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The Butterfly Effect   D

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber
Writers: Eric Bress, J. Mackye Gruber
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Eric Stoltz, William Lee Scott, Elden Henson, Ethan Suplee, Melora Walters, Logan Lerman, John Patrick Amedori.

Review by Rob Vaux

Question: Does efficiency necessarily equal quality? In terms of its presumed purpose, The Butterfly Effect is an efficient film. It wants to make us jump and scream, to thrash in our seats like bugs pinned to a card. Certainly it succeeds in that endeavor. Then again, so would shards of rusty metal jammed into our stomachs, and we don't usually pay for such a privilege. The Butterfly Effect is an unpleasant exercise in good ideas gone to waste, a supernatural thriller which mistakes naked sadism for spine-tingling suspense. The right ingredients are present for a terrific film; it simply combines them into a monstrous final product.

The premise is full of Rod Serling potential. After struggling through a childhood marked by periodic blackouts and the kind of horrors reserved for Stalinist gulags, psychology student Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) discovers a wondrous ability: he can reverse time, returning his consciousness to earlier periods in his life, and use his contemporary knowledge to make the wrong things right. The key is an apparent genetic anomaly (his asylum-bound father has the same quirk) and a series of journals that he kept while growing up; with a little meditation, they can propel him back to his halcyon days of youth, where the seeds of his demons are scattered like wildflowers.

Naturally, there's a catch: every time he tries to correct a mistake, he unlocks new, unseen miseries that transform his adult life into a nightmare. Pull one thread and the entire tapestry comes unraveled, leaving him worse off than he was before. His friends and family -- especially Kayleigh (Amy Smart), the battered subject of his first crush -- twist and warp as well, forcing him to go back again and again in an effort to create a more perfect world for them. Each trip produces only new variations of Hell on Earth.

Directors Eric Bess and J. Mackye Gruber have a good sense of their premise, but little idea of how to develop it. The Butterfly Effect traces its failings back to the repetition of the same basic scenario, relying solely on our interest in learning how things will be different this time around (and when the other shoe will inevitably drop). To stretch that out over two hours requires multiple "points of entry": painful childhood incidents that Evan can attempt to rectify. Each one is cringe-inducing. Between the ages of seven and 13, he experiences a parent beaten to death in front of him, a beloved pet stuffed into a sack and set on fire, a mother and infant blown to pieces by a prank gone wrong, and -- in the piece de resistance -- forced participation in child pornography. There are death camp survivors with less trauma than this. Yet Bess and Gruber pound them into us with ruthless manipulation, using the entire first half to lay it all out and then thrusting it back in our faces like naughty puppies. Unlike, say, Seven (whose influence is openly acknowledged), it never bothers with the underlying dramatic necessity of its ugliness; it just wants to milk us for every horrified squirm it can. There is a difference between the thrilling and the merely cruel. The Butterfly Effect fails because it can't make that distinction.

The rest of the film is drawn in equally broad strokes, eschewing any sense of subtlety for shock-tactic immediacy. At times, it borders on sketch comedy -- Evan's initial re-emergence as a frat boy, for example, or a sociopath's conversion into squeaky-clean Jesus freak -- which robs the dark elements of the weight they require. Kutcher displays a passable sense of the dramatic, and Smart does well with her character's chameleonic shifts (I also confess a quiet glee at watching Eric Stoltz play pure evil on a stick), but they fail to find traction in a script that simply repeats the same gimmick. Without a better sense of where it's all going, our patience is quickly pushed to the breaking point -- and with material this painful, you don't have the right to leave your audience wallowing. Anyone can produce a reaction by dropping a crate on your head; they'd just better have a good explanation when you pop back up. The Butterfly Effect never thinks of one... nor can it imagine why we'd be so angry.

Review published 01.23.2004.

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