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Film: The Butterfly Effect

This article is about the film. For the "Butterfly Effect" of incremental changes in a complex system having much larger consequences than anticipated, see Butterfly of Doom.

The Butterfly Effect is a 2004 American Science Fiction Psychological Thriller film starring Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Eric Stoltz, and others, directed and written by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, and distributed by New Line Cinema.

It's about Evan Treborn, a guy who can travel back in time by reading his journals and change what happened then, and uses this ability to try to undo various traumatic events he and his friends suffered as children. Despite his best intentions, the results aren't always good for everyone. What's more, his own brain suffers from trying to assimilate all the new memories from these consequences.

The title is a reference to the butterfly effect, which theorizes that a change in something seemingly small and innocuous, such as a flap of a butterfly's wings, may have unexpected larger consequences in the future, such as the path a hurricane will travel.

It was followed by two largely unrelated Direct-to-DVD sequels, The Butterfly Effect 2 and The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Dad: George Miller
  • All Just a Dream: Subverted. At one point near the end of the film, it looks like the story is gonna go out with a Twist Ending. As Evan's doctor explains that there are no journals, he asserts that everything that we've apparently seen so far is a delusion that Evan created to cope with the guilt of killing Kayleigh, describing alternate universes with colleges, prisons, and paraplegia. Then it turns out that the mental time travel was real when Evan goes back one last time.
  • An Aesop: Similar to that of The Time Machine remake. Attempting to undo the mistakes of the past is futile; sometimes, you just have to accept things the way they are. Which is broken by Evan's final decision by making sure Kayleigh stays out of his life, which makes things all the better for everyone in the end. So yeah, it's more like the Aesop gets twisted into "You'll only be okay if you never find true love."
  • Beard of Sorrow: It's subtle, but there. In the futures that Evan loses Kayleigh in, he's always grown out a full beard. When he's still with her in the "frat-boy" future, he's shaved it down to a goatee, but it isn't until the very end of the movie, when he's put her being a part of his life behind him that he's clean-shaven.
  • Big Bad: Tommy and Kayleigh's pedophile father George, who is directly or indirectly responsible for everything bad that happens to the characters.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The theatrical cut. Evan makes sure that he and Kayleigh never become friends by being mean to her when he travels back in time to their first meeting. Kayleigh and Tommy live a happy life away from their abusive father, and Evan and Lenny remain lifelong friends. Evan runs into Kayleigh in a downtown street in New York, but he ignores her after hesitating for a moment.
  • Break Her Heart To Save Her: In the theatrical cut, Evan finally decides that the best course of action is to go back to where he and Kayleigh first meet and be mean to her, so she never befriends him, moves away with her mother, and avoids the sexual abuse by her father which ultimately leads to her suicide.
  • Blofeld Ploy: Tommy beats the shit out of a random kid in a movie theater after he sees Evan kissing Kayleigh.
  • Blond Guys Are Evil:
    • Tommy. Even in a reality where he turns out alright, his hair is brown.
    • Lenny, also depending on the reality.
  • Broken Aesop: The lesson that you can't possibly undo all of your past mistakes and that you have to accept them for what they are is broken by both of the endings, as Evan does precisely that by removing himself from Kayleigh's life entirely. The real mistake he had to fix was meeting her in the first place (theatrical cut) or being born at all (director's cut).
  • Burn Baby Burn: Turns out this is what originally happened with the dynamite. Also the ending (although that was hinted at throughout).
  • Butterfly Of Transformation: The main character keeps trying to change the present by fixing the past.
  • Butt Monkey: Taken to the extreme.
  • Continuing Is Painful: The movie takes account of this trope as well, with the protagonists condition worsening permanently with each "restart" due to multiple memories.
  • Crapsack World: It starts here and gets worse. And worse, and worse, and worse...
  • Creepy Child: Tommy, who is a total sociopath. Except when he's not, and then he's arguably MORE creepy. He's more of a creepy adult then, though.
  • Crime of Self-Defense: An especially jarring plot point has Evan sent to jail when he accidentally kills Tommy in self-defense. Mind you, everyone knows Tommy is a violent psycho and there were a dozen witnesses to testify that Tommy was trying to kill Evan.
  • Deadly Nosebleed: As Evan does more time travel, he starts to have nosebleeds, indicating the brain damage he's suffering from doing it.
  • Deadly Prank: Evan and his friend put a stick of dynamite in someone's mailbox to blow it up. A woman carrying a baby happens to come to check for mail at the worst possible moment, and they're both killed when it detonates.
  • Death Is the Only Option: The director's cut ending invokes this trope. Evan strangles himself with the umbilical cord in his mother's womb to make life better for the people he knew.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: This is the least sad part about the ending.
  • Downer Ending: The director's cut. Evan realizes that he's the reason why everyone else's lives are so miserable, so he travels back to when he was still in his mother's womb and suffocates himself.
  • Exact Words: "Here, take this rusty spiky thing. You've got to stop Tommy! Cut the rope!" Too bad Lenny took that to mean Tommy's spinal cord.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Kayley's hair color changes depending on how happy she is in whatever timeline. It's brown and mousy in the timelines where she's miserable, and it's blonde when she's happy. Her hair is blonde at the end. Likewise, Lenny has long hair in all the timelines in which his life turned out halfway decent.
  • Foreshadowing: You have no life-line. No soul. You were never meant to be.
  • For Want of a Nail: A rusty, spiky nail, in all likelihood.
  • From Bad to Worse: Evan endures a lot of pain in just the first half-hour of the movie, which chronicle his childhood and adolescence. Then he starts time-traveling, and things get really bad. In various alternate timelines, he winds up imprisoned for murder and left with no arms, while Kayleigh winds up as a drug-addicted prostitute in one timeline, and Lenny winds up permanently doped up in a psychiatric ward.
  • Grandfather Paradox: No matter what ending you watch (or what ending you want to prefer), the plot is resolved in a manner that would make it impossible and/or unnecessary for Evan to ever travel back in time and influence past events, which means he never traveled back in time and changed the timeline, which means Evan went back in time and changed the timeline, which means he never traveled back in time, which means he did, which means he never did, which means he did...
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: In several realities, Kayleigh, especially while still a child.
  • Heel Face Door Slam: Tommy, in one reality. Evan manages to convince him not to kill his dog and invoke his Big Brother Instinct...only for Lenny to stab him from behind.
  • Heel-Faith Turn: Tommy in an alternate timeline.
  • Heroic BSOD: Lenny has this after the dynamite incident.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Strangling yourself as a fetus?!
  • Heroic Suicide: Evan in the director's cut.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Deconstructed.
  • Hollywood Law: Evan wouldn't go to a regular prison, but county lockup, since he hadn't even been tried. The filmmakers knew this; it was cooler filming in a prison, though.
  • Impaled Palm: Evan does this to himself, to get stigmata-like scars on his hands as a little kid, as a part of a complex plan to get his religious present-day cellmate to believe him. (Time Travel is involved.)
  • In Spite of a Nail: Evan goes back in time just to stab his own hands on the teacher's spiky desktop notepad in second grade so he can re-live his whole life, land up in the same jail about to be raped by the same prison gang, and prove to his cellmate that he has magical powers in the form of stigmata. As if the movie wasn't enough of a Mind Screw, every single other time Evan changed the past, no one else noticed ANYTHING different, but that ONE time his cell mate suddenly notices the "new" scars that should have been there the whole time from his PoV.
  • Incest Subtext: Tommy made a rather un-brotherly remark towards his sister Kayleigh in one timeline.
  • Instant-Win Condition: Evan repeatedly engages in near-suicidal acts, then rushes back to read his journal, transporting him further back in time, thereby hitting a reset button to his life while the angry fellow prisoners/men in white shirts beat down the doors. We next see him at the same point in his life, everything is restored back to normal.
  • It's a Wonderful Plot: The plot of this film is one of the most famous (and cruelest) subversions/deconstructions of this trope. The protagonist's life has been really depressing, and all his friends are worse off than before he met them. He uses his Mental Time Travel abilities to correct his past mistakes, but they each end up making things worse for them and/or himself. Accepting that they really are better off without him, he eventually decides that the only way to make them all happy is to remove his presence from their lives entirely. The director's cut was even worse; in that version, he travels back so he dies in his mother's womb, just so his loved ones can live their lives without his damaging influence.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Evan spends the whole movie going back in time to try to end up with the girl, mucking things up more and more, before figuring out that this is the only way to go. In fact, this Aesop is taken to an extreme, as in everyone in the world would be better off without knowing you at all. In an alternate ending, the character figures that out as well, and strangles himself in the womb. God knows why they don't show that one on TV... It's also strongly implied that this alternate ending has happened MANY MANY times before to his mother with previous pregnancies...
  • Kavorka Man: Evan's roommate Thumper, who's seen making out with an array of hot girls despite being an obese guy in goth clothing.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Tommy
  • Meaningful Name: Evan Treborn = "event reborn," alluding to Evan's and his father's power. His name was originally going to be "Chris Treborn," but the writers feared the wrath of religious groups.
  • Mental Time Travel: Evan and his father can do this.
  • Mind Screw: This film is a sort-of mind screw. Is he traveling through time? Moving across alternate universes and adapting to the memories of the version of himself in the new universe? Is he just nuts and then one day finally gets the help he needs? Is the end really just another delusion? These last two possibilities are subverted in the DVD release alternate ending in which he goes back to when he was in his mother's womb and commits suicide with his own umbilical cord before even being born.
  • Missing Time: Evan loses time when he uses Mental Time Travel to go back to events in his childhood.
  • My Skull Runneth Over: Thanks to Mental Time Travel, the hero suffers mental instability, migraines, and institutionalization when the doctors find out "he has four lifetimes' worth of memories in his head!"
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The epilogue takes place eight years in the future, which would be 2010.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Every single goddamn time he goes back to "fix" something. The first time, he seems to get it right and has the perfect life when he gets back to the present. But then he manages to screw it up by murdering his girlfriend's psychotic brother and getting put in prison. Brilliant.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Near the start of the movie, Evan's kindergarten teacher shows his mother a picture which Evan (then 5-years-old) has drawn: It's him standing over two mangled corpses with a bloody knife in his hand. Subverted, because at first it appears that 5-year-old Evan had innocently drawn it, then it's revealed to have been his adult self, with a motive in mind.
  • Not Quite The Right Thing: The reason things go downhill. Any time Evan tries to go back and do what seems to be the right thing. Any time.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Evan's first roommate, "Thumper," is never called anything other than that.
  • Parental Incest: Kayleigh was molested by her father. He molested Tommmy instead in another timeline thanks to Evan mucking around with the timeline.
  • Peggy Sue: The film uses a variation on the trope, which also deconstructs the hell out of the concept. Also suffers from serious Fridge Logic, due to the main character's Genre Blindness.
  • Plot Hole:
    • Time travel inconsistencies aside, there's no mention of Evan ever having a trial before being sent to prison after he kills Tommy nor is there any mention about why he didn't plead self-defense when the murder was clearly witnessed as such and could have avoided any kind of stay in jail.
    • The "stigmata" sequence is also frequently called out for this. When in prison, Evan briefly time-travels back to his grade school classroom to puncture his hands with metal spikes, hoping that the resultant scars will convince his religious cellmate that he has a mystical connection to God. Not only does this not change the timeline in any way (Evan's still in prison when he comes back), the cellmate acts like the scars have spontaneously appeared on Evan's palms—even though, from his perspective, he should have had them all along.
  • Prison Rape: A very brutal example involving Evan and the Aryan Brotherhood. He gives them a Groin Attack, as it was a ploy to get back a diary that he needed to continue his time travels.
  • Psychic Nosebleed: Evan starts to get nosebleeds after he has several blackouts. Each blackout (i.e. each use of his power) cause worse and worse damage to Evan's brain. This is caused by Evan's Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory kicking in and the memories being physically written into his brain and co-existing with the older sets. After the first couple of times, Evan fiddles with the past, he gets an MRI and the doctor notes that his brain has all the age-induced scarring of someone twice as old as him.
  • Relationship Reset Button: The ending. Evan knows that, no matter what he does, his girlfriend will always be miserable if she's with him, so he goes back to his childhood and scares her off. Years later, he crosses her in the street, but of course she has no idea who he is. In the alternate ending, he went back in time and committed suicide in the womb, causing his own miscarriage, so they would never meet!
  • Ret Gone: Evan nullifying his own existence in the director's cut.
  • Revised Ending: The theatrical release had a bittersweet "things are ok-ish but Evan and Kayleigh never knew each other and pass in the street with only a wistful sense of what might have been" ending. The director's cut has what may well be the only prenatal suicide in film history, as Evan concludes the only way to avoid all the bad things that happen to the people he loves is to not survive birth.
  • Rewriting Reality: Magical writing is combined with Mental Time Travel.
  • Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory: Memories from the "new" timeline hit Evan in a rush, giving him a nosebleed...caused by brain hemorrhaging.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Very subverted.
  • Slow Motion Pass By: The theatrical release ended on this between Evan and Kayleigh, having had their memories of each other lost to time travel, having managed to live lives without being killed or psychologically messed up.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: At least in the director's cut, Evan and Kayleigh just aren't meant to be together.
  • Suicide for Others' Happiness: One of the endings has Evan go back in time to strangle himself with his own umbilical cord while still in the womb, resulting in a stillbirth. The people Evan cares about, for whose sake he does this, do in fact go on to lead better and happier lives.
  • Tap on the Head: Done quite realistically.
  • Time Is Dangerous: The director's cut reveals that Evan suffers minor brain damage every time he majorly changes the past, resulting in severe migraines and nosebleeds as he gets the extra memories (often 20 years worth) burnt onto his existing ones. On the other hand, he's Genre Savvy enough to realize that repeated time travel might ultimately kill him, causing him to intentionally think through what he wants to change before each trip.
  • The Time Traveller's Dilemma: The ending invokes this trope: Evan goes back to the beginning, and ends his lifelong friendship/love (depending on the timeline in question) with Kayleigh before it starts. It works.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: The events of roughly half of Evan's blackouts are caused by his older self going back to them, while the other half were normal initially, but could be changed by his older self. One blackout even has examples of both. Also, it is established early on that Evan is the only who has any memory of the old timelines, but at one point, another character notices a change in the timeline for no apparent reason.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Evan, after dealing with the thugs in prison.
  • Train-Station Goodbye: Occurs when Evan and Kayleigh are still in adolescence. Evan holds up a sign reading, "I'll come back for you." He does several years later, but it doesn't end least in that timeline.
  • When She Smiles: Evan has this reaction to Kayleigh in the first alternate reality. He's seen her sad and messed-up so many times that, when he sees her smile, he's convinced he wants to marry her.
  • Where It All Began: Both versions. The original does it well when Evan goes back to the birthday party where he first met the love of his life and gets her to not want to see him again, effectively erasing her from his life, but the director's cut takes it to the ultimate extreme where Evan commits suicide by strangling himself (in utero!)
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Evan unintentionally becomes one of these.

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alternative title(s): The Butterfly Effect
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