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The Butterfly Effect

For those that remember high school English, the topic may be familiar. If only you could somehow go back to a time in your past, what might you do? You might dare to ask out that girl that kept smiling at you at the video store. Or you could go back further, and this time remember where the brake is on that moped. Perhaps, just perhaps, you could convince your younger self not to throw away the pristinely kept boxes to your Mego action figures, and then you wouldn't choke every time you went to a collectibles show.

However, if you had a really crappy childhood like Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher), you would be far more concerned with preventing lurid, horrible and occasionally sleazy things from happening to you, even if you don't remember what they are.

Such is the premise of The Butterfly Effect, an attempt at a serious dramatic fantasy (you shouldn't call it science fiction, because there really isn't any science involved). While they have you in their grasp, directors/writers J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress will have you quite convinced this is something deep. It's only afterward that you realize that even though the puzzle pieces go together very slickly, there are problems with the picture.

From the get-go, Gruber and Bress grab you with a scene of a bedraggled Evan hiding from pursuers under a desk. Desperately, he reaches up for a notepad and begins writing what may be his last will and testament. As he strains to complete the lament, "I was too late to save her," the film switches back to Evan at 8.

The first fifteen minutes or so jolt along like that, never quite letting us understand what's going on. Part of that is plot device. Young Evan (Logan Lerman) suffers from blackouts, and thus often misses crucial events in his life. Doctors call them stress-related; more cynical viewers will call them cheap excuses to make us jump out of our skins. More often than not, Evan awakens from a blackout to find people crying, moaning to themselves, or threatening to kill him for what he's done.

So effective are these blackouts that you might think you've stumbled into a straight-up slasher pic. Though he can't remember doing it, Evan draws a picture of a hockey-masked madman standing over a couple of victims, bloody knife in his hand. Later, his mother (Melora Walters) catches him with pretty much the same knife. And once you find out his father is in an insane asylum and is named Jason, well, you have to wonder.

But it's all for naught, red herrings planted (sometimes for no other reason than to mislead the audience) before we get to the meat of the story.

As an adult, Evan discovers that he can send his mind back to those blackouts. In fact, that's why he blacked out; his adult mind crowded out his consciousness. First he tries to physically trace his past, visiting the young woman (Amy Smart) that he could have loved when she was a girl if he and his mother had not moved.

When that only leads to further tragedy, Evan determines to go back and prevent whatever messed things up in the first place. Unfortunately, it has repercussions that lead to greater tragedy. And so on, and so on. However, at no point does Evan trigger a takeover of the world by intelligent apes, so rest easy on that account.

Actually, the script treats this with a fair amount of thoughtfulness, and though it has a proclivity for cheap scares, the direction is paradoxically subtle. Each alternate reality allows for tiny details to be different, some obvious and some not, and most, thankfully, not overexplained. (My favorite is the simple touch of Evan taking the opposite side in his dorm room from his first reality.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise is how well Kutcher works in this part. Well-known as a doofus, he still flashes that persona here. But he also has an unexpected dogged earnestness; Evan has devoted his teen years to education, driven to discover why he suffers blackouts. Being more booksmart doesn't make a person necessarily wiser, so when Kutcher betrays his dumb guy smile, it's acceptable. Evan tentatively enjoys each new reality, though it makes him nervous.

A clever touch on that count is how others notice that he's different. At one point Smart's character Kayleigh comments he even has a different walk. We never see a different Evan, but new memories do intrude upon him in a hemorrhaging avalanche. At times, the personality he would be breaks through, especially in a reality where he's a frat guy, and he himself finds it disconcerting. Not as disconcerting as his tendency to move his lips when he reads, but then again, it's Kutcher, and critics just can't change their opinions that quickly.

In the end, The Butterfly Effect tries to move toward a stunning ending, but loses its nerve. Not quite a cop-out, the directors still left an unsatisfying amount of room to interpret "happily ever after."

For a January release, this film makes a nice treat. Far from perfect, it still attempts to actually say something of value. If you have a delicate sensibility (and how did you find your way here?), however, you should skip it. Those black holes in Evan's memory hold some disturbing, though not graphic, images. Everybody else, dig in, but don't try to fill the black holes in the plot.


Derek McCaw

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