January 28, 2004 -- The latest time travel feature to hit theaters, “The Butterfly Effect” is at least better than “Timeline,” but not much better. This is slight praise, at best, like saying Ashton Kutcher is a better actor than Paul Walker. If it wasn't for the film's overly serious tone and sombre, tasteless themes like child pornography, murder, suicide and dog torture it might have been an enjoyable film. The film is said to be based on a soon-to-be-released book called “Killer Diller” by Clyde Edgerton.
One of the reasons “The Butterfly Effect” is better than “Timeline” is that it makes no attempt whatsoever to explain time travel, and therefore largely avoids scientific absurdities. Instead of beaming people into the past with a souped-up Star Trek-like transporter, the movie's hero, Evan Treborn (Kutcher of “Just Married”) is able to transfer his present day consciousness into his own body in the past. He is then able to control his actions in the past, thereby changing past (and future) events. How does he do this? Who knows? He just does it. It is an ability he has inherited from his father. By reading his daily journals he is able to go back to the specific date and time he was writing about in the journal. In effect, the journals are his time machine.
After a lengthy set up with all the sordid details of a truly horrid childhood, we catch up with Treborn in college where he is studying psychology. He reads one of his old journals and is transported into the past where he witnesses an event he had forgotten about. It was during one of his frequent blackout spells he had suffered as a child. During the time he was in the past, he accidentally burns himself with a cigarette ash. When he snaps back to the present, he discovers a “new” scar on his abdomen where he burned himself with the cigarette. This provides proof that he can not only observe events in the past, he can change the past and his future.
Treborn decides he will use his time travel power to right some of the wrongs of his childhood, and there are plenty of wrongs to right. One of his best childhood friends has become a recluse, one is psychotic and another is emotionally scarred, all because of traumatic childhood events which involve multiple negligent homicides and a dog mutilation. In one instance, a dog is put in a burlap bag by a psychotic kid and then set on fire with a torch and lighter fluid. Now that's entertainment! There is also a little kid who beats up people with blunt objects. He acts like one of those whacked out pro wrestlers. In real life, the bigger kids would beat the tar out of this jerk. But in the movie, he gets away with beating up bigger kids, even frat boys and jocks. His victims don't fight back, convenient, in terms of the plot, but not believable. Compared to this film, Stephen King's portrayals of childhood are like a pleasant visit to Disneyland.
Treborn goes back in time to save his friend Kayleigh Miller (Amy Smart of “Varsity Blues”) from some of these nasty childhood experiences. He also tries to help his other friends. He has mixed results. In one case, he ends up in the sack with Kayleigh in college. In another case, Kayleigh ends up as a scarred, cynical hooker. In another case, Treborn himself ends up in prison. In another case, he loses some body parts. The more he messes with the past, the stranger, and more painful, the future becomes. He arrives at a solution, of sorts, but it isn't exactly what I would call satisfactory. Two of Treborn's attempts to improve the past end up in additional murders and a suicide. The movie left me with a bad taste in my mouth, sort of like Treborn's idea to appease the Aryan Nations brotherhood leaders in prison.
The term “The Butterfly Effect” is a popular reference to chaos theory, the idea that there are complex dynamics in supposedly simple systems. Global weather patterns are said to be chaotic in the sense that they are non-linear and therefore small changes introduced into the system can produce surprisingly dramatic results. Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, sought to explain his idea of chaos theory in weather like this: A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could cause a tornado in Texas because even such small changes in the atmosphere could be amplified over time and distance to create very large changes. Hence, the butterfly effect.
In the movie, the effect appears very modest in comparison to real chaos theory. By going back 10 or more years into his past, Treborn's meddling with the past should have created effects far beyond just the lives of his friends. He could have caused changes which led to the destruction of civilizations, for instance, or changes to governments, products, entertainment, the environment, anything. The changes should have been vast. Instead, the changes are very minor. The changes only affect Treborn himself and a few of his friends. Rather than describing a chaotic system, the movie seems to be rutted in the old notion of determinism. No matter how many times Treborn tries to change the past, certain tragic events continue to happen, as if they were fated to happen. Rather than radical, chaotic changes, a definite pattern emerges. Rather than the butterfly effect, the real idea of the film seems to be the Murphy effect. Anything that can go wrong with Treborn's well-intentioned efforts does go wrong.
Making this outcome even more unbelievable is the fact that Treborn is able to remember all of his experiences in all of these different time lines. As a result, he has 50 or more years of experience in his head even though he is only 20-something years old. Even with all this experience, and the ability to time travel, he is still frustratingly unable to correct his past mistakes. This is not a convincing plot. As a result of this contamination of chaos theory by determinism, what we end up with is a philosophical mess of a movie.
This film seems to be determined to be as ugly, mean-spirited and distasteful as it can be. It is loaded with ugly, dark images which are not interesting or entertaining. There are some good performances, however. Amy Smart is good in all her various incarnations of Kayleigh Miller in her older years. Ethan Suplee shines as Thumper, Treborn's goth-punk college roommate. There is a great scene where a bunch of college frat boys decide to attack Thumper and he changes their minds with a menacing look and a broken cue stick. He looks very scary in that scene. Suplee's performance is the exact opposite of the gentle musician he played so well in “Cold Mountain.” There, he was soft and harmless. Here, he has all kinds of edge. It is too bad he isn't on the screen more. I hope he gets lots of work in the future. He is a good actor, while Kutcher just looks good. This film rates a C.
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