Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (2004)
Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. HA HA HA– sorry, just my natural reaction to this movie. Um, right, so Little Evan Treborn (eventually Ashton Kutcher) suffers from black-outs whenever he’s faced with a traumatic situation. His mother (Melora Walters) takes him to a doctor, who suggests that he keep a journal for trying to remember the events that preceded each black-out. Once he’s an adult Ashton Kutcher, he discovers that re-reading this journal takes him back in time to these horrible moments, allowing him to make his future even more goddamned hilarious.
So he keeps changing stuff and it always gets worse. That’s it! There’s your arc! Good night, everybody!
Every frame of this movie is a gem.
I mean, every time you think Evan fixed his past, something else done got fucked up. You can only see it happen two or three times before you figure out the pattern. “Oh, yeah, he won the lottery, but I bet somebody he loves is dead or something, durrr.” That’s not what we scientists call a story.
“Naked women everywhere! But also, Donald Trump is the president!”
Sometimes the screenwriters are a little too eager to tell you exactly what changed in the timeline, so they shove it down your throat as quickly as possible so we can move on to the next “exciting” time jump. There’s a scene where Teen Evan gets injured in an explosion. When he returns to modern day, he discovers his mother is now in the hospital, sees “lung cancer” on her chart, and instantly busts out one of the funniest expository lines I’ve ever heard: “Lung cancer? You started chain smoking when I blew myself up.”
Is it even exposition when it’s just a wild guess that happens to be exactly right?
Some people might think this movie’s really deep because it’s full of suicide, prison rape, kiddie porn, and other dark turns, but it’s all shock for shock’s sake. When they’re tied to a compelling narrative, I can handle those subjects, but when they’re just there to trick idiots into thinking Untitled MTV Host Time Travel Project is a smart movie that’s worth buying, it’s icky.
Goddammit, Ashton, are you ever not making a goofy face?
Ashton is never not making a goofy face.
“Agh, dark stuff! This is my dark stuff face! I swear!”
You know how comedic actors are always looking for that dramatic role that will change the public’s perception of them? Yeah, they usually wait longer than seven movies (zero critically-acclaimed) for the turnaround. The little head-wiggles of confusion, the constant eye-shifting to convey fear… Ashton’s acting is just bad here. And honestly… it kinda saves the movie. Hilariously bad is always better than bland bad. Ashton’s performance is usually the source of the biggest laughs; his big, grinning mug just doesn’t belong and it’s funny as hell. But, if an actor were actually trying in this turd of a script, it would be instantly forgettable.
Which reminds me, Amy Smart is in this. She comes in two flavors of Girlfriend Object.
When the script is written in such broad strokes, the only two options are perfectly perky or utterly trashy, but thankfully, Amy Smart excels at both.
Ethan Suplee is somewhat entertaining to see as a goth. Remember when movies tried to get you to just accept goths? Where did the goths go? Did they accept us instead?
They walk among us.
Probably the best performance in the movie is Melora Walters as Ethan’s mom, who is greatly concerned for her decidedly weird son. But, again, it’s The Butterfly Effect, so actually acting just pushes you into the background behind the goofy-face-maker. Sorry, Melora.
Her only crime was caring too much.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
The time travel looks like Ashton Kutcher reading a notebook. Thrilling! To make it more visually neato, they show the room spinning and warping while the words on the page jitter around.
Wow, your pen sucks.
Also, fuck a spoiler alert, the movie’s too dumb and this scene is too hilarious not to show you. One of the time warps leaves Evan as an amputee, and holy hell, whatever they used on Lieutenant Dan did not make it over to this film’s post-production sessions.
And, per usual, Ashton makes a goofy face.
OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:
- Apparently Evan’s name was originally supposed to be Chris, ie. “Chris Treborn,” ie. “Christ reborn,” because that makes all the fucking sense. But now it sounds like “event reborn.” Fuck off.
- Eric Stoltz was once cast as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, but was let go because he played the character darker than the filmmakers envisioned. In The Butterfly Effect, he’s a sicko father who makes child pornography. Congratulations on finally getting your dark time travel movie, Eric.
- Time travel rules spoiler. The movie starts out trying to establish a sense of mystery by having Little Evan usually doing something weird at the end of his black-outs, like holding a knife or drawing a prison rumble. But, instead of just passing him off as a fucking weirdo kid, they try to set up that these are actually the actions of Adult Evan, which they “pay off” later in the film. Except that only works in immutable timelines, and since past events can clearly be changed in this movie, their rules function as mutable. So what have we got here? Say it with me: immutabullshit.
- Ending spoiler. Evan comes to the conclusion that the only way to fix everything is to never meet Little Amy Smart in the first place, so he watches a home movie of a childhood birthday party, jumps back in time to it, and tells her (seriously): “I hate you and if you ever come near me again, I’ll kill you and your whole… damn family.” Fine, it’s as dumb as anything else in the movie, but the original ending, which is apparently restored in the director’s cut on the DVD, featured Evan watching a video of his own birth, quantum leaping into his baby body, and strangling himself with his own umbilical cord. I’ve never bothered to watch it because it might be The Funniest Thing In The Entire World and I’d hate to lose the gift of laughter for the rest of my life.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
I only noticed a single instance of arguing over time travel rules. At one point, Evan journal-warps himself back to a moment spent with his father in an insane asylum. His father also has the ability to jump back in time, and he warns Evan that you simply can’t change who people are and orders him to stop playing god. Little Evan, whose acting is fairly Kutcheresque, responds thusly:
“That’s bullshit! You know… I’ll send you a postcard when I’ve made everything perfect!“
AND NOW, A WORD FROM CINEMANAUT JOHN, WHO COULDN’T STOP YELLING AT THIS MOVIE:
Hello. I have been watching Jurassic Park every week this year, and accordingly, have been reading up on chaos theory. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve learned enough to say that the writers of The Butterfly Effect did not even have a cursory understanding of the term they named their film after. See, the butterfly effect is shorthand for sensitivity on initial conditions, meaning that in a complex system, even a minute change can have an extraordinary and far-reaching effect (e.g. a change as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could eventually lead to an event as dramatic as a hurricane on the other side of the world). Now, naturally, we expect a large change of conditions to create a large change in outcome. Ashton goes back in time and stops someone from blowing up, suddenly his future is different! He has an entirely different social standing, and his friends have different personalities. Groovy.
Actual screenshot from the beginning of The Butterfly Effect.
Accordingly, we might also expect a small change of conditions to create a small change in outcome. Ashton goes back in time and gets a small burn. His future self leads the same life as before, he just has a burn now. Seems legit, right? Chaos theory says differently. One tiny alteration creates a chain reaction that leads to a vastly different set of events, much like in the proverb “For Want of a Nail.” If The Butterfly Effect took its namesake into account, that one little burn could have completely altered Little Ashton’s life. He probably would have had a doctor look at it. While there, he might have caught the flu. The flu might have made him miss a day of school. That missed day might have caused him to fail a test. That failed test might have caused him to stay back a grade. Which might have affected which college he chose. Which would have affected every friendship he had. Boom. Different life. Just from one little burn. Every action we take impacts all future actions we take, in a billion unknowable ways. One little change would result in a completely unpredictable future. Yes, most time travel movies seem to overlook this, so why am I complaining now? Because this one had the gall to name itself after the very principle it was ignoring. Boo.
“What got better? What got worse? Where are my journals?” Repeat until the two-hour mark. This is the plot structure of the entire movie, and that’s why it’s ultimately so boring. Yes, lots of time travel narratives have to take into account the fact that it can fix any problem, and most of them counter this with a broken time machine or a one-time fluke of nature or something stupid and magic. Yet, in The Butterfly Effect, besides the occasional inmate fight, Ashton mostly just has to dig around under his bed until he comes up with a college-ruled deus ex machina in his fingers. This lack of tension is compensated for with disturbing plot points that would actually be disturbing if the movie weren’t so distractingly shoddy. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. I know, I’m not making any sense, but trust me, not all bad movies are this hilariously unaware of how much they’re fucking up. If you find yourself in a room where it’s on, watch and howl. Or silently judge the friend who bought it.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.