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Butterfly Effect, The

Entry updated 15 September 2017. Tagged: Film.

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Film (2004). New Line Cinema presents a Benderspink/FilmEngine production. Directed by J Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress. Written by Gruber, Bress. Cast includes John Patrick Amedori, Irene Gorovaia, Elden Henson, Ashton Kutcher, William Lee Scott, Amy Smart and Melora Walters. 113 minutes (115 minutes director's cut). Colour.

Young Evan Treborn, "Event Reborn" (Kutcher, Amedori), has a traumatic childhood in which he suffers periodic "blackouts" in times of stress, having no memory of what occurs in them. Unable to find the cause of these, the doctors recommend that he keep a journal to help with his memory. As a twenty-year old university student, Evan finds himself able to go back in time, although only to the periods of his blackouts, by reading his old journal entries. Intent on improving his life, and more importantly the life of his best friend Kayleigh (Miller, Gorovaia) who was sexually abused by her father when she was young, Evan uses the journals to live out his blackout periods and change history. Each time he tries this, he makes his own present worse, until in the end the only way he can guarantee happiness for his loved ones is to go back to the womb and throttle himself as a baby.

This synopsis refers to the director's cut of the film. New Line Cinema baulked at releasing the film as it originally stood, so an alternate ending was forced upon Gruber and Bress for the theatrical release, in which Evan's final change is just to keep him and Kayleigh from being friends. This undoes all the damage done to her while still allowing Evan to live a normal life. This happy ending was at odds with the feel of the rest of the movie, and the original ending was restored for the DVD release.

The idea behind the story is taken from Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (28 June 1952 Collier's), and the title refers to the popular image of Chaos Theory: that a butterfly flapping its wings can have enormous consequences across the world. This image is also presumably taken from the Bradbury story, which contains the line "Killing one butterfly couldn't be that important. Could it?". Gruber and Bress acknowledge their debt with references to Bradbury throughout the film.

Although the Time Travel method is pure fantasy (Evan has inherited a magical ability to travel through time using a journal as a focus) the story then proceeds in a scientific way. The Butterfly Effect's most interesting concept involves Evan's brain. As in most time travel stories, the one thing that stays constant in all time-streams is Evan's memory. However, The Butterfly Effect goes a step further and explores the physical ramifications of this. Every time Evan jumps back into the present, having changed his past, he suffers intense neurological trauma as his brain reconstructs itself to absorb a decade of new memories from the parallel time-stream. After a few trips his brain has become fatally, and irreparably, damaged by the constant influx of memories.

Technically The Butterfly Effect is cleverly shot. For once, the child and adult versions of the characters look believably similar, and the teenage performers give riveting performances that outshine their older counterparts. Also, the directors subtly differentiate between time-streams by using different camera styles for each, such as steadicam and handheld, which blur together for the climax. The script is also quite polished; while not perfect it does avoid the more common Time Paradoxes that cinema usually struggles with.

The Butterfly Effect is bleak and violent, to the point of being sadistic. The ever-increasing list of horrors suffered by its protagonist – sexual and physical abuse, witnessing a violent death, the Torture of his dog, being raped, losing limbs – soon becomes absurd, and the fact that Evan is unable to improve his life, no matter what he changes, is so implausible as to lessen the impact of the film. This combination of intense brutality with such a convoluted script made the film a critical failure, but in some ways it is a well-made cult/exploitation film. The film was novelized as The Butterfly Effect (2004) by James Swallow. [JN/PN]


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