The Butterfly Effect Review
The Butterfly Effect is perhaps one of the most surprising films I have seen so far this year. The theatrical trailer gave the impression that it would be an infuriating teenybopper "thriller" (the word big studios use when they mean "horror movie" but are afraid to say it) filled with licensed music, bad acting and worst of all, the smug, grinning face of Ashton Kutcher, deemed by many to be one of the most annoying celebrities under the sun. In actual fact, The Butterfly Effect is an imaginative, edgy and downright gripping film featuring one of the most original ideas to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Even more surprisingly, Ashton Kutcher is tolerable! How can this be? Read on.
Evan Treborn is a strange young boy. He frequently suffers from blackouts and has no memory of what transposed during them, despite being assured by others that he was fully conscious at the time. His therapist suggests that he keep a journal, and so Evan begins writing down everything that happens to him. His childhood takes a turn for the worst thanks to his involvement with the Miller family: gentle Kayley, bully Tommy, and their paedophile father, George (Eric Stoltz). Evan and his mother (Melora Walters) eventually move away from the carnage, but Evan promises Kayley, the object of his affections, that he will one day return for her.
Several years later, Evan (now played by Ashton Kutcher) is doing well at university. The black-outs have stopped and he has put the past behind him. However, when he discovers his old journals, he realizes that by reading them he has the ability to go back in time to key events in his life - the exact moments that the black-outs occurred. He goes to find Kayley (Amy Smart), now working at a sleazy diner, but dredging up memories of her violent child hood leads her to commit suicide. Wrecked by the guilt he feels over Kayley's death, Evan decides that, if he can go back in time, perhaps he can change things for the better. Of course, things could never be this simple, and Evan soon begins to realize that, by changing even the slightest thing, he is drastically altering history, and almost always for the worse...
The brainchild of Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, writers of the wildly successful Final Destination 2, The Butterfly Effect sat in limbo for nearly a decade, with mainstream studios refusing to touch a project that was deemed so edgy. In reality, The Butterfly Effect could hardly be described as "edgy" in comparison to a good deal of other films I could name, but as far as a Hollywood project aimed at a teen/young adult audience goes, this is pretty far out there. Paedophilia, gang rape, incest and suicide are all dealt with in a surprisingly up-front manner, resulting in a film that is at times incredibly disturbing. The time travel concept is also, for the most part, well-handled, even if it does lead to occasional lapses in logic as Bress and Gruber break their own rules. One perfect example of this comes during the sequence in which Evan is put in prison for manslaughter. In order to convince a deeply religious inmate to help him, Evan goes back in time and skewers his hands so he can pass the wounds off as stigmata. The inmate sees the scars and is duly impressed. This makes no sense, however, since the film has previously established the fact that, when Evan goes back in time, anything he does will completely alter history. Therefore, by skewering his hands, Evan would always have had the "stigmata" scars. These small errors don't spoil the film as such, but they do uncover some of the flaws in the concept of time travel.
As previously mentioned, Ashton Kutcher is the single biggest surprise of the movie. His performance is hardly Oscar-worthy, let's face it, but he is competent and clearly invested a lot of effort into the role, which is about as far away from his routines in Punk'd and That 70s Show as can be. It's fairly clear, though, that he is somewhat lost with the complex material, as at times he hits the wrong emotions entirely. Amy Smart, who I normally enjoy watching, is somewhat on-off here. At times her performance is very good, but on other occasions it just falls flat. To be fair, she has to play several different incarnations of herself, most of whom have completely different personalities and back-stories, so essentially she has her work cut out mastering several characters. I found that her crack-whore incarnation was by far the most believable - take from that what you will. The various other cast members are all competent, but special mention must go to Eric Stoltz, as Kayley's father with a penchant for home-made child porn.
The look of the film is often extremely imaginative, with some extremely creative uses of CGI meaning that it is often hard to believe that this was Bress and Gruber's directorial debut, shot for a "mere" $11 million, much of which I'm sure went towards Kutcher's salary. By choosing to digitally colour correct the entire film, the two directors were able to make each different reality look like a unique, self-contained world, from the ridiculously over-saturated greens and pinks of frat-house Evan's world, to the grainy brown of George's sordid little basement, to the cold blues of the prison.
The Butterfly Effect is unlikely to change anyone's life, but it is certainly not what most people who haven't seen it seem to think it is. Rather than being yet another vaguely horror-oriented teen drama, it is in fact an engaging, edgy and thought-provoking film that I would recommend even to those who consider Ashton Kutcher to be Satan incarnate.
Note: The version included on this UK DVD is the directors' cut, which in my opinion is vastly superior to the theatrical cut. In addition to a completely different (and much more satisfying) ending, it also includes a number of additional scenes that lay the groundwork for the conclusion, and a handful of minor alterations to sound effects and voice-overs. While the director's cut is definitely the one to go for, it is extremely disappointing that, for completeness' sake, the theatrical cut is not included too. (On New Line's US release, the theatrical cut was included on the flip-side of the discs.)
Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, this R2 transfer is noticeably sharper than my R1 copy, which suffered from New Line's incessant practice of hammering every transfer that comes out of their stable with some of the heaviest filtering possible. Both suffer at times from compression artefacts, although in different scenes. On the R2, the opening scene, showing Evan in the hospital, shows some mosquito noise, whereas on the R1 DVD the prison sequence was the biggest offender. The two transfers show near identical colours and contrast, which are highly stylized and differ depending on the scene in question. This results in some footage looking very grainy or overly contrasted, but this is completely intentional and it baffles me that some reviews have marked the disc down because of this. Both transfers look similar, but the R2 wins out as being the strongest.
Unfortunately, the R2 DVD disposes of the excellent DTS-ES 6.1 track present on the R1 version, leaving only Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. Still, for those restricted to R2-land, the Dolby 5.1 track should still provide plenty of enjoyment. This mix is absolutely punishing for a home theatre system, with some incredibly loud moments, such as the sounds that complement the visual effects when Evan goes back in time, that give the rears a serious work-out.
Subtitles are included for the main feature and for the commentary (including the commentary on the deleted scenes), but not for any of the other extras. There aren't even subtitles for the deleted scenes, despite their commentary being subtitled.
Audio commentary - Featuring writers/directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, this commentary is a laid-back affair with plenty of jokes and a lot of interesting information. The two directors point out differences between the studio's theatrical cut and their own version (the one presented here), as well as detailing the problems they had getting the film made in the first place. They also discuss the various digital colour timing processes applied to the different sequences, as well as their use of colour coding in the backgrounds and costumes for the purposes of foreshadowing. There is a bit too much back-patting (every single actors seems to be described as amazing at once point or another), but overall this is an informative and fun track.
Text commentary - This feature attempts to imitate the InfiniFilm pop-up fact track present on the US release of the film, and manages to convey the same information, albeit in a less glossy way. At various points in the film, trivia appears in the form of a subtitle stream, ranging from facts and figures to information about the creative process.
"The Creative Process" featurette - This is approximately 18 minutes of back-patting and discussion of everything from the origins of the script to casting to actually getting the thing made. Essentially, this is a brief overview of the themes that are expanded on in the commentary. Still, as PR fluff goes, it's pretty good.
"Behind the Visual Effects" featurette - This 16-minute featurette covers the various visual effects in the movie, including demonstrations of green screen, stunts and the various CGI-augmented time-travelling shots.
"Chaos Theory" featurette - Chaos Theory is the concept by which it is assumed that the smallest event can have a ripple effect, resulting far greater effects than one would normally expect. Over the space of 9 minutes, various psychologists discuss the theory and how it manifests itself.
"Time Travel" featurette - Various psychologists discuss the theory of time travel and its appeal as a concept in this 13-minute featurette.
Deleted scenes - A number of deleted scenes are included, most of them dealing with Evan in his childhood. Given how long it takes for the film to catch up to Evan as an adult anyway, it's fairly easy to see why these scenes were cut, even if some of them are quite interesting in terms of character development. Also included are two alternate endings, both of them riffs on the theatrical cut's conclusion, although neither of them are particularly satisfying. Optional commentary is included, featuring Bress and Gruber. The quality of these deleted scenes is excellent, on par with that of the film itself.
Trailer - A non-anamorphic theatrical trailer, running for slightly over 2 minutes, is also included.
Icon has done a good job with their UK release of The Butterfly Effect, but it fails to beat the US version because there is just too much missing from the overall package. While casual viewers will probably have no problem with this release, the fact that the theatrical cut (which is remarkably different despite only a small number of scenes being omitted or altered) is absent means that I recommend that those who are able to should buy the R1 release instead, as it represents a much meatier package overall.
The Butterfly Effect is released in the UK on 13 September 2004.