© 2004 Ray Wong
At first glance, The Butterfly Effect (inspired by a Ray Bradbury’s short story) seems like a promising story about the dichotomy of destiny and consequence. The title refers to chaos theory, specifically the notion of “how a butterfly’s wing flap may help cause a hurricane halfway around the world.”
The movie opens strongly and darkly enough, gripping our attention as Evan (Kutcher, Just Married) escapes from some kind of institution, writing a note to himself hinting at his possible fate. Later, told in flashbacks, the story unfolds as we learn that as a child, Evan suffered from occasional “blackouts” – a condition that resembled that of his institutionalized father. We also witness the horrific events which shaped the lives of his childhood companions: his cousin Lenny (Elden Henson, Under the Tuscan Sun), sweetheart Kayleigh (Smart, Rat Race), and her brother Tommy (William Lee Scott, Pearl Harbor).
As an adult, Evan, now a psych major, discovers that he could actually “remember” what happened during those blackouts. As it turns out, he can time-travel back into his past – actually, into his body as a child during those blackouts – and change things. And he does. What he does not realize is that even the slightest change would cause a chain of events that alter the course of the lives of all those involved – for example, preventing a prank mailbox explosion would render him crippled. That is when The Butterfly Effect crumbles. The story begs for a high degree of suspension of disbelief; even so, it does not always work. The writers seem to waver between extremes, with little room for subtlety and psychologically sound progressions. For example, Kayleigh goes from being a suicidal white trash waitress to a chirpy sorority beauty to a disfigured crack whore. Tommy’s transformation from a sadistic psychopath to class president is even more jarring. The one exception is Lenny – though his life seems to be the result of equally disturbing events, at least it has some emotional resonance and weight.
Where the film falters the most is the flawed logic. Even a high concept sci-fi thriller requires plausibility that does not alienate the viewers. In addition to the extremes of cause and effect, there are plot holes as big as the state of California. For example, during a prison scene, Evan demonstrates his “power” to an inmate by going back in time and leaving scars on his hands. In reality none of this could have happened as the inmate would not have “witnessed” this sudden change in this timeline – it is Evan’s alternate universe, after all. They also could not explain how all these old and new, conflicting memories exist in his head – nosebleeds and hemorrhages are cheap tricks.
Though effective (a nice break from disasters such as Just Married), Kutcher seems miscast in this dark and depressing role, devoid of his usual charm. Henson did an outstanding job given the thin material he was given. However, Smart, Scott and Stolz are left with not much to do with their one-dimensional, extreme characters. Other minor, supporting characters are either unnecessary or stereotypical.
The Butterfly Effect has a great premise and a unique, dark style. It is never boring. The ending is also fitting. It is just a shame that the filmmakers get so caught up in bludgeoning us with the grisly tragedies and implausible surprises, leaving little for us to really care about the characters. At the end of the day, it is hard not to say: “Too bad.”
Stars: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, Eric Stolz, Melora Walters
Directors: Eric Bress, J. Mackeye Gruber
Writers: Eric Bress, J. Mackeye Gruber
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and brief drug use.
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.8 out of 10