The Butterfly Effect

As someone who frequently travels back and forth through time, I immediately learned what ever I tampered with in the past affected my present. Corey Feldman? Totally my fault. The unfortunate result of too much tequila and an attempt to own a freshly minted first edition of Mad Magazine. Don’t ask.

The thing is, I learned my lesson. Whenever you change the past you alter the future, so always treat time travel as a window shopping excursion. Look but don’t touch, and for God’s sake, if you do touch something and mess things up, take a step back and look at the situation from all sides.

Good advice for college student Josh Treborn (Ashton Kutcher), whose dark, violent past has left holes in his memory. Some people who encounter traumatic events go into shock. Josh suffers blackouts, convenient lapses that keep him a safe distance from some truly horrifying events. While reading through his journals, a lifelong assignment to help with his memory, Josh begins to experience literal flashbacks where he can alter events in his past.

Nice tool to have, especially when your past includes brushes with kiddie porn, animal abuse, and the murder of a mother and her baby. In a desperate attempt to fix his present by altering his past, Josh returns to various traumatic pit stops from his childhood, hoping that tweaking one bad event will transpire into a happy future for all involved.

Wishful thinking, at least in the hands of writers-directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, who keep sending Josh back in time until he gets it right. Those trips are filled with disturbing events, but I really respect the directors (making their debut after writing the screenplay for “Final Destination 2”) for their restraint. When you consider that their “Final Destination 2” assignment was to come up with new and inventive ways to kill people, it’s refreshing to see them keep most of the carnage off frame.

This cinematic trick then forces us to fill in the gaps, creating images much more disturbing than anything the directors could show us. Bress and Gruber choose their victims wisely, knowing full well they’re manipulating the audience. When Josh starts to fill in the blanks of his past and we see what he saw, we’re appalled, but as the story unfolds, we understand the necessity to make things so horrible that Josh would risk altering the future and perhaps killing himself to set things right.

It would have been so easy for the writers-directors to take the obvious way out, using gore instead of suspense to make their point, but I believe they chose a decent middle ground that should satisfy both camps. Don’t try and make sense of the script. The writers play by their own rules, so applying previous laws of physics or time travel will only make you frustrated. To fully appreciate “The Butterfly Affect,” take it at face level. It’s a mid-January seat filler, an extended “Twilight Zone” episode for the MTV generation.

As the film’s butterfly catcher, Kutcher is extremely serviceable in an mature role. He makes good use of the screenplay’s wide range of emotions, always looking for a happy ending, slow to realize the selfish nature of his quest. It’s fashionable to pounce on Kutcher right now, but he really does redeem himself in a complex role that requires dramatic leaps of faith. For the story to work, we have to believe, or at least believe that Josh believes he can travel back in time by investing himself in passages from his journals. With each successive flashback, Kutcher digs a little deeper, uncovering the core of a man scarred by jagged memories.

It’s also vital that we invest ourselves in the film’s damsel in distress, Kayleigh, perfectly realized by Amy Smart, who inhabits numerous reincarnations of the character. We have to believe that this woman is worth Josh going through hell and back. Even during her character’s most desperate hour, Smart convinces us there’s still a soul inside worth saving.

Using the same framework as “Stand By Me,” “The Butterfly Effect” deals with children, and how events in their lives affect them as adults. It’s easy to see John Patrick Amedore as a young version of Kutcher, while Irene Gorovaia is sweet and precious as the young Kayleigh. It’s impossible to keep your eyes off young Jesse James as Kayleigh’s sadistic brother Tommy. This kid turns Tommy into pure evil, the kind of kid where you want to reach up on the screen and slap him silly.

Then you remember his father, a predator and pedophile played by Eric Stoltz, and how he molded this young boy into an adolescent monster, and you realize your anger is misdirected. James is so potent he is as frightening as anything in a horror film.

“The Butterfly Effect” doesn’t bother with scientific explanations, and the filmmakers frequently cheat the facts (even their own), but as straightforward entertainment, this butterfly spreads its wings in many unexpected ways.

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Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters, Eric Stoltz, William Lee Scott, Elden Henson, Ethan Suplee. Directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber. Rated R. 113 Minutes.


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