The Butterfly Effect
Director : Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber
Screenplay : J. Mackye Gruber & Eric Bress
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Ashton Kutcher (Evan Treborn), Amy Smart (Kayleigh Miller), Melora Walters (Andrea Treborn), Elden Henson (Lenny), William Lee Scott (Tommy Miller), John Patrick Amedori (Evan at 13), Irene Gorovaia (Kayleigh at 13), Jesse James (Tommy at 13), Kevin Schmidt (Lenny at 13), Eric Stoltz (George Miller), Logan Lerman (Evan at 8), Cameron Crigger (Tommy at 8), Ethan Suplee (Thumper)
In his first dramatic role, MTV and tabloid mainstay Ashton Kutcher drops his male bimbo persona and delves headfirst into the gloom and doom of The Butterfly Effect, playing Evan Treborn, a tortured young man who finds that he has the inexplicable ability to travel back in time and alter the future. The title of the movie is derived from a popular simplification of chaos theory: If a butterfly beats its wings in Asia, it might cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. It’s one of those “Whoa!” kind of statements for people who like to think about things without really thinking about them, which pretty much sums up the appeal of this film.
The movie begins in Evan’s horrible childhood, where he and three friends—brother and sister Tommy and Kayleigh and their friend Lenny—are the victims of countless psychologically damaging traumas. These range from being forced to star in kiddie porn videos shot by Tommy and Kayleigh’s pedophilic dad (a woefully miscast Eric Stoltz), to a prank involving a stick of dynamite in a mailbox going horribly wrong, to Tommy getting so heated when he sees Evan and Kayleigh kiss at the movies that he burns Evan’s dog to death. All in all, it’s an awful childhood, and the only one who seems to make it out with any of his marbles is Evan.
This is somewhat ironic because, as a child, Evan has several other problems to deal with, namely his institutionalized father and a tendency to have lengthy blackouts whenever he encounters stress (meaning that, in all of the aforementioned traumatic events, he blacks out right in the middle of them and no one—no one—ever bothers to tell him what he missed). As a psychology major in college, Evan becomes intent on learning everything he can about memory in order to discover what fills those blank spots in his life, but when he starts reading his old journals, he discovers something even better: He can travel back in time and relive those moments.
How can he do this? Well, even more so than most credulity-stretching time-travel stories, the exact mechanism by which the space-time continuum is subverted relies more on a suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part than it does on the author’s convincing creativity. It seems that the cowriting/codirecting team of Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who last collaborated on the screenplay for Final Destination 2) decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to even try to explain how it happens, so they just drop the plot device in our lap and ask us to accept it. If that sounds like a rather risky ploy, it is, and every time Evan time travels, you might find yourself wondering why reading an old journal and concentrating really hard has the power to send him back in time (well, at least it’s better than Christopher Reeve hypnotizing himself into the past in Somewhere in Time).
The gist of the story is that Evan’s time-traveling exemplifies the butterfly effect in action: Every time he goes back, he changes something hoping it will make the future better, and, in at least one sense, it does. But, for every positive change, there are also negative changes, which means that he has to go back to a different point in time and try to make that right. But, every time he rights something, he screws something else up. So, Kayleigh (Amy Smart), who is ostensibly the object of his savior complex, goes from being a suicidal waitress to a bubbly sorority girl to a strung-out and scarred hooker. Lenny (Elden Henson) goes from being screwed up to being mental-hospital screwed up to being Kayleigh’s boyfriend. And Tommy (William Lee Scott) morphs from sadistic creep to even more sadistic creep to a sweater-wearing Jesus freak. Of course, Evan is not exempt from the effects of his playing God, so his own place in the universe shifts, at one point landing him in prison and at another point in a wheelchair with no arms.
Bress and Gruber, working with cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti (2 Fast 2 Furious), give The Butterfly Effect a slick look and lots of dark polish. They are certainly deadly serious about this work, and even the somewhat comical presence of Evan’s bizarre hulking Goth of a college roommate (Ethan Suplee) can’t quite redeem the movie’s mopish approach to the material. Kutcher certainly proves that he is a capable dramatic actor; in fact, his obvious decision to make his performance low key rather than overemoting to prove his “range” may have been the best thing for the role.
Unfortunately for the film, though, Bress and Gruber can never quite bring themselves to delve into the murky depths of the story’s inherent conundrum. That is, Evan makes the fool’s attempt to play God, and every time he fails, he just tries again. He goes through hellish periods to be sure, but it constantly seems like the movie is headed toward his punishment; at one point, he finally manages to save just about everyone around him except himself, and in its own way, that feels like a logical and satisfying conclusion. It’s as if they want Evan to be a savior, but not one who has to really sacrifice anything of himself. In the end, the lesson Evan learns is just to stay out of it completely and let the world run its course. In other words, he gives up on playing God only to turn everything over to fate, exchanging foolhardiness for subjection.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick