The Butterfly Effectrecommended viewing

Ludicrous and SOOOOO "Teen," yet TONS of fun
★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2004
Director: 
Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber
Starring: 
Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart
The Setup: 
Guy finds that just by reading his journal and thinking really, really hard, he can go back and change the past, which -- MINDFUCK! -- changes the future.
Discussion: 

There is MANY A SPOILER BELOW, so if you haven't seen it yet, I beg of you, don't read this review! But go ahead and watch it, you'll LOVE it!

This movie is very bad in many ways, yet totally enjoyable and definitely a fun, mind-bending rental. It's main flaw is its immaturity. It SCREAMS `teen' in how overly emotional and overwrought it all is. It screams `simplistic writer/directors who think their movie is SO HARD-HITTING and DEEP… but is really incredibly juvenile.' Chief among the reasons it creates this effect is the inclusion of subject matter WAYYY too dark for a film this silly. Child porn, animal torture, killing of infants, drug abuse, prostitution, loss of limbs… this movie is really going out of its way to rub your face in horror, cruelty, and sadism, ostensibly to make it all more 'serious.' Unfortunately the rest of the movie isn't up to the seriousness these subjects demand and that really does a disservice to the viewer's ability to take the story seriously.

The idea is that Ashton Kutcher can go back in time by reading his journals. This is wisely never explained. He can change things in the past but, in a horribly simplified version of chaos theory [which I suspect the writers studied by renting Jurassic Park], changing one thing changes a bunch of other things in his present life. Poor Ashton keeps trying, but he only succeeds in making things worse. Cursed fate!

The DVD features both the theatrical ending, a pathetic attempt to pander to MTV audiences, and the Director’s Cut ending, which is fifteen times more hard-hitting in that completely adolescent way. So, so precious.

A big problem is that the filmmakers seem to mistake stupidity for destiny. It’s hard not to find yourself thinking: “You know, I bet that if Ashton didn't do such wholly inane things, the future would have turned out a lot better.” For example, maybe it's not that great an idea to go stand right next to a mailbox you know is going to explode in a few seconds? Maybe a lit stick of dynamite in the hands of a ten year old is not the best intimidation tool against an aggressive adult? The film treated the outcomes of these situations as 'destined,' but maybe if the characters weren't quite so stupid they wouldn't have turned out that way? This makes the ending of the theatrical version all the more ludicrous as thus far EVERYTHING has gone wrong whenever Ashton tries to fix the past, but when he tries to fix it that one last time -- presto! -- everything's fine!

There were other off-the-chart suspension of disbelief aspects, like that you can go back in time just be reading your journal, that Ashton's MIND doesn't change even though his whole past and upbringing have now changed, etc., etc. The GRAVITY with which the film approaches all this SHEER LUDICROUSNESS only makes it that much more fun. One little detail that will wholly illuminate the super-serious-6th-grader tone of the film is that apparently [I read that this is revealed in the commentary] the main character was going to be named “Chris Treborn…” which surely you will not miss as one tiny space away from “Christ Reborn.”

I should actually rent this again just to listen to the commentary. [...and I did. See note at end.]

Anyway, accept it for what it is, and it's a totally enjoyable 'Woah dude, like what if that, like, really happened?' kind of movie. I was completely engrossed all the way through, and there were many mind-bender twists, like when I realized that if Ashton goes back BEFORE he started keeping his journal, then he won't be able to change anything, and also when I pieced together that when he was blacking out as a child, that was when he was 'visiting' himself as an adult. The movie never explains why he can't just write a new journal page about the past and use that to go back, but quibbling about logic will get you nowhere with this one.

I could never honestly get through a review of this without mention of a the scene in which Ashton offers his pretty boy-mouth to the pleasure of two convicts in prison. Just another of the many 'WHERE did that come from?' moments.

The contrast between how SERIOUS the filmmakers seem to think this movie is [and I didn't listen to the commentary, but others have described it as amusing in how utterly serious and pretentious the writer/directors are] and just how TEEN the whole thing comes off as is really precious. I ADORE how in one incarnation Ashton is supposed to be a weird, not-especially-popular or fashionable college student who is best friends with the overweight goth guy, yet he is dressed at the ZENITH of hipster GLAMOUR. And then all the soundtrack selections… you half expect a little shot of the soundtrack album cover to come up in the corner with a 'Now Available!' line. The whole aesthetic and execution of this film is SOOOOO MTV.

The director's cut ending follows through on the seriousness the movie has been operating on until then, and actually achieves a kind of beautiful grace note at the end -- provided you are willing to go along with all the ludicrous conventions the film has set up before. This film sort of makes a good contrast with It’s A Wonderful Life in that the conclusion here is that everything would have been much better is the main character HAD NEVER BEEN BORN. I liked the darkness of all that, and the final show of how everything went 'right' since Ashton wasn't ever born was kind of moving.

The theatrical cut ending has all the hallmarks of running scared from test audiences. Like I said, Ashton changes one more thing and then -- as if by MAGIC! -- everything's fine! I also like how audiences could NOT be left without a feeling of hope for the romance, so it gives the indication that Ashton might meet the girl again later in life -- and everything will work out OOOOOOKAY!

[July 2005] I have since listened to about 45 minutes of the director commentary [then I got bored and turned it off], and it revealed an interesting fact: that the writer-directors tried for 6 years to get this made. This explains a lot, as I suspect the story was written when they were in college, and maybe thought up when they were in high school. I was all ready to laugh at their pretentiousness, and yes, they do obsess about every single shot and color in this movie in considerably more detail than it deserves, but that's what happens when you spend 6 years working something over and over. They may be guilty of not having the distance to step back and see what wasn't working and pare down the story, and I guess in retrospect it's too bad that they couldn't, but the impression I was left with was of two guys who just really, really care about their movie and were trying to make it as good as it could have possibly been.

Should you watch it: 

For God’s sake, YES!!!

RELATED FILMS:
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 2: Is less ridiculous, but is actually kind of GOOD!
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 3: REVELATIONS takes more of a horror approach and is amusing but ultimately just alright.