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The Butterfly Effect
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The Butterfly Effect
cast: Aston Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters, Elden Henson and Eric Stoltz

directors: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber

113 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Roger Keen
The title comes from Chaos Theory - the idea that something as ephemeral as a butterfly flapping its wings can, due to chain reaction, have profound ramifications on the way things pan out. Using that principle, The Butterfly Effect weaves an edgy existential-displacement scenario that recalls Jacob's Ladder and 12 Monkeys, with more than an echo of Donnie Darko, and indeed a much earlier film: It's a Wonderful Life.

Evan (Aston Kutcher), a college student with a troubled past, discovers that through reading his journals he can travel back to the points in time that they describe and retroactively alter history. And there is plenty in his past that could do with altering. As a seven-year-old he suffered from blackouts, had a father in a secure mental institution, and was sometimes left in the care of a family friend (Eric Stoltz) who made strange movies in his basement, featuring his daughter Kayleigh and Evan without their clothes. As young teenagers, Evan, Kayleigh, her brother Tommy and another friend Lenny get involved in a prank that goes horribly wrong, leaving them all traumatised still further. Evan is thought to be following in the footsteps of his mad father, whilst Tommy grows into a psychopathic maniac and the adult Kayleigh (Amy Smart) commits suicide.

So Evan uses the time-travel facility to project his adult persona into his childhood body and right the wrongs of the past. It is a somewhat drastic process, as due to the butterfly effect a few small changes in the past can result in a radically transformed present - a present Evan tumbles into unwittingly after doing his bit. For example, after the first major episode he returns to find he is now an upmarket sorority student, and his former grungy roommate doesn't know him. And messing with reality in this way doesn't guarantee a smooth run, as the bad things of the past have a habit of catching up with Evan in altered ways. Continually finding himself in all sorts of trouble in his remodelled presents, Evan keeps resorting to the journals to tweak the past and get a better result, and the whole process becomes increasingly compulsive and crazy.

The way in which these alternative presents manifest is very convincingly done, and the underlying message - that if you change the parameters of reality, you're not going to necessarily makes thing better only different - has a true life ring. It's a clever film, which stands as much on the quality of Bress and Gruber's writing as their direction. Although there are some flaws in the internal logic of the rationale, it is sufficiently persuasive and captivating to drive the movie and create its own unique brand of suspense. What lets it down, and demotes it from being a potentially great weird film is the ending, which is un-satisfyingly abrupt and not the final pyrotechnic bang a film like this really needs. But still there are some superb moments of metaphysical anguish that will linger in the memory. The naturalistic acting of the principals complements the unnaturalness of what is happening, and the use of special effects in the transitions from present to past and back is workable and unfussy, and a bigger budget might have yielded less not more in this area. The blending of mental disorder and science fiction is better thought out than in Donnie Darko, though The Butterfly Effect lacks that movie's striking overall resonance. Fans of one will probably like the other, and perhaps together they point to a new emerging subgenre.

The package comes with a comprehensive set of extras - two commentaries, four documentaries, plus deleted scenes and a trailer. The Creative Process has interviews with the young directors, producer Chris Bender, Aston Kutcher, Eric Stoltz and others. It tells of how the directors convinced the studio to back the project, and their belief in its unusual, edgy approach and challenging content, such as child sexual abuse and child-on-child violence. Behind The Visual Effects deals specifically with the creation of the film's striking effects, particularly the transitions between past and present - how their wobbliness and butterfly quality was carefully evolved, and how they were toned to fit the feel of the movie. Chaos Theory and Time Travel are science-based documentaries, where experts in the fields of physics, psychotherapy and film archives discuss the tricksy nature of chaos theory and the perennial allure of the time travel story. We learn that chaos is the natural order of the universe, and mankind's 'control' merely an illusion. We also get a potted history of time travel movies, and see the relationship of the time travel fantasy to psychotherapy - the perennial wish to re-write and edit the past, to make it better. All in all the extras are very well thought-out and valid, and interesting in their own right.

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