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The Butterfly Effect (2004)
 

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Just think of your mind as a movie. You can pause, slow down, rewind, and fast forward.”

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Director:
Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber

Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, William Lee Scott, Elden Henson, John Patrick Amedori, Irene Gorovaia, Jesse James, Kevin G. Schmidt, Logan Lerman, Sarah Widdows, Cameron Bright, Melora Walters, Eric Stoltz, Callum Keith Rennie, Nathaniel DeVeaux, Ethan Suplee

Screenplay: J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress

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There are certain themes I’m a sucker for in a movie, and one of them is history-altering time travel and its consequences. My recent viewing of Timeline, which handled these issues in an unforgivably thoughtless and facile manner, may well have influenced my reaction to The Butterfly Effect, which I found myself liking rather more than I expected, in spite of its numerous flaws and – we might as well get this out of the way early – its central miscasting. The film centres upon psychology student Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher), whose areas of research are memory simulation and the mechanisms of memory loss; his choice of field a reaction to the fact that during childhood, he himself suffered from blackouts that occurred at moments of high stress. A much younger Evan (Logan Lerman) was advised by a psychiatrist to keep journals of the events surrounding his blackouts, as a way of jogging his memory; the adult Evan stumbles across his own therapeutic writings and discovers within himself the ability to use those writings to project himself into his own past, to those very moments of stress and trauma at which his blackouts occurred. He begins employing his knowledge of past events and future outcomes to alter history. When one of these forays turns out to have a tragic effect upon the life of Kayleigh Miller (Amy Smart), Evan’s childhood sweetheart, Evan becomes obsessed with “fixing” the past, only to find himself trapped in a recurring nightmare in which his best intentions turn out to have devastating repercussions for the people he cares most about.

While the thesis underlying The Butterfly Effect boasts a long and venerable history, it is also one that in recent times has been played almost entirely for comic effect, in movies such as Groundhog Day and the Back To The Future series. Most damaging of all, however, in terms of the connection that The Butterfly Effect struggles to make with its audience, is the fact that the film’s plot is, ultimately, a two-hour, dead serious rendering of the hysterical eight-minute “Time And Punishment” segment of Treehouse Of Horror V, the Halloween episode of The Simpsons in which Homer manages to turn a toaster into a time machine, and repeatedly transforms history. Of course, the resemblance between the two is hardly surprising, since both The Butterfly Effect and “Time And Punishment” have precisely the same literary antecedent, Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “A Sound Of Thunder”. This tale of a time-travelling hunter who, by killing a single butterfly a million years in the past, manages to alter the future for all of mankind, is, along with Isaac Asimov’s own “The End Of Eternity”, fiction’s most justly celebrated rendering of the time-travel paradox. (The influence of Bradbury’s story upon The Butterfly Effect is explicitly if briefly acknowledged in the film.) The film’s other overt source of inspiration – from which it draws its title – is the “chaos theory” notion, brought into the mainstream by Jurassic Park, that the movement of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can ultimately cause a typhoon in another.

And this, too, although wholly inadvertently, creates another obstacle against which the film must struggle: the butterfly in this context is used as a symbol for the way in which the most subtle of events can have dramatic and wide-ranging consequences; and if there is anything that The Butterfly Effect is not, it’s subtle. As the story develops, it becomes evident that Evan Treborn is attempting to deal not just with a childhood trauma, but with a whole series of traumas so all-encompassing that, perversely, it becomes increasingly hard to take them seriously. Let’s see: an institutionalised father who tries to strangle him and is clubbed to death in front of him; involvement in paedophilia, child pornography, criminal vandalism, manslaughter, homicide and infanticide; other random acts of violence committed against himself and others; the torture-death of his dog; the long-term incarceration of various friends--- Have I missed anything? Probably. And that’s only what happened to Evan in his “real” life, never mind what happens both to himself and to the people around him once he starts meddling with the past. (Actually, you kind of have to admire the sleight-of-hand that Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber pull off here, getting away with all sorts of real-life horrors, including those two great taboos, terrible things happening to children and animals, chiefly because they are finally able to say, however disingenuously, “Oh, it’s okay, it never really happened.”) Still, while it is true that The Butterfly Effect finally collapses under the accumulated weight of its own plot, the film remains interesting, partly because its “altering of history” theme is always intellectually engaging, and partly because (let’s be honest about this) there is an evil pleasure to be had in repeatedly discovering just what dung-heap Evan/Ashton has managed to drop himself into this time. 

For all its shortcomings, The Butterfly Effect is likely to strike a chord with many viewers. After all, all of us have regrets in our lives; all of us must make decisions that will effect the tenor of our lives, and the lives of those around us; all of us, sooner or later, will stop to wonder What if - ? It is conceivable that the reaction of the individual to this film will be in direct proportion to the amount of emotional baggage that they bring to it. It is one thing to say, oh, if only I could do that over again; but what if you could? – what if you really could? What would you do? And given a choice of alternatives, whose outcomes you knew, how far would you sacrifice yourself for the benefit of those close to you? The Butterfly Effect takes a refreshingly serious approach to these questions – although in the end, it lacks the courage of its convictions. One of Evan’s (many) childhood horrors is his own involvement, at age thirteen, in a life-changing act of fatal vandalism perpetrated by himself (John Patrick Amedori), Kayleigh (Irene Gorovaia), her brother, Tommy (Jesse James), and their friend, Lenny (Kevin G. Schmidt). An adult Evan, in one of his timestreams, encounters a Kayleigh turned drug-addled prostitute. When he attempts to explain himself to her, she scornfully and disbelievingly challenges him to go back to that moment, to change that act, which she pinpoints as the instant that destroyed the lives of herself, Tommy and Lenny; while Evan himself was protected from the knowledge of what he had done, and what had happened, by one of his stress blackouts, and by his mother’s suspicions, which led her to take her son and move away – thus leaving the other three to be engulfed by the consequences of their actions. Having discovered the truth of that fatal afternoon on an earlier “journey”, Evan does indeed project himself back to the critical instant, and performs an action that has the most profound effect upon the lives of all four children. What follows is the bravest and most satisfying section of The Butterfly Effect, as Evan “wakes” to find the lives of his friends full, rich and happy – and his own a mess. 

If The Butterfly Effect had had the guts to stop here, I’d’ve had some sincere respect for it; but instead, disappointingly but probably inevitably, it chickens out, finding a “legitimate” excuse for Evan to fix his own life at the expense of his friends’ happiness by giving his mother terminal lung cancer; or, as the screenplay so subtly puts it: “You took up chain-smoking after I blew my arms off!”  Still – I’m not entirely prepared to blame the film-makers for this apparent cowardice. To me, the whole final section of this film reeks of studio interference, possibly the result of negative test screenings. And besides, even if the film doesn’t end as bravely as you might wish, it at least avoids the contrived “happy ending” that, I confess, I was wholly expecting. 

But while there is some good stuff in The Butterfly Effect, there’s also some bad stuff; a lot of it, actually. I’m not entirely sure into which of those two categories you’d place the film’s central conceit, Evan’s ability to “will” himself into his own past, which manages, simultaneously, to be both elegantly simple and utterly stupid. (The script, by the way, categorises this ability as a genetic anomaly, one shared by Evan’s father, who is killed before he learns how to “rescue” himself.) Still, the gravity with which the film treats its premise does help to sell it; and ultimately, the fact of the premise is far less of a problem than that, firstly, the way that it is exploited is flawed in itself; and secondly, that having gone to some trouble to spell out the “rules” of Evan’s ability, the script proceeds to cheat. The one fixed point in Evan’s constantly changing existence is his journals, which he uses to reveal and to alter the past. The trouble is, this should be impossible: once history has changed, once Evan’s life has changed, shouldn’t the journals change, too? But they never do; instead, the passages that he needs to use are always there, regardless of the shifts in his circumstances. Just as damagingly, having established that it is the times of Evan’s childhood blackouts into which he can project himself, the screenplay starts breaking his own rules, having him inhabit his younger self at times when that self is fully conscious. The worst instance of this comes as one of the older Evans tries to free himself from a nightmare sojourn in prison, by compelling his younger self to commit an act of violence upon himself; an act which, in and of itself, would have propelled the young Evan’s life in an entirely different direction – something the script blithely chooses to ignore. 

Another major shortcoming of the film is that it never acknowledges the extreme psychological damage that Evan should be suffering as a result of his accumulated memories. When Evan first discovers his ability to “transport” into the past, he tracks down Kayleigh, who he has not seen since moving away as a teenager, despite his promise to “come back” for her. Absorbed in his discovery, Evan thoughtlessly drags up Kayleigh’s suppressed memories of her abused childhood, and the resulting shock and depression is sufficient to precipitate her suicide. Yet Evan, having abruptly acquired the memories not just of a single traumatic lifetime, but several, is largely unchanged, suffering less psychologically than he does physically, in the form of nosebleeds brought about by a series of small brain haemorrhages – the result, the screenplay assures us solemnly, of all those extra memories being crammed in there. Indeed, the film never really does deal with the ramifications of what Evan learns about himself in the course of his “travels”, even though in two of his timestreams – once directly, once indirectly – he turns out to be a killer. The latter case is particularly intriguing, as the thirteen-year-old Evan hands Lenny a sharpened piece of metal to “cut the rope” – except that Lenny uses it to do something very different. Years later, an institutionalised, adult Lenny (Elden Henson) throws accusations at Evan: “You knew that would happen when you gave it to me!” And Evan admits that it is so – at which point, the script abruptly drops the whole thing. This reluctance to come to grips with Evan’s degree of culpability in events is quite painfully evident throughout The Butterfly Effect, as Evan’s behaviour is continually ascribed to his “great love” for Kayleigh, when in fact most of what he does is to free himself of guilt for his past actions. In fairness, it is possible that this ambivalence was intentional; that the original point of the story was Evan slowly coming to the realisation of his own accountability, and finally accepting responsibility by sacrificing himself for his friends. As The Butterfly Effect stands, however, its uncertainty of tone almost sabotages the entire production. 

But the hesitancy of The Butterfly Effect’s screenplay is not the greatest of the film’s shortcomings. Ah, yes…. You wondered when I was going to get around to this, didn’t you? Well, it’s true: where The Butterfly Effect really falls down is the performance of Ashton Kutcher. 

You know – I thought long and hard about what to say here, and how to say it. I admit it, I’m as sick to death of Kutcher’s over-exposure in the media as anyone else; and consequently, the urge to take revenge on him by really going to town on his performance in The Butterfly Effect is almost overwhelming. (Call it the “Bennifer Effect”, if you will.) But the fact is, he isn’t all that terrible here; he just isn’t very good, either. I’m quite prepared to concede the sincerity of Kutcher’s attempt to change his image, and the effort that he put into his performance; but in the end, the magnitude of the task was just too much for him. He simply lacks the gravitas needed to put an outlandish story like this one over. Even more than Keanu Reeves – no, really! – whenever Kutcher opens his mouth, you expect “Whoa! Dude!” to issue forth. Having to swallow him as a “brilliant psychology student” is one of the bigger challenges presented to the audience. Then, too, the script required Kutcher to emote to a degree well beyond his abilities; amongst the audience I was in, his big, dramatic scenes provoked not sympathy, but giggles. Still more damaging, there are moments in the film when “clownish Ashton” (or maybe it’s “natural Ashton”, who knows?) makes a very inappropriate and unwelcome appearance. It’s hard to know whether a stronger director would have made a difference here; whether someone able to reign in Kutcher’s performance would have given us a better film. At any rate, this was certainly a task beyond the capacity of first-time directors Bress and Gruber; who, moreover, were well aware that their screenplay was only greenlighted in the first place because of Kutcher’s involvement, and who may, therefore, have been somewhat reluctant to handle their executive producer/star with anything other than kid gloves. 

But Bress and Gruber were themselves wholly responsible for another of The Butterfly Effect’s major flaws, the broad, parodic strokes in which most of Evan’s alternative futures are drawn. This is particularly true of the “Evan the frat boy” timestream, which plays out more like one of Ashton Kutcher’s teen comedies than as a part of a supposedly earnest drama. (Not to mention that this segment looks like the person who production designed Edward Scissorhands was let loose on it.) This kind of misjudgment also plagues what ought to be the deadly serious story thread of Evan coming to terms with his disability, wherein Kayleigh and Lenny – in love in this timestream – have “gone granola” in the most literal sense (at one point, Kayleigh actually tries to deal with Evan’s depression by chirping, “Would you like a granola bar?”), and where the potential psychopath, Tommy Miller, has grown up to be – in the immortal words of Monty Burns – “keen on Jesus”, and is living such a ridiculously clean-cut, buttoned-down existence, he looks like he’s stepped whole and breathing from the set of Pleasantville – the series, not the film. But even those plot threads that are handled straight – Evan’s time in prison, Kayleigh’s life as a prostitute – have a strange, artificial quality to them, suggesting that the writers created them simply by distilling what they’d seen in a bunch of other movies. The characters in these scenes are clichés made flesh. 

The irony of Ashton Kutcher’s performance in The Butterfly Effect is that while it, not unnaturally, drew all the critical (and I do mean critical) attention, almost everybody else in the film was more worthy of notice. While William Lee Scott gets short shrift from the screenplay as the adult versions of Tommy Miller, both Amy Smart and Elden Henson do very well as the various incarnations of their characters. Smart, indeed, was presented with a remarkable opportunity in this film, being given the chance to play everything from an air-headed sorority sister to a disfigured crack whore – and if she’s rather more convincing as the former than the latter, at this early stage of her career, that’s not so surprising. She’s still pretty effective overall. But the outstanding performances in The Butterfly Effect come from its younger cast members, particularly those who play our four central characters at age thirteen. Poor Ashton Kutcher is, in fact, thoroughly shown up by John Patrick Amedori, who projects the kind of intensity and desperation that his “adult” version can only dream about. Of the others, both Kevin G. Schmidt and Irene Gorovaia are more than capable as two young people teetering on the very brink of disaster, the former already marked out as one of life’s victims, the latter with the sombre eyes of a girl who knows too much; while as the young Tommy Miller, Jesse James is nothing short of terrifying. Kudos to the casting director who rounded up this quartet. 

The Butterfly Effect, then, is a deeply flawed and uneven work; overambitious, clumsy and more than occasionally ridiculous; yet for all that, not entirely negligible. Had the production not been hijacked and forced to become Ashton Kutcher’s Dramatic Debut, well, who knows how it might have turned out? It’s a pretty sad commentary on the state of film-making today that this – this! – is probably the best genre film I’ve seen so far this year. After all, whatever else The Butterfly Effect may or may not be, it’s a film with a few ideas; and I’m always inclined to give a sympathetic hearing to anything that can convince me that it actually had some thought put into it. Maybe not enough thought, but still…. The film fails overall, but there are some scenes that work quite well: several shocking acts of violence; a “reveal” that seems to be trying to be King’s Row for a new century; Evan waking up with the woman of his dreams, and reacting with a shriek of horror and a tumble out of bed; his panicked phonecall to his mother, and his blank shock at realising that in this life, she is happily remarried; and, best of all, the instant when Evan, in “frat boy” mode, makes the mistake of speaking to “Thumper” (Ethan Suplee), in one life his huge, scary Goth roommate, in this life, his huge, scary Goth enemy – who reacts by threatening to beat the crap out of him for his temerity…. Of course, there are some terrible moments here, too – the opening scene may well be the worst of the whole film, so bad it’s embarrassing, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ashton casually offering to perform oral sex on a pair of neo-Nazis – but on the whole, The Butterfly Effect offers up just enough to keep its head above water. And besides – it simply isn’t possible to hate a film whose ultimate moral is that, yes, all the bad stuff in the world is Ashton Kutcher’s fault; and, yes, many people would be better off if Ashton Kutcher had never come into their lives.

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