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Butterfly Effect, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 23 January 2004
Demi Moore's current sweetypie, Ashton Kutcher from TV's "That '70s Show," makes what's evidently his serious movie debut in this erratically-paced thriller. He successfully looks very serious and thoughtful throughout, and is occasionally very good, though just as often strained.

This applies to the movie, too. It's a convoluted tale involving a novel kind of time travel, mostly ingeniously used. But it doesn't bear close examination, and the final twist, the last "visit" to the past, is badly conceived.

The movie was both written and directed by a tag team, Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who did the same with the little-known "Blunt" of a few years ago, and wrote "Final Destination 2." (One of the odder sequel titles. Was this destination even more final, or what?) This movie is a sometimes inventive, sometimes clumsy collection of ideas that takes way, way too long to get to the good stuff.

We first meet Evan Treborn (Kutcher) in his twenties, hiding under a desk and frantically scribbling notes. We flash back to when he was seven in a small upstate New York town that looks uncannily like suburban Vancouver, B.C. He lives alone with his mother (Melora Walters), his father (Callum Keith Rennie) having been in a mental institution for years.

Young Evan (Logan Lerman) is subject to occasional total memory blackouts, and continues to suffer from them through a couple more flashbacks. We meet Kayleigh Miller (Sarah Widdows), whose brother Tommy (Cameron Bright) is a fierce little brat. Mr. Miller (Eric Stoltz) is a heavy drinker and, we learn, a pedophile targeting his own daughter. When he tries to videotape a scene with young Evan and Kayleigh, Evan has another blackout.

When Evan (now John Patrick Amedori) is thirteen, he, Kayleigh (Irene Gorovaia), foul-mouthed monster Tommy (Jesse James) and their mild pudgy neighbor Lenny (Kevin G. Schmidt) put an explosive in a neighbor's mailbox, triggering yet another blackout by Evan, followed by another later on what seems to be the same day.

By the time Evan is in college, he hasn't seen Kayleigh or Tommy (who went through juvenile incarceration) or Lenny in years. He's a bright student working, not surprisingly, on theories of memory. When he and his mother left town years before, Evan promised to come back for Kayleigh, but never did. When he looks her up, she's a waitress (Amy Smart) so prone to depression that she kills herself after Evan's visit.
But that's only about a third of the way through the movie.

Young Evan was advised by a psychiatrist (Nathaniel Deveraux) to keep journals, which he did faithfully for years, indicating when each blackout occurred. Now at college, Evan reexamines the journals, and discovers that when he reads about the events leading up to the blackout, his mind blinks back in time, taking over his youthful body for the duration of the blackout.

And he finds he can alter the "future" by changing things in the past. This is how the title figures in: according to part of chaos theory, it's possible for the waving of a the wings of a butterfly in China to rouse a hurricane in Jamaica. Evan learns that altering his past does indeed change the future (or the "present" to which he returns after each visit to the past) -- but never for the better.

Each of his time trips becomes more of a problem; he tries to save young Kayleigh from her pedophile father, and creates another kind of disaster for Tommy (William Lee Scott in the "present"). This trip also results in Evan serving time for manslaughter; this requires him offering to give a brutal white supremacist oral sex, surely a first for a teen idol, at least in the movies.

Altering the disaster of the exploding mailbox may save some lives, but at a great cost to someone else -- in this case, Evan himself, who's left an armless paraplegic. Another change turns the present-day Kayleigh into drug-addicted whore. Lenny, left almost catatonic in the "first runthrough," winds up paralyzed in one altered future, and in another, the stud-muffin that Kayleigh ends up with instead of the crippled Evan.

In a backward trip, young Evan (with the mind of older Evan) confronts his father who also had this bizarre time-tripping ability. The father insists that there is no way to set things right, that every change leads to another disaster, but Evan tries again.

The last idea is ingenious, but is full of holes and does not have the emotional impact that it should have had. The trouble is that these relatively green directors are spending so much time keeping all the complicated plot balls in the air that they don't have time to expend on what clearly was intended to be the central fact: Evan is deeply in love with Kayleigh. Sure, he SAYS he's in love with her, but it simply is not demonstrated in a manner that allows us to accept this as a great, cosmic, love of the ages.

Working with experienced cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, the two directors have tried to create a different look for each time trip, but it's really to no good end, since each of the time-trip sequences is full of incident that attracts our attention (insofar as anything does) away from how the movie looks.

The credits in general are routine -- sound, production design, editing, and so on. The special effects are confined to the time-trip scenes and the interesting sequences in which the modern-day Evan goes through agony as reality resets itself. These always make him end up with a nosebleed, which isn't much; we're told that his brain is being damaged by being misused (if that's the word) in this manner, but at the end, he doesn't show any ill effects.

Playing around with altering time and the potential paradoxes it creates has provided science fiction writers with a great deal of inventive scenarios ever since H.G. Wells invented science fictional time travel at the end of the 19th century. The "Back to the Future" and "Bill and Ted" movies played with this sort of thing in amusing, intricate and well-founded ways; "12 Monkeys" was so carefully clever that some of the most interesting ideas went unnoticed by many in the audience.

"The Butterfly Effect" is more like the awkward "Frequency;" it has good ideas, but doesn't develop them well, and drops the ball altogether at a couple of points. Ashton Kutcher doesn't do anything here for which he should feel ashamed -- but there's not a lot to point to with pride, either.

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