Word is circulating — via a Sundance premiere and promotional campaign — that Ashton Kutcher reveals “depth,” along with a newly shaggy face, in The Butterfly Effect. How remarkable and encouraging, this report submits, that the erstwhile “dude” has at last found his performative footing. How has he hidden it so well until now?
In fact, the question proposed by the film is rather less mundane than this. It has to do with time travel, in particular, with the consequences of changing the past. Other images are famous for posing this question: what happens if Edith Keeler does cross the street in “City on the Edge of Forever”? Or Reese doesn’t travel back to impregnate Sarah Connor? And how does Marty McFly get away with ripping off Chuck Berry, anyway? How does any one of these events change or sustain history, fictional as that history may be? And what many other events are affected in turn? And what if another event in the chain shifts slightly, so that the whole thread of history must readjust, again. How many alternative histories are circulating at any given moment, assuming a moment might be understood to stand alone?
These are the sorts of dilemmas that shape The Butterfly Effect, an ambitious, if rather incoherent, second film by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, also the writer-directors of Final Destination 2 (itself a bizarre, darkly humorous excursion into uncanny what-if-ness). At the center of The Butterfly Effect is Evan (Kutcher, who, for all the “depth” hype, isn’t precisely revealing chops here). Afflicted with a genetic predisposition for altering the relation between time and space (his father is institutionalized for proclaiming a similar demented-seeming belief in his ability to reshape memory-as-history. (Note: this basic idea is potentially awkward, as any memory is subjective, not the same for everyone on any given scene.)
Evan begins the film as a whiz-kid psych major troubled by his inability to remember chunks of his childhood — except when he reads his journal entries, which are mostly lead-ups to what happened that he doesn’t remember. As the film envisions his experience, Evan reads the journal, the scrawled words pop off the page and dance a bit, the space around him warps, and whoosh, he’s back in the memory. As a boy (played by John Patrick Amedori), Evan is now (then) armed with his present knowledge, whatever that “present” might be: the concept is more than a little squishy here.
During his first leap-back, aided by his college roommate Thumper (Ethan Suplee in spiky hair and goth makeup), Evan recalls that the neighbor girl he adored, Kayleigh (Irene Gorovaia as a child, Amy Smart in the Ashton Kutcher present) was sexually abused by her alcoholic, amateur-porn-filmmaker father (Eric Stoltz, as yucky as he’s ever been). But the situation isn’t so simple that he can just save Kayleigh. He must also contend with — rescue, punish, contain — other players in his not-quite-personal psychic morass. These include Kayleigh’s malicious brother Tommy (who grows up to be William Lee Scott) and another kid from round the way, the much beset Lenny (Elden Henson), as well as Ashton’s mom Andrea (Melora Walters), who is at once strangely circumspect regarding her husband’s illness and incarceration, and whiny and apparently clueless when it comes to her son’s situation.
Ostensibly through his college studies (what school is this?), Evan has found this route, not only to revisit the past, but also to change it. He injects his 20-year-old sensibility into his child-body, and so, for instance, telling off Kayleigh’s bad dad so soundly that he agrees never to even think about abusing his daughter, on the spot (the scene doesn’t address the likelihood that abuse has occurred earlier, or that this single intervention might not stop other incidents). In other words, the time loop business is not very worked out — not only is Evan’s version of events presumed here to be the only version, but also, his control over each episode somehow affects his brain cumulatively. Indeed, his psychiatrist, the occasionally reasonable Dr. Renfield (Nathaniel Deveaux), suggests that Evan is headed for a kind of protoplasmic meltdown.
No matter. Evan is hooked on revising until he gets it right (not an unlikely metaphor for scriptwriting). His modifications range from horrific to fiendishly comedic: the first “corrected” past, for instance, is garishly pastel, the “ideal” college movie turned into a nightmare. Evan is a yellow-sweatered fraternity brother, in love with a pink-sweatered Kaleigh. That Tommy is a puppy-killing psychotic just released from prison almost seems like the least of their problems.
The more profound implication here is less about particular possibilities, than the very idea of multiple possibilities — all slightly or very distasteful in different ways. Each time Evan fusses with a specific event in the past, trying to achieve a “perfect” present, something else goes wrong. So, if Kayleigh is not a hooker with tracks up and down her arms, Evan’s in prison for murdering Tommy, or poor Lenny is so fundamentally damaged that he can’t leave his bedroom (which makes Lenny’s mom really mad at Evan). Though the plot points and personalities Evan has to coordinate might seem many, in fact, they hardly account for the many more probable fallouts of his tinkering. The movie’s focus is excessively local — there are no Hitlers or Elvises or Skynets here, just a series of minor and major disasters, each making someone’s life unbearable.
This tight focus is, in fact, the primary strength of The Butterfly Effect. At first full of himself and his righteous ability to tell off Kayleigh’s monstrous dad, Evan comes to see that his godlike influence is, in its limited way, monumentally repercussive. Finding himself personally responsible for lives and deaths, he begins to feel increasingly empathetic. At the same time, the fact that no one else appears to have much to say about what happens (it’s all inside Evan’s throbbing brain, the power, the effects, the memories) is a perennial problem of time-travel movies. Here, the travel is subjective to a nearly pathological degree. Evan’s “lesson” becomes a function of his effects on those around him, who become mere objects to be shuffled about during his learning curve.
There are any number of bad ideas in this film — the warping scenes are elaborately corny, and the ill effects of Evan’s changes look increasingly like an extreme version of the “World Without George” in It’s a Wonderful Life — child abuse, prison rape, missing limbs, dead babies, cancer, on and on. Everyone Evan knows (admittedly a small circle for this film’s purposes) is affected by his choices. The time travel concept is not so extraordinary, the means of dramatizing it is mostly silly, and Kutcher’s efforts to emote can be distracting. And still, the film is surprisingly entertaining, precisely when it turns extreme. Complicating the relation between subjective and objective experience, remaking memory so that it might pass for “collective,” is, after all, what movies do, by definition.