The Butterfly Effect

(2004) * 1/2 R
113 min. New Line Cinema. Directors: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber. Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, Eric Stoltz, Melora Walters.

The Butterfly Effect opens with an epigram: "It has been said that something as small as a butterfly's wing can cause a typhoon halfway across the world." The words are attributed, with almost endearing stupidity, to "Chaos Theory" instead of identifying Edward Lorenz, who coined the idea. Full credit for The Butterfly Effect goes to writer-directors Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber (Final Destination 2), but the distinction is dubious.

Bress & Gruber present a fairly electrifying, though bogus, concept: what if you could go back and change key events in your life? Like a surfer-dude episode of Twilight Zone (or, for that matter, Quantum Leap), The Butterfly Effect explores the consequences of meddling with (personal) history, with co-executive producer Ashton Kutcher in the lead. After a brief scene intended to assure you that Kutcher is indeed the star of the movie, he disappears for twenty minutes as other actors play Evan Treborn in younger incarnations. Young Evan, his friends, and love-of-his-life Kayleigh get into jams which involve manslaughter, animal cruelty, and pedophilic child pornography, and that's all on the first pass. Each horrifying experience predicates a blackout for Evan, whose psychiatrist insists he record all he can remember in a series of journals. When the repressed memories return to college-age Evan, he discovers that he can magically re-enter and change the past (Evan's father had a similar condition, which drove him insane).

The opening act's unintentionally funny string of childhood traumas is ridiculous and repellent. A novel can, barely, pull off such a conceit within a bulk of pages, but on film, the litany of bad fortune quickly seems absurd, and the in-your-face shocks played out by a cast of underage actors come off as bad-boy exploitation on the part of the filmmakers. At any rate, the childhood scenes become the fodder for an essentially repetitive plot in which the grown Evan returns to the traumatic events and tries to negate them. The film needs each trauma to give Evan enough points on the timeline to visit, but high-concept and dramatic tenability pull the film apart.

Effectively, the movie becomes a time-travel cautionary tale, like Back to the Future II, except that The Butterfly Effect grasps for pathos. Evan's frustration and tragic responsibility--as each version of reality sacrifices himself or one of his circle of friends--reflects genuine humanity, but Kutcher's twitchy sitcom tics and takes drain the film of poignancy. Worse, this is one of those films that feels more like watching a screenplay than being enveloped in a good yarn.

The breaks in time are realized with simple jump-cuts, then nifty special effects: the words of Evan's journal entries jitter on the page as he reads them, everything around Evan begins to shake, then the screen explodes into the past. If nothing else, The Butterfly Effect is fearless in its gruesome plot turns and black comic touches (a prison detour for pretty-boy Kutcher is rather hysterical), but Bress and Gruber aren't talented enough to have it both ways: absurd and affecting. Neither the half-hearted suggestion that Evan may be hallucinating his time jumps nor the muddle of the resolution satisfactorily plugs up the plot holes (keep your mind on the swelling brain subplot, and you'll see what I mean). I wonder if something as small as The Butterfly Effect could cause a typhoon halfway across the world?

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