Butterfly Effect, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It is likely that a number of reviews are going to describe The Butterfly Effect as a "science fiction" movie. Nothing could be further from the truth - little that occurs during the course of this film relates to science or technology, and to force The Butterfly Effect into the genre is a lazy and unwarranted approach. Although there is a "Twilight Zone" feel to the proceedings, it's worth noting that many episodes of Rod Serling's classic TV series gyrated along the line between fantasy and horror, and that's exactly where The Butterfly Effect belongs.

That being said, this is a compelling and intriguing movie that toys with the powers of choice and chance in a way that is not overused. Sure, there are plot holes (some of which are quite substantial), but most of them don't become apparent until long after the end credits have rolled and the film is being analyzed in a post-screening discussion. The ending is a cheat, and Ashton Kutcher is perhaps not the best choice for the lead role. Nevertheless, despite these flaws, I don't hesitate to recommend the film. In the cinematic wasteland that is January, this stands tall.

The Butterfly Effect takes its name from a premise of chaos theory: a butterfly flapping its wings in North Africa can cause a typhoon half-a-world away (see Jurassic Park for a similar explanation). In this case, we're not faced with a question of spatial causality, but of how re-arranging the time stream can result in a slip into an alternate reality. By following the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principal, The Butterfly Effect manages to move forward without confusing or losing its audience. This isn't one of those films where a moment's inattention will result in total bewilderment, although it is a good idea not to take a trip to the snack counter.

Evan Treborn (Kutcher) is a 20-year old college student with a bigger parcel of emotional baggage than most young Americans. Since age seven, he has been experiencing blackouts at moments of high emotional stress, such as when a friend of the family molested him, or when he and some friends became involved in a prank-gone-bad. Evan learns that, by concentrating on the words in a journal he composed while growing up, he can transport himself back in time and re-live certain events. Sometimes, he can make changes; sometimes he can't. When a childhood friend, Kayleigh Miller (Amy Smart), commits suicide because of something Evan does, he becomes obsessed with reworking her life. And, when he does, he learns that he might have been better off not meddling with the complex formula of cause-and-effect.

Co-directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who also co-wrote the screenplay) have fashioned a movie that not only entertains in its own right, but asks us to consider the consequences of our own actions. (This is their first outing behind the camera; they collaborated on the screenplay for Final Destination 2, an act for which I am willing to forgive them.) There's a little Sliding Doors in this film, although, unlike the earlier movie, The Butterfly Effect is not a romantic comedy, nor does it show us the parallel evolution of different universes. This film follows a single incarnation of Evan as he meddles in his own time stream, changing his future from grim to grimmer, even as he remembers all of the permutations he has been through.

For Ashton Kutcher, this is obviously an attempt to shed his "Punk'd"/"'70s Show" image and prove that he can really act. However, while Kutcher doesn't embarrass himself, he is miscast. He lacks the gravitas necessary to pull off the part with complete conviction; someone like Billy Crudup or Jared Leto (whose turn in Requiem for a Dream was remarkable) might have been more convincing as Evan. Nevertheless, Kutcher isn't so bad that he torpedoes the entire project. On the acting side, he is joined by other up-and-coming (read "hot") performers like Amy Smart, William Lee Scott (as Kayleigh's brother), and Elden Henson (as Lenny, another of Evan's childhood friends). The senior member of the cast is Eric Stoltz, who is cast as the movie's sleaziest character.

The ending is weak, and may be the result of the filmmakers writing themselves into a corner and not wanting to conclude things in a burst of nihilistic excess. Yet, even though it's a cheat, it retains a degree of resonance, primarily because it doesn't seek to sabotage the dark tone. In many ways, The Butterfly Effect is about regrets, and the closing sequences emphasize this. The film is engrossing enough to minimize such misgivings, however; few who enjoy unconventional pictures and see The Butterfly Effect will regret the experience.

Butterfly Effect, The (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2004-01-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1