The Butterfly Effect
starring Ashton Kutcher
3 1/2 stars

review by Stephen Notley

As countless tales have told us, it's always a bad idea to mess around with the past. Back to the Future, The Time Machine, Terminator, those episodes of Star Trek Voyager where the captain of the time ship keeps trying to bring back his wife --all these and more, joined now by The Butterfly Effect, point inescapably to the folly of trying to undo something that's already happened by altering the past. One of two things starts happening: either you find yourself bound into the events of the time and causing the thing you were trying to prevent, or you keep spitting out alternate realities where everything gets crappier and crappier, and each time you go back to fix something you screw it up even worse.

The Butterfly Effect is the latter type, and the concept is deceptively simple. "Thirteen years ago" we see Evan Treborn, not yet played by Ashton Kutcher, as a kid hanging out with his friend Kayleigh, her kinda-crazy brother Tommie and a fat kid named Lenny. Evan is prone to weird blackouts at stressful times, times like when Kayleigh's creepy dad Eric Stoltz sets them all up for a little kiddie porno shoot in the basement, or that whole firecracker thing that went so wrong.

Eventually Evan moves away, goes to college and starts being played by Ashton Kutcher. He's just started celebrating 7 years of no blackouts when he has another one, except this time it's a blackback; he finds himself in one of those moments he'd blacked out of as a kid. He's mostly dazed and returns to the present unchanged. But being the smart sassy psychology student Ashton now is, he starts poking around and soon people start dying and he starts going back in time to fix things and coming back to ever more screwed-up present-day circumstances. And thus we sagely learn: do not attempt to alter the past. It'd be handier advice if it was actually possible to do that in our universe, but whatever.

On a story and script level, The Butterfly Effect is surprisingly adept, weaving the different moments and incidents in and out of each other, playing bizarre tricks on people's lives, giving and taking away in bizarre proportion. One minute Ashton's happily together with Kayleigh at college (except that irksomely now he himself is an asshole frat guy), the next he's in prison on his knees preparing to blow/stab a couple of Aryan types. It's kind of like the Final Destination movies, except instead of Death himself being personally pissed at you, it's Time. 

On the dialogue and character level the movie's a bit shakier; the film has a weird way of blurting out quasi-jokes and half-lines like bolts popping out of a rusty car, and the characters themselves aren't exactly the most compelling. And visually, while the present-past transitions are kinda cool, there's not a lot of color and there's no real single compelling image to bind it all together.

But Time certainly puts Ashton and everybody around him through the wringer, over and over again with variety; there's no situation so messed up that it can't be replaced with one superficially better except with some appalling hidden catch. And after two acts of explosions and high-drama thriller-type stuff, stabbings and arm-losings and dog burnings, at the end the movie wisely goes for some simpler, quieter stuff about putting away the past and not losing yourself in endless repetitions of  "But what if?" 

And so it turns out that The Butterfly Effect has something to say even to people like us, forever trapped in a universe where it's impossible to go back in time and change the past. It's laughable at times, and sometimes a bit dull-looking, but there's a slick little time-travel story in there if you're interested.