The Butterfly Effect
In The Butterfly Effect, Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who both wrote and directed) open with an epigraph they attribute to chaos theory: “The flutter of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.” Actually, the movie has little to do with chaos theory; a closer allusion is to the Ray Bradbury story “A Sound of Thunder.” In that, a time-traveling tourist goes back millions of years to hunt dinosaur. His orders are strict: stay with his guide, shoot only the animal he is told to shoot and don’t go off the marked path. But he stumbles, crushing a butterfly with an errant boot. Returning to the present, instead of the prosperous utopia he knows, he finds his reality is now a totalitarian hell on Earth. That’s the “butterfly effect” in The Butterfly Effect.
Ashton Kutcher plays Evan Treborn—or rather, he’s the anchor man on a team of three actors who play Evan at different stages of life. Kutcher is Evan in his 20s; we also see Evan at 13 (John Patrick Amedori) and at 7 (Logan Lerman). Evan is haunted by the fact that, as a child, he had periodic blackouts at moments of terrible stress.
And God knows there’s plenty of stress. As a child, Evan’s insane father tries to kill him. Then he and a neighbor girl named Kayleigh (played as an adult by Amy Smart) are sexually abused by her father, while her brother Tommy looks on. When the three are teenagers, a thoughtless prank results in the deaths of a woman and her baby. Then Tommy kills Evan’s dog. Evan and his mother move away, but as a college student, he returns to visit Kayleigh. He hopes to learn what happened when they were kids, but the painful memory drives her to suicide.
This is when Evan learns that, with the help of his diary, by reading about his blackouts, he can return to those moments and change the course of his life—and that of Kayleigh, Tommy and another friend named Lenny (Elden Henson). Each time, he changes one key thing—stopping the sexual abuse, aborting the prank, saving his dog—and the end result is a completely different life for them all. But the outcome, though different, is always unsatisfactory in some way, and Evan has to try again.
Years ago, I had a chance to chat with the science-fiction writer William F. Nolan about Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again. Nolan disdained the book as a lazy cheat: “There’s no time machine,” he said. “This guy simply wishes he was back in time, and bingo …” But I think that’s exactly the point and is the reason time travel remains a sci-fi staple. In fact, time travel isn’t possible and never will be. Any talk about the “science” of it is just so much mumbo jumbo; it’s all just wishing we could go back in time.
That’s what Bress and Gruber tap into with The Butterfly Effect. Who hasn’t wished they could go back and live some moment over again? Well, Evan can.
The concept has deeper resonance than Bress and Gruber’s last film, Final Destination 2, where characters were locked into a destiny they couldn’t evade. In The Butterfly Effect, destiny is malleable, subject to Evan’s meddling. And he can change not only his own destiny, but also Tommy’s, Lenny’s and—most of all—Kayleigh’s. The twist that Bress and Gruber come up with is that Evan keeps going back to square one, trying to get it right. Then, when it’s about as wrong as it can be, he finds himself in a life where he didn’t keep a diary—which gives him no way to change it.
The Butterfly Effect is just a puzzle, but it’s a clever one. Bress and Gruber provide the kind of roles actors love, giving them a chance to play a different character in almost every scene. Kutcher carries the film well in its headlong forward momentum, but Smart and Henson go through the most changes; between them, they all but steal the picture. Smart’s Kayleigh is a damaged wreck in one life, a sorority princess in another and a snarling whore in a third. In a less-gimmicky movie, it would be a breakthrough performance. As it is, our last glimpse of Kayleigh, when Evan’s meddling finally ends, is what stays with us. What starts as Kutcher’s movie ends up, in a way, Smart’s.