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From the infamous grandfather paradox to accidentally creating a timeline where Ned Flanders rules the world, there’s an element of existential horror to every single time travel story. However, it seems that most filmmakers prefer to focus on the exciting adventure aspects of these mind-bending yarns, as very few films choose to explore the terrifying personal ramifications of going back in time to mess with events in your own life.

Obviously, there are several exceptions to this “rule,” and one of the most entertaining just happens to be Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber’s sci-fi thriller The Butterfly Effect, an under-appreciated relic of the 2000s that I think has aged into a much better movie than most folks give it credit for. And now that we have two decades of hindsight regarding time travel cinema, I’d like to take a look back on this weird little flick and dive into why it might also appeal to horror fans.

The film that became The Butterfly Effect began its journey to the big screen as a highly-sought-after spec script that just couldn’t secure enough funding to be brought to life. It was only when Bress and Gruber made a name for themselves by writing Final Destination 2 that they managed to get a hold of Ashton Kutcher to produce and star in their long-gestating project, leading to the flick’s release in early 2004.

In the finished film, we follow Kutcher as Evan Treborn, a troubled young man who experienced a series of mysterious blackouts when he was growing up. He eventually discovers that these blackouts were the result of his ability to travel back in time and occupy his own consciousness in the past, with this discovery leading Evan to use his powers to improve his depressing present. Naturally, this temporal meddling has unforeseen consequences, and Evan soon finds himself trapped in increasingly dire timelines as he faces the titular Butterfly Effect.


Over the years, The Butterfly Effect has garnered a reputation as “Donnie Darko for frat bros,” with a lot of cinephiles agreeing that it’s a deeply silly and excessively morbid movie that bites off more than it can chew when it comes to sci-fi shenanigans. While I can’t exactly argue that this film is an unsung masterpiece, I think folks have been way too hard on what was always meant to be just an entertaining midnight movie.

The overall plot may not stand on its own where logic is concerned (though I guess you could say the same for pretty much all time-travel flicks), but you’ve got to admit that the film does a great job of using its sci-fi elements as an excuse to explore deeply disturbing subject matter as it tells a story about coming to terms with trauma. Sure, some of these situations feel like they were ripped straight out of a soap-opera, but the exaggerated emotional stakes give the characters a chance to shine as they deal with sociopathic children, abusive parents and even dead babies.

And regardless of what you think about his career before and after Butterfly Effect, there’s no denying that Kutcher is completely dedicated to his role here. The actor supposedly conducted months of research into both psychopathology and chaos theory in order to bring the troubled Evan to life, and while not all that effort can be appreciated on-screen, you can certainly tell that he was really psyched to a part of this project.

Lastly, while this doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall quality of the movie, I also really appreciate the flick’s overall vibe. I mean, The Butterfly Effect contains some quintessential early-2000s atmosphere, with the movie being part of the so-called movement that the internet is now referring to as “nu-metal cinema.” The saturated colors and period-appropriate outfits and soundtrack may be unintentional quirks of the era, but they also make the experience feel like a snapshot of a slightly more stylish (and admittedly corny) moment in film history – which I think is quite fitting for a time travel flick.


The Butterfly Effect may not contain any out-right jump-scares or imagery traditionally associated with the horror genre, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t tackle some downright scary ideas. From forcing the protagonist to face a sociopath hell-bent on burning his dog to death to having characters be brutally murdered, there’s no shortage of dark moments here.

Sure, the movie is regrettably blunt when dealing with some of its disturbing subject matter (like the surprisingly insensitive subplot about sexual assault in prison and the entire character of Katie’s pedophile dad), but I appreciate that the filmmakers were willing to explore the logical extremes of their intriguing premise. Hell, the movie even managed to squeeze in a little bit of body horror once Kutcher’s temporal shenanigans result in a timeline where his character loses both arms after trying to prevent a childhood tragedy.

However, one of the most horrific aspects of the film didn’t actually make it to the theatrical release, as the studio originally opted to change Bress and Gruber’s original ending due to its uncomfortable implications. And while I have some reservations about the director’s cut (mostly due to it feeling like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse), I’d argue that it’s the more interesting version of the film and worth seeking out if you’ve only ever seen the theatrical cut.

The Butterfly Effect is far from a perfect film, suffering from inconsistent time-travel logic and more than a few groan-worthy plot contrivances, but I think it’s still a really great time if you can set logic aside and simply enjoy the ride. While I understand that some viewers may be put off by the more edgy and mean-spirited elements of the flick, I think this blast from the past is just as effective today as it was back in ’04.

There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.

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