The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Evan is hooked on revising his past until he gets it right (not an unlikely metaphor for scriptwriting).

The Butterfly Effect

Director: J. Mackye Gruber
Display Artist: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
MPAA rating: R
Studio: New Line
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters, William Lee Scott, Elden Henson, Eric Stoltz, Nathaniel Deveaux
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-01-23

Word is circulating -- via a Sundance premiere and promotional campaign -- that Ashton Kutcher reveals "depth," along with a newly shaggy face, in The Butterfly Effect. How remarkable and encouraging, this report submits, that the erstwhile "dude" has at last found his performative footing. How has he hidden it so well until now?

In fact, the question proposed by the film is rather less mundane than this. It has to do with time travel, in particular, with the consequences of changing the past. Other images are famous for posing this question: what happens if Edith Keeler does cross the street in "City on the Edge of Forever"? Or Reese doesn't travel back to impregnate Sarah Connor? And how does Marty McFly get away with ripping off Chuck Berry, anyway? How does any one of these events change or sustain history, fictional as that history may be? And what many other events are affected in turn? And what if another event in the chain shifts slightly, so that the whole thread of history must readjust, again. How many alternative histories are circulating at any given moment, assuming a moment might be understood to stand alone?

These are the sorts of dilemmas that shape The Butterfly Effect, an ambitious, if rather incoherent, second film by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, also the writer-directors of Final Destination 2 (itself a bizarre, darkly humorous excursion into uncanny what-if-ness). At the center of The Butterfly Effect is Evan (Kutcher, who, for all the "depth" hype, isn't precisely revealing chops here). Afflicted with a genetic predisposition for altering the relation between time and space (his father is institutionalized for proclaiming a similar demented-seeming belief in his ability to reshape memory-as-history. (Note: this basic idea is potentially awkward, as any memory is subjective, not the same for everyone on any given scene.)

Evan begins the film as a whiz-kid psych major troubled by his inability to remember chunks of his childhood -- except when he reads his journal entries, which are mostly lead-ups to what happened that he doesn't remember. As the film envisions his experience, Evan reads the journal, the scrawled words pop off the page and dance a bit, the space around him warps, and whoosh, he's back in the memory. As a boy (played by John Patrick Amedori), Evan is now (then) armed with his present knowledge, whatever that "present" might be: the concept is more than a little squishy here.

During his first leap-back, aided by his college roommate Thumper (Ethan Suplee in spiky hair and goth makeup), Evan recalls that the neighbor girl he adored, Kayleigh (Irene Gorovaia as a child, Amy Smart in the Ashton Kutcher present) was sexually abused by her alcoholic, amateur-porn-filmmaker father (Eric Stoltz, as yucky as he's ever been). But the situation isn't so simple that he can just save Kayleigh. He must also contend with -- rescue, punish, contain -- other players in his not-quite-personal psychic morass. These include Kayleigh's malicious brother Tommy (who grows up to be William Lee Scott) and another kid from round the way, the much beset Lenny (Elden Henson), as well as Ashton's mom Andrea (Melora Walters), who is at once strangely circumspect regarding her husband's illness and incarceration, and whiny and apparently clueless when it comes to her son's situation.

Ostensibly through his college studies (what school is this?), Evan has found this route, not only to revisit the past, but also to change it. He injects his 20-year-old sensibility into his child-body, and so, for instance, telling off Kayleigh's bad dad so soundly that he agrees never to even think about abusing his daughter, on the spot (the scene doesn't address the likelihood that abuse has occurred earlier, or that this single intervention might not stop other incidents). In other words, the time loop business is not very worked out -- not only is Evan's version of events presumed here to be the only version, but also, his control over each episode somehow affects his brain cumulatively. Indeed, his psychiatrist, the occasionally reasonable Dr. Renfield (Nathaniel Deveaux), suggests that Evan is headed for a kind of protoplasmic meltdown.

No matter. Evan is hooked on revising until he gets it right (not an unlikely metaphor for scriptwriting). His modifications range from horrific to fiendishly comedic: the first "corrected" past, for instance, is garishly pastel, the "ideal" college movie turned into a nightmare. Evan is a yellow-sweatered fraternity brother, in love with a pink-sweatered Kaleigh. That Tommy is a puppy-killing psychotic just released from prison almost seems like the least of their problems.

The more profound implication here is less about particular possibilities, than the very idea of multiple possibilities -- all slightly or very distasteful in different ways. Each time Evan fusses with a specific event in the past, trying to achieve a "perfect" present, something else goes wrong. So, if Kayleigh is not a hooker with tracks up and down her arms, Evan's in prison for murdering Tommy, or poor Lenny is so fundamentally damaged that he can't leave his bedroom (which makes Lenny's mom really mad at Evan). Though the plot points and personalities Evan has to coordinate might seem many, in fact, they hardly account for the many more probable fallouts of his tinkering. The movie's focus is excessively local -- there are no Hitlers or Elvises or Skynets here, just a series of minor and major disasters, each making someone's life unbearable.

This tight focus is, in fact, the primary strength of The Butterfly Effect. At first full of himself and his righteous ability to tell off Kayleigh's monstrous dad, Evan comes to see that his godlike influence is, in its limited way, monumentally repercussive. Finding himself personally responsible for lives and deaths, he begins to feel increasingly empathetic. At the same time, the fact that no one else appears to have much to say about what happens (it's all inside Evan's throbbing brain, the power, the effects, the memories) is a perennial problem of time-travel movies. Here, the travel is subjective to a nearly pathological degree. Evan's "lesson" becomes a function of his effects on those around him, who become mere objects to be shuffled about during his learning curve.

There are any number of bad ideas in this film -- the warping scenes are elaborately corny, and the ill effects of Evan's changes look increasingly like an extreme version of the "World Without George" in It's a Wonderful Life -- child abuse, prison rape, missing limbs, dead babies, cancer, on and on. Everyone Evan knows (admittedly a small circle for this film's purposes) is affected by his choices. The time travel concept is not so extraordinary, the means of dramatizing it is mostly silly, and Kutcher's efforts to emote can be distracting. And still, the film is surprisingly entertaining, precisely when it turns extreme. Complicating the relation between subjective and objective experience, remaking memory so that it might pass for "collective," is, after all, what movies do, by definition.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.