. Evan is the typical example of an American college student with a very rocky childhood that saw the institutionalization of his father, and the participation in child pornography with his childhood sweetheart Kayleigh brought on by her sadistic and abusive father. Throughout Evan’s upbringing he experienced blackouts at key moments in very dramatic incidents that he can’t explain.

The family psychologist claims that Evan might possibly suffer from an apparent mental condition that his father also suffered from, bringing about his admittance to a psychological ward. To better make up for Evan forgetting the incidents in his blackouts, he is ordered to make a journal of his experiences. These journals amount to nothing as he grows out of his teen years.

We fast forward to Evan’s time as a college student. Despite the events that would tear most other children apart, Evan led a relatively healthy life. One night, while entertaining a young woman in his dorm, he happens to come across one of the journals that he wrote as a child. He takes note that as he reads the words of the pages the room begins to vibrate and he is sucked back in time. It turns out that the mental disorder that his father suffered from was actually the ability to travel back in time.

Evan is no fool. He realizes that he may be able to “Redo” parts of his past to better sculpt a more solid future for himself. Eventually he comes across the adult version of Kayleigh, whom in every alternate reality can’t seem to form a solid enough bond with Evan due to outside influences that interrupt their relationship. What I couldn’t understand about the writing of the film from here was that his quest of creating a better foundation as a child was abandoned as he became infatuated with one woman that he’d hardly remembered.

Before we know it the story becomes a hopeless scenario wheel that constantly shows us the “worst” possible cases within a dramatic context. We’ve all wondered at some point how beneficial it would be to simply ‘tweak’ our past so that we could have one million dollars or a shot at fame and fortune. Evan doesn’t simply tweak: he completely ruins his circumstances.

The motivation for the main character is rooted in his desire to make things perfect. We all know that to be perfect is to be naïve and unknowing to the world outside us, so why is it that this character can’t get over the mistakes that he makes in every alternate universe?

For example, the first time he jumps to his past he goes to a world where Kayleigh has become a waitress. This isn’t the worst thing anyone’s heard of, save for the fact that Kayleigh kills herself within hours of meeting Evan again after seven years of no contact. Dramatic context just ruined the scenario, and Evan is forced to change history so that everything can be put right.

He jumps again to the past and this time emerges in a reality where he and Kayleigh are college sweethearts. He’s leader of a frat party and they both lead lives that involve keeping each other forever: an otherwise perfect life. The perfection is soon ruined when Evan finds out that Kayleigh’s jealous brother Tommy has just been released from prison. Tommy isn’t the worst person in the world, but for some reason he can’t get over the fact that his friend just so happened to fall in love with his sister in their adolescence. It’s not as simple as talking it out over a cup of coffee: Oh no, Tommy just has to go after Evan with a metal baseball bat.

Owing to the fact that Tommy murdered Evan’s dog, Evan loses his cool and in a blind rage kills Tommy with his own bat. Again, the perfect scenario here has been ruined by very ignorant circumstances. The story keeps repeating this same pattern for an hour. The concept is very cool despite it being very stupid (Traveling back in time through your memories. Really?), but ultimately I think what ruined the aesthetic of the movie was that Evan was personified as plain unlucky.

The writers of The Butterfly Effect wrote Evan’s character as if he just wasn’t designed to interact or to enjoy the pleasures of love or even friendship. Instead of seeing interesting scientific alternate realities that paint a reasonable future of Evan, I’m presented with Love’s unluckiest candidate.

The film ends with Evan realizing that he can’t live in a world with Kayleigh because he’s not meant to be with her (yes, really) and goes back to the first day that he met her. From here he deliberately upsets her so that she’d go to live with her mother instead of her father. This ensured that Kayleigh and Tommy grew up as healthy children and other childhood friends didn’t suffer from experiences with Evan. He burns the remaining selections of journals from his childhood, exclaiming that he knows who he is.

Eight years later Evan is walking on a sidewalk in New York through a crowd of people. He is talking to his mother and just so happens to see Kayleigh walking past him. He pauses for a long minute and turns around to see her figure not facing him. When he turns in his own direction, Kayleigh turns in his to see his figure facing away from her. They both walk in opposite directions without ever acknowledging the familiarity that they’ve noticed after 21 years. The credits roll in.

There are different alternate endings to the movie, but the punch line is that I’ve been emotionally robbed. Dramatic out of context action completely distracts me from enjoying this movie. For what it’s worth, The Butterfly Effect is still the only psychological thriller I’ve seen that has done what it’s done.

Image Credit: New Line Cinema

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