Leaving the Past Behind – The Butterfly Effect

Director: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters
Release: 23 January 2004
IMDB Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 81% (Critics gave it 33%)

Well, my original plan was to simply sit down on my couch on Saturday night and watch a film that I have already watch with the intention of not actually writing anything about something. Well, I guess The Butterfly Effect is not the type of film that one can simply walk away from and not think too heavily about what just occurred. Well, okay, you probably can, but as people suggest I have this annoying habit of thinking too much – not that that is a bad thing, but some people do feel somewhat threatened by people who do have this annoying habit of thinking about and analysing things and want to put a stop to it. However, this isn’t a post about anti-intellectualism, so I will leave it at that.


Anyway, as I suggested, I simply couldn’t just go to bed after the movie and not think about what had just occurred, even though I had seen it previously. Look, it isn’t the best movie that I’ve seen, and it can be quite slow in parts, however, it is still quite a confronting film and raises the question of whether it would be a good thing to be able to go back into your past and change things for the better, and if one could, what effect would it have on the future. The question is also raised as to whether it is possible to be able to change one’s decisions in the past to in effect create the perfect life.
I have already written a review of this film on IMDB, and about halfway through, when it started to drag on for a bit, I jumped onto the computer to discover that I had indeed written a review on the film, and had given it a six. I sort of now understand why it gave it such a rating because it did have this annoying habit of dragging for a while, and also being somewhat disturbing in places. I also noted that it starred Ashton Kutcher, whose claim to fame in my mind happened to be a rather sleazy film starring Natalie Portman. Upon seeing this my immediate thought was that she seemed to be dumbing down her ability somewhat, especially after Leon the Professional and the Star Wars Prequels (depending on your opinion of the prequels mind you). Oh, they have also released a sequel, and even a third installment, which at this stage seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the original film.

As I do with similar posts, here is the trailer:

Anyway, before I continue I will once again make the statement that if you don’t actually want to know anything about the film then there will be spoilers, namely because my review is on IMDB, and my purpose here is to explore the film in-depth. So ….



The Effect

The movie is one of those movies that begins at the end, that is with Evan crouching under a desk scribbling something onto a notepad. However, we don’t know anything about the circumstances that brought him to this situation, which is why we jump back in time to his childhood, and to a class where the teacher calls his mother inside where she is shown a drawing of Evan holding a knife and standing on a pile of bodies. It is then that we discover that he suffers from blackouts. We also learn that his father is in a mental asylum, and when Evan goes and meets him he has another blackout and wakes up with his father chocking him, at which point the guards come in and bludgeon his father to death.
We then encounter three events in his childhood where Evan has a blackout – one where he visits another family and goes to play Robin Hood in front of a camera, only to discover that he is suddenly naked and in the basement with Kayleigh, the man’ daughter (and the brother, Peter, is looking on jealously). The second time occurs when they are teenagers, and Peter stole a stick of dynamite from his father’s basement, and convinces the other member of the group, Lenny, to put it into the letterbox of a random house. However, the show then skips to when they are running away and we have no idea what has actually happened (though with the previous blackout we have a pretty good idea what was going on). Finally, they are in a junkyard and Peter has tied Evan’s dog in a bag and once again there is a blackout, but we do know that the resulting event was not pleasant for the dog.

Anyway, after this Evan’s mother decides that it is time to leave this nightmare of a suburb and Evan’s youth comes to an end. We then jump to when he is in college, studying psychology, and living in a dorm with somebody that looks remarkably like a goth. Further, Evan hasn’t had a blackout for over seven years so they decide to head off a party, where Evan meets a young lady, goes back to his room, and discovers that the journals that he has been keeping since he was a child (namely due to the recommendation of the doctor that he was seeing because of the blackouts) have this really interesting effect – by reading them he can go back in time to the moments of the blackouts, at which point he discovers what actually happened when the dynamite was placed into the letterbox (and it is not pretty), and the shock of discovering this results in him dropping a cigarette on himself with a resultant scare – a scar that suddenly appears on him when he returns to the present.

As such, he discovers that not only does he have the ability to travel back in time but he can also make some changes that will affect the future – thus the title of the film.

Things Get Much Better

To describe Evan’s childhood as horrific is an understatement, and in a way, it paints a picture of the reality of what it is like growing up in Suburbia. Not only do we have a pedophile living in the neighbourhood, but his children are being tormented by him in a way that results in them growing up as shells of their formers selves. Actually, Evan attempts to change the past begin not when he first goes back to the basement, but when he decides to catch up with Kayleigh and find out what actually happened that day that they put the dynamite in the letterbox. In a way, this dredging up the past has brought about some unwanted memories, and a rather vicious Peter makes it known that he is not happy with Evan’s meddling, and that by Evan attempting to dredge up the past has resulted in some rather unexpected consequences (Kayleigh ends up committing sucide).
However, having discovered that he can change the past, he does just that and confronts Kayleigh’s father in the basement. He then wakes up in a sorority, of which Kayleigh is a member, and the present has changed dramatically. In fact, Evan is also a member of a fraternity, and it appears that life is now much, much better. However there is a catch – he still remembers his previous life, and as such has two lives crowded into his brain, and in having these two lives he suddenly discovers that he is living neither one nor the other. For instance, Kayleigh makes mention that he has changed, and he is no longer walking the way that he used to walk. It seems as while he may have changed Kayleigh’s life for the better, as well as his, he hasn’t truly shaken his past.
This is where it starts to get really tricky because it turns out that Peter hasn’t changed, except that was in the first iteration of Evan’s life he spent a couple of months in juvenile detention (due to his assaulting somebody in a movie theatre), this time he spent much longer, and when he is released he is absolutely fuming at the fact that Evan and Kayleigh are dating. In fact, he makes it his duty to hunt Evan down and make it known that he is not happy. Yet it turns out much worse because when they do confront each other, Evan ends up killing Peter and lands up in gaol.

Third and Later Iterations

Realising that the life that he has fallen into is much, much worse than his original life, Evan decides to fiddle with the past a little more, and this time he changes what happened outside the house. Having discovered that the dynamite prank resulted in the death of a mother and her baby, Evan decides to save them and runs straight for the letterbox. Well, in part it seems as if everything has sorted itself out because Peter is actually a pretty decent person, and Lenny is no longer a recluse, hiding in his room building model aeroplanes. The catch is that Evan no longer has any arms. Also, Kayleigh is now dating Lenny as opposed to dating Evan, which is something that Evan is not really all that happy about. Sure, in one way things have turned out much better, however, Evan is not particularly happy with having to live his life without any arms.
Actually, that might be the fourth iteration, but that is beside the point because as it turns out the more Evan tries to interfere with his past the worse it seems to become for everybody involved. Well, okay, the second iteration was somewhat better, that is until he landed up in gaol. However the more he tried to change his life the more she descends into madness, namely because with every interaction he gets more and more memories piling into his brain, so while at first he has a minor nose bleed, these eventually get worse and worse. The thing with the film is that there are two endings, but both of them stem off from the fact that Kayleigh decides to remain with her father because she did not want to move away from Evan, and it is then that Evan discovers that he is the element that is making their lives horrendous. In the cinematic ending, Evan goes back in time and has a fight with Kayleigh, causing her to move away when her parents’ divorce, while in the version I watched Evan lands up in a mental institution, and then goes back to before he was born and strangles himself while he is still in his womb.


One of the keys to this ending is when Evan and his mother go into a psychic who tells Evan that he has no lifeline and should not exist. The other interesting thing is that we also discover that his father was also able to time travel in this way, which is why he landed up in the mental institution (and also why he freaked out when Evan began to ask him about changing the past). What we learn, and it is quite subtle, is that while Evan would time travel through the use of his journal, his father time travelled through the use of photographs – which is why Evan was able to use the film to escape the mental asylum.


Changing the Past

This film opens up one of those dreams that many of us (in particular myself) have, and that is being able to return to the past and making different decisions so as to make life much better for us and those whom we love. The problem in Evan’s case is that he can only return to times when he has a blackout – which in a way are significant times in his childhood which eventually resulted in a huge change in the future. In a way, these blackouts are effectively blank moments in his life where the decisions that can be made aren’t made, and in effect during the moments Evan simply does nothing. Mind you, some periods, such as the blackout in primary school, exist as plot devices – the primary school scene allows Evan to gain the stigmata so that he might be able to use them to get his Catholic cellmate on the side and thus escape prison. Other times, such as when he grabs the knife, seem to have no purpose at all.
The other catch with Evan is that while he can change the past at this one specific point, it doesn’t mean that he can live his life from that point namely because he then returns to the future (or the present) and despite having changed the course of his life, he has no ability to be able to change any further decisions from that point on. In a way, by changing the main decision he has automatically created a series of decisions that have resulted in the past in which he is now living (as well as creating two, or more, sets of memories). In a way what this is suggesting is that our past is defined by a few major decisions that we make when we are young and that all of the decisions that we end up making in the years afterwards are the consequence of these couple of important decisions. This is despite the fact that in the film Evan’s decisions were effectively do nothing and go with the flow.


Actually, maybe that is why Evan’s life turned out the way that it did – his decisions were always based upon doing nothing and simply going with the flow. Yet this was not the case when he gets to university since he makes the conscious decision to start digging up the past and bringing about the resultant chaos. We must remember that when Evan goes back in time and changes the past, he does so with the full knowledge of what the original decision (or lack thereof) brought about. When he confronts Kayleigh and Peter’s father he does so with the mind of an adult as opposed to the mind of a child (which is why their father is so shocked when he is confronted by Peter).
The other thing with changing the past is that it is not necessarily for the best. We see a conflict within Evan that he wants to change to the past to make it better for his friends, but for him as well. This is probably why the original ending was better, that is that he has a fight with Kayleigh as a child, she and Peter move to live with their mother, and the events that resulted in the first iteration never occurred. In a way, this worked out much better for Evan because in this scenario he got to live, whereas in the director’s cut he kills himself as he comes to the realisation that the only reason Kayleigh’s life turns out so bad is because he is in it (though we must remember that when he lost both of his arms their lives turned out quite well, it is just that Evan had to live life as a cripple, which in his mind wasn’t acceptable).

A Christian Interpretation

I remember somebody suggesting that every film has a Christian interpretation and that one can take a film and use it as a springboard for a conversation about the Gospel. Well, I’d argue against that because I suspect that you can’t actually use Debbie Does Dallas in that sense, though theoretically, it is possible but since I haven’t seen it, and have no intention of seeing it, I can’t speak from experience (though one could use it as an example of the destructive nature of pornography, but I am getting way off topic here). The thing is that years ago I took that idea on board and tried to examine the Christian aspect of every movie that I saw, and the argument could actually prove plausible in a sense, but is it true in most movies?
Let us consider Butterfly Effect – it could be argued that by Evan committing suicide in his mother’s womb it meant that his friends could live good and prosperous lives as opposed to the hell hole that they landed up in while Evan was alive. However, I don’t actually consider that to be satisfactory namely because the suggestion is that it is better for Evan to be dead than to be alive because by him being alive he simply ends upbringing misery and heartache on everybody around him – if this were the case then theoretically everybody should follow Evan’s example because while we may not be the movers and shakers of the world, our self-centred nature means that as long as we live we bring about pain and suffering on all around us.


The question that arises is whether Evan is a noble person. Personally, it is difficult to say because in one way he is attempting to save his friends, but in another way, he is also trying to make his life as comfortable as possible. However, it is only when he realises that he has an answer to these blackouts that he decides to go and hunt down the truth, yet in attempting to seek out the truth he ends up reawakening Peter’s wrath and driving Kayleigh to suicide. Further, we have him changing his life for the better, until he is confronted by Peter, kills him, and lands up in gaol, which isn’t a satisfactory outcome for him. In the third iteration Kayleigh has become a prostitute, and in the forth Evan not only has lost his arms, but his mother is dying of lung cancer after becoming a chain smoker. Thus, the final solution is to bring it to an end by dying in the womb.
It is interesting that the hints are scattered throughout the film as to the final conclusion – his father landing up in a mental institution, him being one of a long line of miscarriages, and eventually becoming a miscarriage himself when he decides to start meddling with the past, and also the idea that his father could also time travel, but instead of using a journal, he uses photos. While not explicitly spelt out, it is suggested that Evan’s ability is a curse that has been passed down from generation to generation, though when they find themselves trapped in a mental asylum it is basically game over – there is no escape – it is only that Evan learns how to use the film to be able to take himself back to a time before he was born to prevent himself ever entering this world and causing such pain and suffering to those around him.
However, the question that eventually arises is whether there is any time when we can say that it is better that we were not born. Personally, if we were born then we were born for a reason, and the life that we have is a precious gift – we should take hold of that gift and make the most of it because it is only one life that we get and even if we do make mistakes there is always, as long as we live, some form of redemption.
Creative Commons License


Leaving the Past Behind – The Butterfly Effect by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


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