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The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Run-time: 113 min; rating: 6.5/10

Reviewed by Andy Ling

[Written in February 2004. This is the second in a series of monthly columns by Andy Ling reviewing TV shows and movies.]

The Butterfly Effect is the latest Hollywood foray into the territory of time travel, following closely on the heels of 2003's Timeline.

Evan Treborne (Ashton Kutcher) experiences intermittent blackouts during critical moments of his youth. These blackouts continue until he enters college. He discovers that with the aid of journals he wrote during his youth, he can journey back to the moments of his blackouts and possess his younger self, allowing him to change the past. He finds, though, that he is unprepared for the cascading consequences of his alterations.

The first 30 minutes of the film run like an extended prologue following Evan's childhood as various subplots and life-defining events are seeded. This portion of the movie has the most quality control issues, which is a shame considering the importance and weight it has on the rest of the film. The children cast as younger versions of the main roles could have done with a bit more "seasoning," and the dialogue does not ring true to the age groups. These flaws detract from the otherwise gripping vignettes in this section.

The next portion of the film focuses on the adult Evan. Ashton Kutcher turns in a performance that is restrained and serious, quite a different turn from his usual roles. It's not a tour de force, though, nor is it the breakout performance he reportedly sought. He lacked the depth required for some of the more dramatic scenes, and in some of the character's more desperate moments bits of his "Kelso" persona (from That 70's Show) bubble through.

Evan has the best of intentions but does some very stupid things. For example, he tries to save someone from a lit explosive, but does so by trying to defuse it (and fails) rather than doing something more sensible like yelling "That's a bomb! Get out of here!" He then tries to remove the explosive from play earlier on in the time-stream, but does so by lighting it—and manages to get someone else killed. Surely he'd try to think it over after successive failures, perhaps do a risk assessment and flowcharts rather than making more haphazard leaps. For a student performing research and one with all the time in the world, he lacks self-control. Towards the end, his trips are acts of desperation rather than a man methodically fixing something.

During the time travel trips, the boys who played young Evan attempt to portray Kutcher's older Evan. The previous comments about the younger actors apply here too. One wishes that the producers had taken a page out of Quantum Leap's playbook (especially since this film uses the same idea of leaping into different time frames by replacing someone already there) and just had Kutcher perform in place of the younger actors.

Amy Smart portrays the adult Kayleigh (Evan's childhood sweetheart) and does an admirable job. She is a veritable chameleon in a range of roles including a sorority girl, a down-and-out waitress, and a heroin-addicted prostitute. In the other supporting parts there are no memorable performances. Even Eric Stoltz fails to stand out.

The mechanics of time travel in this film leave something to be desired as there are inconsistencies with the implementation of the internal logic. With each trip, Evan reintegrates with reality, and new memories based on the current reality are appended to his mind. If this was so, one wonders why Evan is constantly surprised at twists in his new reality. Shouldn't he already be familiar with the situation? And how is it that he can change something in the past and have someone notice the change in the altered present?

In the end, though, the film is not about time travel per se, but rather Evan's relationships and what he would do for them. Certainly the various realities resulting from Evan's tinkering are interesting, but the filmmakers are on the verge of exhausting the audience's patience by the story's climax. Evan's final act, while not original, is definitely his character's best moment, and for once, it doesn't matter who delivers the lines.

Will this film become a cult classic like Back to the Future or Somewhere in Time? Probably not. It lacks their panache, and seems more like an extended Outer Limits episode, with people just going through the motions at times. It is, however, a nice way to spend an afternoon, and will be worth a rental when it's released on DVD.

[Ed. note: The Butterfly Effect was filmed in Vancouver.]


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Copyright 2004, Andy Ling.
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