Fair’s fair, so let’s note outright that everything that’s wrong with The Butterfly Effect (and a good bit is) has nothing to do with everybody’s favorite tabloid target, Ashton Kutcher. The much-maligned boy toy does pretty well with the role that’s been handed him by screenwriters-turned-directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber. Indeed, Kutcher’s only real problem is that he didn’t pose the question, “Dude, where’s my script?”
Messrs. Bress and Gruber, who penned the amusingly overblown Final Destination 2, again prove that their love of complex tricks outweighs any sense of logic — such that their very cleverness finally becomes predictable. And while that might not matter much in a trash epic like Final Destination 2, it truly undermines the faux weightiness of their new sub-Stephen King, horror-born-of-childhood-events opus.
If nothing else, The Butterfly Effect answers the question of why the most recent version of The Time Machine set up its intriguing premise about why it’s impossible to thwart fate via time travel, and then dropped that idea suddenly in favor of returning to something more along the lines of the source novel (with cannibalistic Morlocks and Jeremy Irons doing an Edgar Winter impression).
The problem is simple: There’s no place to go with the concept. The resulting movie ends up chasing its own tail, restating its established premise until the viewer is so numbed by the dizziness of it all as to just want it to stop. What’s particularly unfortunate is that The Butterfly Effect has its moments, and it certainly has something on its mind — but the film lacks the intellect to really understand what it’s trying to get at, much less to know how to deal with it. What you end up with is a deep-dish concept handled by filmmakers who are better equipped for making agreeably cheesy exploitation trash. It’s an unhappy marriage, to say the least.
The results are too distasteful — focusing on such cheery plot points as pedophilia, incest, prostitution, drug addiction and animal torture — to pass as amusing. Yet the concept is too insufficiently developed to come across as anything else.
Kutcher plays Evan Treborn — along with John Patrick Amedori (Evan at age 13) and Logan Lerman (Evan at 7) — the son of a violent mental patient. At age 7, when asked to draw what he’d like to be when he grows up, Evan produces an unbelievably skillful drawing of himself (which he can’t recall doing) brandishing a bloody knife over the hacked-up bodies of some decidedly unsavory looking characters. Under normal circumstance, this might be expected to land the boy in therapy — or at least in an advanced art class. Here, however, it merely produces alarm, and the suggestion that Evan keep a journal that might allow him to recall such blackouts as the one that produced the drawing.
What makes even less sense here is that the journals contain the missing information — or at least the gist of it — yet seem to have no impact on Evan’s ability to remember anything. (Perhaps he never read them?) At least that’s the case till he’s off at college and reads one such entry, only to find himself propelled back in time to the event in question. This prompts Evan to seek out his childhood friends and check out the veracity of his time-travel experience. The results aren’t pretty; in fact, they lead to the further mental disintegration of one old acquaintance, and the suicide of another. So Evan decides to try it again and create an alternate past that will change the future. Unfortunately, his efforts are about on par with those of Dudley Moore in trying to outwit Peter Cook’s Lucifer over the seven wishes in Bedazzled. Equally unfortunate is that the results are also nearly as funny, and I hardly think that was the idea.
The conceit works once, but by the time Evan goes back to fix the past a second time, it starts to become silly — and very soon, each attempt becomes more ridiculous and convoluted. By movie’s end, it’s like a silly game, with the viewer wondering, “What’ll he screw up now?” Worse, the penultimate solution is so very much the blueprint for the final one that you can see the “surprise” ending from a reel away. And that didn’t have to happen — if only the film had only been bold enough to go with a truly grim climax instead of the bittersweet one that was less likely to upset Kutcher’s teen fan-base.
Ultimately, The Butterfly Effect isn’t a complete waste of time — one wholly arbitrary shot where an almost-naked Kutcher pulls even lower an already precariously low towel is bound to work with a certain target audience — and I hardly think the film warranted being laughed off the screen at Sundance, as has been claimed. Stiil, it also isn’t the movie it could have been — nor the one it thinks it is.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke