How The Butterfly Effect's Time Travel Works

The Butterfly Effect poster art

Hello friends and fellow travelers, and welcome back for a new adventure here at the CinemaBlend labs! When we last met, we got to dig into the temporal madness of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, and yes, that was young Brad Pitt’s butt! Also, if that film is to be believed, fate is a horrific mistress we cannot run from, no matter how many random voice mails you leave for future posterity. Quick sidetrack: does anyone else think 12 Monkeys would make a good double feature with Tenet? Well, there’s no need to worry about that now, as this time out, we’ll be time traveling with Ashton Kutcher, as he tries to use The Butterfly Effect to create the perfect life.

If you really want to read a breakdown of Tenet, or any other time related adventure we’ve tackled during out studies in traveling from here to there in the then and now, you can always travel into our archives and read our studies nice and carefully. Though, it should be noted, that if you subscribe to the method of time travel that The Butterfly Effect displays throughout its twisted tale, you might not want to read too carefully. As an example of why you should be careful, I just opened up our past examination of the Happy Death Day time loops, and had to figure out how to escape all three loops that writeup entailed. Grab some compositional notebooks, a freshly sharpened pencil, and a ton of tissues with Aloe, as we’re about to dive into The Butterfly Effect’s chaotic theory on time travel.

The Butterfly Effect Evan, Kayleigh, and Lenny talk with Tommy before the prank

The Time Travel in The Butterfly Effect

Living in suburbia already has enough of a bum rap, but the lives of Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) and Kayleigh Miller (Amy Smart) are filled with traumas all the way down. The pair of childhood sweethearts seem to be separated by fate, with Evan swearing to carve the perfect path for the two of them to live on. Which is where the young man’s time traveling abilities come into play.

Who's Time Traveling

Blessed (or cursed, depending on how you see things) with the hereditary ability to travel back in time, Evan is one of two time travelers that we know of in The Butterfly Effect. The only other person we see with those abilities is Jason (Callum Keith Rennie), Evan’s father.

From When To When

While there’s no exact time frame given to The Butterfly Effect’s chain of events, there’s an easy chain of clues to give us the three years that make up the film’s storyline. This time span is based off of the fact that in their teenage years, Evan and his friends go to see Se7en in its theatrical release, which happened in 1995. Using that as a benchmark, the childhood events six years prior would have taken place in 1989, with the bulk of the “present day” story being set seven years later, in 2002. So Evan’s traveling between events that take place in 1989, 1995, and 2002.

The Purpose Of Their Trip

The one thing that Evan really wants in life is to be able to live in peace, with Kayleigh by his side. After accidentally triggering her suicide in the initial timeline of The Butterfly Effect, Evan gets the bright idea to revisit key points of traumatic events in their childhood, in order to fix their collective fate. But what starts out as a quest to save one life turns into a chain reaction that ruins several in its wake; leaving Evan to make another trip, in hopes that it will be the one to correct the entire mess.

The Butterfly Effect Evan writes in his journal

How Time Travel Happens In The Butterfly Effect

Good news, time travelers! The Butterfly Effect doesn’t require any sort of special computers of doom, hijacked alien vessels, or 1.21 Gigawatt lightning strikes that mimic the presence of plutonium! In a story that sees tons of problems crop up in the lives of Evan and his friends, all of the good news we can get is much appreciated. All you really need to time travel is a really good memory, thanks to a habit of keeping journals throughout your traumatic, blackout filled childhood.

Plagued by moments of lost time throughout his life, Evan is told to keep a journal of his memories, so he can more easily fill in the gaps he’s been experiencing. However, those journals, and his inherited abilities, are the ultimate method of time travel in The Butterfly Effect. All Evan has to do is concentrate on his journals extra hard, read back the memories he’s written down, and he’s transported back to the moments he wants to go to in order to potentially change everyone’s fate. This method also works with home movies, something that comes in handy when it comes to Evan’s final time traveling trip in the big finale.

Revisiting a memory can bring him back to that time and be in control of his past self.

The Butterfly Effect Kayleigh and Evan share a booth at the diner

Can History Be Changed As A Result Of Time Travel In The Butterfly Effect?

In the history of time travel examinations I’ve conducted here at the CinemaBlend labs, this is probably the most chaotic example of history being changed through the usage of time travel. Not to mention The Butterfly Effect takes its name from a bedrock set of principles in Chaos Theory that dictate the unpredictable nature one decision can have on changing the flow of time. At this point, I’d like to just say a quick thank you to two pioneers of Chaos Theory: Dr. Ian Malcolm and author Ray Bradbury!

As we see throughout Evan’s actions throughout his quest to create the perfect version of his life with Kayleigh, the more he tries to change things, the more out of control things get.

With Evan’s life alone, we see him go from a simple psych student to a frat boy, an amputee, a prisoner, and an unintentional murderer. Travelling back in time to key hinge points in his own timeline, The Butterfly Effect sees our protagonist, and everyone around him, changing with every alteration he decides to put into play. Each time, that decision rewrites the entirety of the timeline from that moment forward, with some pretty severe consequences on the line.

The Butterfly Effect Evan tries to look innocent in the exam room

What Are The Consequences Of Time Travel In The Butterfly Effect?

Evan’s trials and tribulations in The Butterfly Effect lead to all sorts of variations in his life, ranging from something as small as a cigarette burn to larger consequences like the deaths and/or traumas of his friends and family. There’s also a physical toll that Evan’s journey takes on him, as while he’s able to remember everything from the various timelines, by the time he gets to the final iteration, he’s packed on about 40 years worth of memories. With each new trip, each deviation from the previous timeline, Evan’s mind becomes more physically damaged and he come back with increasingly severe nosebleeds.

The Butterfly Effect does ultimately arrive at Evan arriving at a crossroads that see him arrive at one final play to save his life, and the lives of all around him. One path leads to a happier/bittersweet result, while the other is the darkest timeline possible. Depending on which cut you watch, the result differs drastically.

The Best Scenario In The Butterfly Effect

In the theatrical cut of The Butterfly Effect, Evan uses his mother’s home movies and goes back to the birthday party where he and Kayleigh met, circa 1989. Evan tells Kayleigh that he hates her, as well as delivers the ultimatum that if she ever comes near him again, “I’ll kill you and your whole damned family.” This scares Kayleigh into going to live with her mother, instead of her father, which wipes the entire history between Kayleigh, Tommy, Lenny, and Evan.

Kayleigh and Tommy live a happy life with their mother, while Evan and Lenny remain friends through life. Eventually, the boys even become college roommates; though the awesome memories of Ethan Suplee’s Thumper will live on forever. However, Evan does find Kayleigh again in 2002, as they pass as strangers in New York. Depending on which of the four endings to The Butterfly Effect you watch, the two friends either keep going their separate ways, or reconnect with a chance of paving the way to a new future together. Either way, someone who looks a lot like Demi Moore is probably on the other end of that phone call, as this flash forward is supposed to take place in 2010; provided our timeline math holds up.

The Worst Scenario In The Butterfly Effect

If you watched the Director’s Cut of The Butterfly Effect, there’s a totally different, much darker fate that awaits Evan. Rather than just separating himself from Kayleigh altogether, Evan thinks that the world would be a lot better off without him. This is supported by a deleted scene where a fortune teller literally tells him that he was “never meant to be,” and that he doesn’t even have a soul.

By time the ending to the Director’s Cut kicks in, the home movie Evan’s watching is the day that his mother gave birth to him. Just when you thought The Butterfly Effect couldn’t get any darker, our protagonist goes back to his own birth, and kills himself by strangulation in the womb. And based on the voice over from Evan’s mother Andrea (Melora Walters) that plays during his death, this might be the fourth time this sort of scenario has happened. With Evan out of the picture, the rest of the Theatrical Cut’s events occur, with Tommy and Kayleigh straightening up and Lenny never finding himself traumatized into a catatonic state.

The Butterfly Effect Evan walks away from Kayleigh

We'll Come Back For You

Friends and fellow travelers, thank you so much for taking this dark journey into the heart of The Butterfly Effect! If you like what you’ve seen, I’d like to remind you that you can hit the CinemaBlend Time Travel Archives and see past studies in temporal madness. Not to mention, if there’s a time travel story you really want to see broken down through our scientific methods, you can drop us a line and we’ll grab it in time. In fact, our next trip is one we’ve been looking forward to for a while, and it also came up as a suggestion from one of you fantastic fans!

Looks like it’s time to go back to space, the final frontier… again. You asked for it, you’ve been waiting for it, and I literally threw this into my list of initial stories to examine; yes folks, Star Trek ‘09 is next in the lineup! Which means I’ll need to fill out some pre-expedition paperwork with Tempus Fugit Insurance, so the inevitable damage claims get processed and paid in time.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.