Ray Bradbury once wrote a short story about a time traveler who inadvertently steps on and kills a single butterfly, forever altering the course of human evolution. At Marvel Comics, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko once did a story where a time machine hurtling through the eons collides with the first creature to crawl out of the sea onto land, knocking it back into the water and causing a ripple effect that leaves Earth a lot more reptilian than we'd find comfortable.
The Butterfly Effect follows a similar path, ruminating on the unintended consequences of traveling back in time and re-crafting the past. The idea, as always, is fraught with possibilities, but the execution is lunk-headed and obvious. The movie has neither one-tenth the artistry of the Bradbury story nor one-tenth the wit of the Lee-Ditko collaboration.
Ashton Kutcher, tweaking his acting resume by playing an intellectual giant, is Evan Treborn, a college student and budding research psychologist whose adolescence was marred by a series of blackouts, - usually during periods of great stress - where young Evan would retain no memory of what just happened. Various psychiatrists could never explain what was going on, though one comes up with the helpful suggestion (especially in terms of a handy plot device) that he keep a journal of everything that happens.
So he dedicates himself wholeheartedly to the journal thing, which comes in really handy a few years later, when the now college-age Evan realizes he has the ability to travel back in time. Not surprisingly, he decides to try and better his life (and the lives of various friends) by altering the past to make events turn out happier. Now me, I'd go back and buy Microsoft at a nickel a share, but Evan has other ideas. But his good intentions go astray, as every time he tries to tweak the past, something major goes wrong and he ends up totally recombobulating the present.
So, here's the problem with The Butterfly Effect: It's silly. For one thing, Evan has to be the most ham-fisted time traveler there's ever been. Determined to change the past and prevent a young friend from being abused by her father, for instance, he travels back and ends up shaking a stick of dynamite in the guy's face. Maybe something a little less drastic might have been in order.
Then there's the journal thing ... apparently, none of the altered realities changes the fact that he keeps a journal his entire life. Why is that the only constant in his various realities (other than for reasons of plot convenience)?
Writer-directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who did the screenplay for Final Destination 2, another film that looked at the unintended consequences of meddling with one's fate) seem to have never thought much beyond the idea stage. And while they're admittedly not given all that much to work with, neither Kutcher not Amy Smart, as his once-and-former girlfriend lend substance, texture or intelligence to their characters.
Maybe all concerned could travel back in time and try again.
The Butterfly Effect
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart
Directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated R (Language, violence, sexuality, brief nudity)
Time 113 minutes
Sun Score *1/2