Kutcher plays 20-year-old college student Evan Treborn, with Amy Smart as his childhood sweetheart Kayleigh Miller, William Lee Scott as her sadistic brother Tommy, and Elden Henson as their neighbor Lenny. Evan finds he has the ability to travel back in time to inhabit his former self (that is, his adult mind inhabits his younger body) and to change the present by changing his past behaviors. Having been the victim of several childhood traumas aggravated by stress-induced memory losses, he attempts to set things right for himself and his friends, but there are unintended consequences for all. The film draws heavily on flashbacks of the characters' lives at ages 7 and 13, and presents several alternate present-day outcomes as Evan attempts to change the past, before settling on a final outcome.
The film received a poor critical reception. It was a commercial success, producing gross earnings of $96 million from a budget of $13 million. The film won the Pegasus Audience Award at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, and was nominated for Best science fiction Film at the Saturn Awards and Choice Movie: Thriller in the Teen Choice Awards.
Growing up, Evan Treborn and his friends, Lenny and siblings Kayleigh and Tommy Miller, suffered many severe psychological traumas that frequently caused Evan to black out. These traumas include being coerced to take part in child pornography by Kayleigh and Tommy's father, George Miller (Eric Stoltz); being nearly strangled to death by his institutionalized father, Jason Treborn (Callum Keith Rennie), who is then killed in front of him by guards; accidentally killing a mother and her infant daughter while playing with dynamite with his friends; and seeing his dog burned alive by Tommy.
Seven years later, while entertaining a girl in his dorm room, Evan discovers that when he reads from his adolescent journals, he can travel back in time and redo parts of his past. His time traveling episodes account for the frequent blackouts he experienced as a child, since those are the moments that his adult self occupied his conscious, such as the moment his father strangled him when he realized that Evan shared his time-traveling affliction. However, there are consequences to his revised choices that dramatically alter his present life. For example, his personal time-line leads to alternative futures in which he finds himself, variously, as a college student in a fraternity, an inmate imprisoned for murdering Tommy, and a double amputee. Eventually, he realizes that, even though his intentions to fix the past are good, his actions have unforeseen consequences, in which either he or at least one of his friends does not benefit. Moreover, the assimilation of dozens of years' worth of new memories from the alternative timelines causes him brain damage and severe nosebleeds. He ultimately reaches the conclusion that he and his friends might not have good futures as long as he keeps altering the past, and he realizes that he is hurting them rather than helping.
Evan travels back one final time to the day he first met Kayleigh as a child. He intentionally upsets her so that she and Tommy will choose to live with their mother, in a different neighborhood, instead of with their father when they divorce. As a result, they are not subjected to a destructive upbringing, do not grow up with Evan, and go on to have happy, successful lives. Evan awakens in a college dorm room, where Lenny is his roommate. As a test, he asks where Kayleigh is, to which Lenny responds "Who's Kayleigh?". Knowing that everything is all right this time, Evan burns his journals and videos to avoid altering the timeline ever again.
Eight years later in New York City, Evan exits an office building and passes by Kayleigh on the street. Though a brief look of recognition passes over both of their faces, they both decide to keep walking.
The director's cut features a notably different ending.
With his brain terribly damaged and aware that he is about to be committed to a psychiatric facility where he will lose access to his time travel ability, Evan makes a desperate attempt to change the timeline by travelling back to his pre-birth self (by viewing a family film of his father's), where he strangles himself in the womb with his umbilical cord so as to prevent the multi-generational curse from continuing, consistent with an added scene where a fortune teller describes Evan to Evan and his mother as "having no lifeline" and "not belonging to this world".
Kayleigh is then seen as a child in the new timeline having chosen to live with her mother instead of her father, and a montage suggests that the lives of the other childhood characters have become loving and less tragic.
Critical reception for The Butterfly Effect was generally poor. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 33% approval rating based on 168 reviews; the rating average is 4.8 out of 10. The site's consensus reads: "The premise is intriguing, but it's placed in the service of an overwrought and tasteless thriller." On Metacritic, another review aggregator, it has a score of 30 out of 100, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
Roger Ebert wrote that he "enjoyed The Butterfly Effect, up to a point" and that the "plot provides a showcase for acting talent, since the actors have to play characters who go through wild swings." However, Ebert said that the scientific notion of the butterfly effect is used inconsistently: Evan's changes should have wider reverberations. Sean Axmaker of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it a "metaphysical mess", criticizing the film's mechanics for being "fuzzy at best and just plain sloppy the rest of the time". Mike Clark of USA Today also gave the film a negative review, stating, "Normally, such a premise comes off as either intriguing or silly, but the morbid subplots (there's prison sex, too) prevent Effect from becoming the unintentional howler it might otherwise be." Additionally, Ty Burr of The Boston Globe went as far as saying, "whatever train-wreck pleasures you might locate here are spoiled by the vile acts the characters commit."
Matt Soergel of The Florida Times-Union rated it 3 stars out of 4, writing, "The Butterfly Effect is preposterous, feverish, creepy and stars Ashton Kutcher in a dramatic role. It's a blast... a solidly entertaining B-movie. It's even quite funny at times..." The Miami Herald said, "The Butterfly Effect is better than you might expect despite its awkward, slow beginning, drawing you in gradually and paying off in surprisingly effective and bittersweet ways," and added that Kutcher is "appealing and believable... The Butterfly Effect sticks to its rules fairly well... overall the film is consistent in its flights of fancy." The Worcester Telegram & Gazette praised it as "a disturbing film" and "the first really interesting film of 2004," adding that Kutcher "carries it off":
Written and directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who co-wrote Final Destination 2, this is much more intelligent than their earlier film would suggest... The Butterfly Effect may be a little too unconventional to succeed with a mass audience, but filmgoers claiming they want 'something different' from Hollywood ought to take note.
In a retrospective, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that critics, including himself, were too harsh on the film at the time of its release. Describing the film as having been patronized, Bradshaw cited critical disdain for Kutcher as making the film uncool to like.
The film was a commercial success, earning $17,065,227 and claiming the #1 spot in its opening weekend. Against a $13 million budget, The Butterfly Effect grossed around $57,938,693 at the U.S. box office and $96,060,858 worldwide.2004 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn AwardBest Science Fiction Film - nominated2004 Brussels International Festival of Fantasy FilmPegasus Audience Award — Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber - won2004 Teen Choice AwardsChoice Movie: Thriller - nominated
The film was released on DVD as the Infinifilm edition on July 6, 2004. This edition was released with the theatrical cut (113 minutes) on one side and the director's cut (120 minutes) on the other. The DVD also includes two documentaries ("The Science and Psychology of the Chaos Theory" and "The History and Allure of Time Travel"), a trivia subtitle track, filmmaker commentary by directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, deleted and alternate scenes, and a short feature called "The Creative Process" among other things.
The Butterfly Effect has four different endings that were shot for the film:
- The theatrical release ending shows Evan passing Kayleigh on the sidewalk, he sees her, and recognizes her, but keeps walking.
- The "happy ending" alternate ending shows Evan and Kayleigh stopping on the sidewalk when they cross paths. They introduce themselves and Evan asks her out for coffee.
- The "open-ended" alternate ending is similar to the one where Evan and Kayleigh pass each other on the sidewalk and keep walking, except this time Evan, after hesitating, turns and follows Kayleigh. This ending was utilized in the film's novelization, written by James Swallow and published by Black Flame.
- The "director's cut" alternate ending shows Evan turning on the home movies, only this time instead of watching a home movie at a neighborhood gathering, he's watching the video of his own birth. He travels back to when he is about to be born and commits suicide by strangling himself with his own umbilical cord. Therefore, he was never there to change the timeline in the first place and this explains why Evan's mother had two still-born children before him: since their father had the same gift which led him to be convicted as mentally unstable, the three killed themselves in the same way to avoid harming those around them.
The Butterfly Effect 2 was released on DVD on October 10, 2006. It was directed by John R. Leonetti and was largely unrelated to the original film. It features a brief reference to the first film in the form of a newspaper headline referring to Evan's father, as well as using the same basic time travel mechanics. It received a negative reception from Reel Film Reviews, which called it "An abominable, pointless sequel."
The third installment in the series, The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations, was released by After Dark Films in 2009. This sequel follows the life of a young man who journeys back in time in order to solve the mystery surrounding his high school girlfriend's death. This film has no direct relation to the first two and uses different time travel mechanics. Reel Film Reviews characterized the 3rd installment as "A very mild improvement over the nigh unwatchable Butterfly Effect 2."Recognition of Ray Bradbury's influential story, "A Sound of Thunder", appears on a pennant reading "Bradbury" in Evan's dorm room.