Note: There is no way for me to effectively present my viewpoint on this film without revealing a few key plot points. If you donít want anything spoiled, please tread lightly.
The Butterfly Effect is one of the most insanely preposterous movies I have ever seen. Ashton Kutcher stars as Evan, a college student who has suffered from mysterious blackouts most of his life. (The film never uses the word ďschizophreniaĒ but thatís more or less what it looks like.) Evan had a lot of trauma in his childhood, all of which we see in flashback. As a boy, he and his friends Kayleigh, Tommy, and Lenny put a stick of dynamite in a mailbox, causing a woman and her baby to be blown to smithereens. Then he was forced to star in a child pornography video directed by Kayleighís father (Eric Stoltz). Then Tommy put his dog in a sack, doused it with lighter fluid, and set it ablaze. No wonder the kid is messed up.
By the time he reaches college, Evan has been able to rid himself of the blackouts. However, they return as soon as he begins reading his childhood journals. Egged on by his roommate, a goth punk named Thumper (Ethan Supplee), Evan decides to get closure by revisiting some of his old friends. Lenny (Elden Henson) has been traumatized by the mailbox event and spends his days mutely assembling model airplanes in his bedroom. Kayleigh (Amy Smart) is a waitress in a diner. She is initially glad to see Evan, but when he brings up the past, she runs home and commits suicide.
Distraught over her death, Evan has a full-blown breakdown and is evaluated at a mental hospital. There, the doctor gives one of the least convincing scientific explanations Iíve seen this side of a 1950ís B-grade sci-fi movie. Something about Evanís brain swelling from having too many memories. Evan comes to realize that he can play his mind like a videotape, freezing it or rewinding it at certain points. He uses this ability to reverse time and do things differently. For example, he lectures Kayleighís father about the evils of child pornography, thereby convincing the man not to engage in it. (Yep, that works.) Each time he rewinds, though, the entire outcome of his life Ė and the lives of those around him Ė changes dramatically.
The first problem with The Butterfly Effect is that it doesnít really play by its own rules. The story never makes it clear whether Evan has really developed the ability to reverse time or whether itís all a figment of his disturbed mind. Because no explanation was ever made of how he could literally reverse time, I kind of assumed that it was simply his mind finding a way to repress things he was unable to deal with. If I am right, then Kayleigh is still dead. And if Kayleigh is still dead, then how are we supposed to care about Evanís attempts to keep her from meeting an unfortunate fate? At that point, it becomes a moot issue. Sure, he might feel better about himself, but it hasnít improved her lot any, has it?
The time reversals themselves Ė while intended to be enlightening Ė fall flat. They are too heavy-handed and literal. For example, depending on what Evan does, Tommy becomes either a homicidal maniac or a born-again Christian. Thereís no middle ground, no gray area. The outcomes are often out of proportion to Evanís actions too. Are we really supposed to believe that one simple motion on his part can ultimately cause Kayleigh to become a crack whore? Or that he can cause his mother to contract emphysema?
Other time reversals are just plain silly, such as the one where Evan kills Tommy and is sent to prison. While re-reading his journals in an attempt to find another way to loop time, he inexplicably develops the stigmata while his cellmate fights off another prisoner whom Evan has just stabbed in the groin with a shank. (This might be a good time to mention the nasty streak this movie has. Thereís a lot of rough material here, especially the kiddie porn subplot, which is really not appropriate material for a trashy, inconsequential film such as this.) Still other time reversals are just plain silly. At one point, Evan awakens to find that his hands have been blown off. The effects used to show this are silly, and Kutcherís reaction shot looks more appropriate to a comedy. Then again, there are a lot of unintentional laughs in this movie.
The Butterfly Effect is based on an element of chaos theory which postulates that a butterfly flapping its wings could conceivably set off a chain reaction leading to a hurricane halfway around the world. The movie takes that idea and applies it to people, saying that one simple action on someoneís part can lead to a chain of catastrophes. Thatís an interesting premise, and this could have been an interesting movie were it not so inept. Thereís a willingness here to avoid sentimentality Ė a trait I certainly admire. But the ending canít pay off the filmís central notion. The message we take away seems to be that if youíre screwed, youíre screwed, and thereís nothing you can do about it. Iím not at all sure thatís the message the filmmakers intended to send. There are a lot more examples I could site about how ridiculous and incompetent this movie is, but I think you get the picture. Watching it, I frequently sat with my mouth agape at the idiocy on-screen. Thatís never a good thing.
( out of four)
The Butterfly Effect is rated R for violence, sexual content, language, and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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