For those wondering where there was to go after Ashton Kutcher met either of his two ends (the theatrical one or the director’s cut one) in The Butterfly Effect, rest assured, it doesn’t pick up where the last one left off, and Kutcher is not in this film. The Butterfly Effect 2 is a direct-to-DVD “thematic sequel” to 2004’s widely (and a little unfairly) panned, chaos theory-driven mind-fuck. It’s perhaps a bit telling that the screenplay for this film was written by Michael D. Weiss, whose previous movie was I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, an attempt to give that almost forgotten slasher franchise a second life through direct-to-DVD installments.
The Butterfly Effect of 2004 is a film with a distinctly dark atmosphere, bolstered by the inclusion of mental institutions, pedophilia, prison rape, and a baby being blown up with a stick of dynamite. Conceptually inspired by Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder”, the original The Butterfly Effect finds Kutcher’s Evan Treborn suffering from blackouts in his childhood. Those blackouts later turn out to be nexus points in time to which present Treborn would travel, inhabiting his childhood body, and changing things a bit to reshape reality. This leads to a variety of dramatic and thought-provoking, if not highly unlikely, scenarios unfolding upon Treborn’s return to the revamped present day.
The first film made time travel precursors like Back to the Future 2 look downright easy to follow, and got a bit of a critical bad rap that stemmed in part from the feel-good theatrical ending. One can only imagine that heartthrob Kutcher time-warping himself back into his mother’s womb and hanging himself with his own umbilical cord, as he does in the director’s cut, made members of the MPAA ratings board get highly pressurized nosebleeds tantamount to the ones Treborn experiences throughout the film. Thus the original The Butterfly Effect was either a casualty of having its main point, that Treborn was never supposed to be born in the first place, vivisected from its script, or of the sheer histrionics of the alternate realities in which Treborn ends up. The sequel has some more serious problems right off the bat.
With Weiss in charge of the writing, the opening scene of The Butterfly Effect 2 is oddly reminiscent in vibe to a classic slasher films. Four attractive, up-and-comers in their mid-20s are on a camping expedition. Nick (Eric Lively) and Julie (Erica Durance), neither of whom are blessed with last names, are a young couple deeply in love, and though Nick cares a bit too much about his job as an employee at an internet start-up, it seems as though nothing could possibly go wrong for the couple or their two friends. In fact, the friends are so pleased with their lives’ incipient successes that they muse hopefully about how bright their futures are looking, and do so with such hubris that it’s a wonder none of them vocally defy fate to strike the group down with an 18-wheeler.
Nick whimsically chases his buddy Trevor around on the frigid beach with a crab in one hand and a log in the other, calls him a “pussy”, and begins a never explained but undeniable theme of frat-boy homoeroticism between the two characters. The ubiquitous slasher-film doobie is smoked, and you’re waiting for that loveable hockey mask-clad Jason Voorhees to shamble on screen and put an end to these obnoxious characters.
But this isn’t the Friday the 13th franchise here, despite the relatively comparable depth of the characters on the brink of being dispensed with. A few meaningful words are shared between Nick and Julie, the aforementioned truck comes barreling down the road, a tire blows, and Nick awakes in the hospital, the only survivor of the crash that ensues—and he’s ready to do the time warp again (and again, and again) to bring back his lost loved ones.
Nick gets headaches, but they don’t seem to pose the space-time clusterfuck raised by Treborn’s, they simply denote the onset of a bout of time travel, always accompanied by a testosterone-fueled yawp of agony. Looking into a picture allows Nick to return to the scene of the crash and change things slightly; of course, his attempts to muck around with history only makes things worse. Unlike Treborn in the first film, who possesses his younger self during various traumatic early childhood moments, Nick is only jumping back in time about a year, which makes for a litany of not-all-that-imaginative alternate reality scenarios for the protagonist.
Without the supremely creepy idea in place of a person whose only sin was being born, and who can’t help but hurt everyone he loves because he was never supposed to exist in the first place, this new chaos theory thriller doesn’t have, alternately, either the sentimental strength or the far-out time paradoxes it needs to really get off the ground. Of course, there’s some undeniable kitsch appeal to the fact that The Butterfly Effect 2 even exists, but it’s too lacking in the department of b-sci fi madness to rely on that alone.
The tagline for the film reads “can you change your past without destroying your future?” In the film, we learn the answer. If you dare trifle with Father Time, young lovers, you may eventually be able to make yourself rich and powerful. However, the unintended consequence is that you will find your company broke, and yourself on the party-end of a blowjob administered by a creepy, bald guy who wears silken robes and waits for his partner to provide him with well-muscled debtors to rape. The only girl you’ve ever loved will meanwhile become a professional photographer / Francoise Hardy look-a-like and start sleeping with a guy who’s much more swaggeringly bohemian than you.
The events of Nick and Julia’s relationship just don’t feel all that consequential, and the vicissitudes all that cataclysmic. Sure, The Butterfly Effect 2 was made on a drastically smaller budget than the first one, but it wasn’t Kutcher’s star-power that made the first one somewhat interesting (even if his presence is what got the movie into the theaters.) A little more elbow grease could have gone into this one, knowing that it was going to come out on DVD and probably be geared to a niche audience. Trying to hinge on flimsy sentimentality, the film ends up feeling flat. Even the larger-than-life bits don’t feel quite large enough—Nick waking up in the future slightly more or less successful than he had been before his “jump” isn’t Treborn waking up sans arms, or even reconvening with reality as a frat boy destined to murder his girlfriend’s brother with a steel bat.
The DVD Extras run the gamut of standard Special Features, with a “making of” special effects bit and some director’s commentary that, while it gives you some idea of what was going through the creative team’s heads, isn’t all that convincing when it comes to explaining the film’s less-than-gripping twists and turns. The most interesting feature of the DVD outside of the film itself is probably the cover.
The DVD cover of The Butterfly Effect 2 is conceptually close enough to the cover of Final Destination 2 to probably be worth a mention in Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises (the grand irony being that the writers of the first The Butterfly Effect were also the writers of Final Destination 2—spooky.) The writers of this one should have learned a more important lesson from the Final Destination series: what do you do when you have a sci-fi/horror idea that reached its natural conclusion a long time ago? Give the people what they want and amp up the absurdity. In Final Destination 3 was a satisfying array of Rube Goldberg-inspired teen gore-spectacles with minimal dialogue getting in the way. If The Butterfly Effect franchise continues into a third installment, it better be host to a comparable amount of beyond-ridiculous alternate universes.
Remember, the “Time and Punishment” Halloween episode really is a more accurate representation of how the butterfly effect is supposed to work than anything offered in either movies—so maybe it’s time for a time-traveling romantic to see the sky rain donuts. The formula for The Butterfly Effect 2 just doesn’t deliver, it doesn’t have the emotional impact required to take itself so seriously. Case in point: its finale is so silly it’d make O. Henry travel back in time and prevent himself from inventing the twist ending. If you can’t find the DVD on the shelves after you read this, maybe he already did.