NOW PLAYING: The Butterfly Effect

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2004

Chaos theory (oooh, big science stuff and we're only ten seconds in) states that the simple beating of a butterfly's wings in, say New Zealand, can cause a mighty hurricane as far away as South Carolina. This scientific construct, while technically true, is not meant to be taken literally, simply to say that little actions can have big consequences. Like, for instance, when the two man writing team of Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber came up with a small, yet cool, idea that yields a torrential Hollywood mess when the duo attempt to direct it.

The Butterfly Effect stars Ashton Kutcher, one of the geniuses behind Punk'd and Dude, Where's My Car? (great pedigree, huh?) as Evan Treborn, a complicated young man who must deal with a whole host of childhood trauma, much of which has been hidden in the form of debilitating blackouts. As an attempt to stem memory loss, Evan's doctors helpfully suggest he keep a running journal. When, as a 2nd year Psych student in college, Evan rediscovers his childhood journals, he becomes aware of a disturbing, yet tantalizing ability. Evan, it seems, if he concentrates hard enough on the journal, is able to turn back time, just for that period of blackout, as if those missing spots in his memory don't really exist for him - haven't been written yet, if you will. This makes it possible for Evan to change his life and right wrongs, both to him and to those he loves. And change his life he does, although, as we all know, everything has a price. Not only do the changes he makes have untold effects, (The "Butterfly Effect" get it?) on those he's trying to help, but he's sliding toward an eventual psychosis brought on by prolonged trauma to the memory centers of his brain. Effectively he's experiencing several lifetimes worth of memories in too brief a span of time. This is the story in a nutshell, and if it played on the screen as well as it plays out on paper, this would have been a really cool movie.

Unfortunately, what should have been an actor's dream is laid at the feet of Kutcher, whose previous dramatic experience consisted of trying to look concerned that Justin Timberlake's house had been "repossessed" by the IRS. (Justin, you just got PUNK'D!)The character of Evan Treborn is interesting because not only is he the product of his childhood, he is also the product of the lives he lives as a result of the changes he makes, simultaneously. On top of that, as the movie progresses, his judgement begins to be impaired from the constant brain trauma he is experiencing. Kutcher, simply said, can't handle it. He simply doesn't have the dramatic repertoire to do this character justice. He is, however, all the rage right now, and can be counted on to sell tickets. So, in the great tradition, what could have been a character driven, thoughtful science fiction drama becomes just another teen movie with teen movie perspective. Pretty Amy Smart tries gamely to play the doomed girlfriend, Kayleigh Miller, but she, though more talented than Kutcher, is similarly unable to rise to the occasion. On top of the acting issues, which are numerous and widespread, Effect has major structural problems. Long periods of exposition yield very little, while non-intuitive leaps are taken at random. At times the movie seems focused on the greater issues, then switches abruptly to the banal. None of the changes he makes effect anyone other than Evan or those in his immediate circle. Some Butterfly Effect. There are also numerous brief, though graphic, sex scenes. Now, this wouldn't normally be an issue for me, except that these scenes are completely gratuitous. I mean, there is no reason at all for them. It's almost as though the main effect of Evan's time traveling is to increase his roommate's libido. Weird.

I was pretty disappointed in this film for several reasons. One, I like the idea. It's a cool premise, that someone could travel in time without a bunch of fancy gadgets, but simply with the power of the mind, like jumping in the time stream and swimming backward. I first saw this theme in the beautiful Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymoure romance, Somewhere in Time, one of those movies I love despite the fact that it's so obviously a "chick flick." It's one of those love-can-overcome-all,-even-space-and-time kind of things, and handles the mixture of emotion and science very elegantly, unlike the ham-handed Butterfly Effect. I was also disappointed because the whole "butterfly" thing is very intriguing, How important are the things we do? How far reaching are the effects of the smallest decisions we make? Like ripples in a pond, do they get wider and wider? This was handled in a very cool way by one of my favorite all-time writers, Ray Bradbury, in a short story called A Sound of Thunder. The story involves a time travel tour guide company, some big game dinosaur hunters, and an actual butterfly. That's all I'll say, though, because the actions taken therein have some exciting and surprising consequences. Too bad The Butterfly Effect couldn't have taken a page from Bradbury's journal. Grade: C

The Butterfly Effect is rated R for violence, drug use, sex, and nudity.

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