With the sheer quantity of movies that exist, it's common that we can spot similarities in a few of them. However, when it comes to the psychological thrillers Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect, the similarities are downright strange. Especially since they were only released within a few years of each other (Donnie Darko was released in 2001 and The Butterfly Effect was released in 2004). Sure, it's most likely just a coincidence, but just think about all that they have in common.
Spoilers ahead for both Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect!
A Trying Childhood
Both Donnie and Butterfly Effect's Evan Treborn go through some traumatic problems in their childhood. Evan had a particularly severe set of childhood traumas that included a disturbing event with his friend's father that I won't go into detail on here. After that event, he saw an ill-fated prank result in the death of a baby. And if that wasn't enough, he watched as his friend's demented brother stuff Evan's dog into a sack and set it on fire. Yeah, not cool.
Donnie wasn't taken to such extremes as a kid, but he did have to deal with schizophrenia. Not to mention that he had hallucinations of a giant rabbit named Frank that kept telling him when the world was going to end. Both of these young boys start out their lives in grueling circumstances, but luckily these circumstances did get better when they found romantic support.
Donnie and Evan may have had some hard times growing up, but they both had a special someone who was there for them. For Donnie, it was Gretchen Ross. Gretchen was the new girl in school who quickly bonded with Donnie over their shared abnormal nature. Their relationship progressed quickly, until Gretchen was struck by a car and killed. As if Donnie's life wasn't hard enough already.
Evan had Kayleigh, a childhood friend that he grew up with. The two eventually became more than friends, and in one timeline in particular, Evan and Kayleigh had a serious relationship throughout college. Unfortunately for Evan, Kayleigh's brother Tommy often stood in the way of them being together. In the original storyline of the movie, Kayleigh eventually kills herself, which initially sets Evan off on his reality-changing habit. Too bad there was only one real way to save her.
A Noble Sacrifice
The largest similarity between both films takes place in the climactic third act. After enduring much hardship and turmoil, both protagonists go on to take drastic measures to ensure the safety of their friends and family. Donnie goes back in time and lets himself get crushed in a freak accident. That way, the series of events that leads to the death of Gretchen and some of his family never happened. He sacrificed himself for the lives of those he loved.
Just like Donnie, Evan also came to the conclusion that life would be better without him (sorry It's A Wonderful Life). After multiple situations resulting in the loss of limbs, the loss of loved ones, and various catastrophic conclusions, Evan used his notebook to travel back before he was born. Then, by killing himself before he was born, he saved his loved ones from a great deal of misfortune.
It's shocking to me that both movies have a dramatic twist that is so similar. I'm not claiming that The Butterfly Effect flat-out ripped-off Donnie Darko. Only that directors Richard Kelly, Eric Bress, and J. Mackye Gruber were in very like-minded in their projects. The fact that the movies were only separated by three years makes these coincidences even more bizarre!
The Rise Of A Young Actor
Not all similarities have to take place on the screen. After Donnie Darko hit theaters, Jake Gyllenhaal's career only grew. He continues to impress us year after year with his acting potential after movies like Love & Other Drugs, Prisoners, and Nightcrawler. Donnie Darko turned our eyes to a young actor that flourished and is now considered one of the biggest A-listers of our time.
The Butterfly Effect did the same thing, but in a different way. It obviously didn't launch the career of Ashton Kutcher. He was already well-known thanks to That '70s Show. There was another young actor in the film who played the younger iteration of Evan. Though you may not have realized it, that younger actor was Logan Lerman.
Since The Butterfly Effect, Logan has been in the Percy Jackson movies, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Fury. He was a talented actor then, and he is even more talented now as we've seen him progress his way through multiple genres. Whether you notice the plot similarities in the movies or not, it is undeniable that both flicks gave us an incredibly talented actor in the early stages of his career.
Trial And Error
The main difference between the two movies is the frequency in which the protagonists travel through time. Donnie spends the majority of his movie on a single path where he deals with the constant troubles of his life. It's only at the very end that he travels back to the beginning to let himself die.
Evan, on the other hand, experiments with time very frequently. Once he finds out that he can use his notebook to glimpse back to traumatic moments in his past, he revisits his past over and over to try and change things. This gives us a chance to look at multiple futures and scenarios for Evan, which all end in disaster. For Donnie, we never got to see one possible future before he went back to change it all.
Even though both of these movies are strangely similar, they are entertaining to watch on their own. Each one has their own story progression that manages to draw you in until you're completely engulfed in the plot. Luckily they are still different enough to make both of them appealing in their own way.