They say that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Hollywood, DVD sales halfway across the world may skyrocket. This is exactly what seems to have happened with The Butterfly Effect, an Ashton Kutcher vehicle – and what is truly miraculous is that the phrase “an Ashton Kutcher vehicle” didn’t make anyone reconsider.
This film could probably be called Dude, Where’s My Past?, except that wouldn’t be quite fair. The Butterfly Effect is very different from that other vehicular Ashton Kutcher movie in that it tries to be intelligent, dark and deep. It is quite scary at first, though mainly because of cheap jump cuts and shrieking violins on the soundtrack, but it’s far less clever or tragic than it thinks it is.
The premise is intriguing, in a Twilight Zone/”Don’t think about it too much” way. College student Evan Treborn finds that he can go back in time thanks to his journals he’s been keeping since the age of 7, and he attempts to make things better for the people in his life, especially his love Kayleigh, by changing the past. Wacky hijinks ensue, of the sort that Ray Bradbury and the Simpsons got quite some mileage from – change one thing in the past, and a whole plethora of effects snowball from this change. Keep your ladylove’s dad from making kiddie porn with her when she was seven years old, and suddenly she’s not a suicidal waitress in a diner but your girlfriend and sorority chick extraordinaire – but her brother’s a murderous psycho. Stop a prank that went horribly wrong, and your chubby-yet-hunky best friend (described in one wonderful review as “Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Fabio”) is Kayleigh’s perfect lover while you’re – surprise! – mostly armless.
The problem is… Actually, there is more than one problem. For one, while a film about something as fantastic as time travel cannot be realistic, it can still have some sort of internal logic. This film doesn’t. Some changes in the past have major effects on the present, others simply leave Evan in the same situation but with one or two additional scars. What makes the difference? Simply the whim of the script writers. When you realise that they’re the ones pulling the strings, for no other reason than “It’s coolest/nastiest/most tragic like this!”, you stop caring.
That is, if you cared to begin with; because, to be quite honest, there’s very little to care about in the film. Most of the characters keep changing due to Evan’s fiddling with the past, the effect being at Kayleigh 1 is a different person from Kayleigh 2 is a different person from Kayleigh 3. You know that in five to ten minutes, most of the characters will have been rewritten completely, so why should you feel any emotional attachment to them? The only person who remains halfway constant is Evan, and he’s a bit of a blank, with moments of total idiocy. I felt so detached from him that I had to suppress giggles when he woke up from his latest bout of time-travel with his hands gone and him screaming at his stumps. It just felt so phony, like the scriptwriters were saying: “Okay, he stops his mom from smoking in the past, so in the present his dick has been chewed off by rabid poodles!”
The film’s been compared to that other time-traveling weirdo tale, Donnie Darko. There are indeed some similarities, but they’re mainly superficial. Donnie Darko is less interested in its mystery/sci-fi plot, at least in the theatrical version – and that’s good, because the more prominent a labyrinthine time-travel plot is, the more apparent its almost inevitable plot holes become. Instead, Donnie Darko focuses on the characters and, in doing so, manages to become one of the sweetest films about teenage angst this side of Breakfast Club. It’s as if David Lynch and John Hughes, after a big breakfast of pancakes, pie and damn good coffee, set out to create a bitter-sweet surreal adolescent romance – and succeeded.
Also, there is simply no comparison between the character writing and the acting in the two movies. The protagonists in Donnie Darko live and breathe, while their equivalents in The Butterfly Effect are mere puppets on strings controlled by a puppeteer who is moderately competent at best. And Ashton Kutcher does a very good “bland twentysomething”, but there’s more acting talent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s left buttock than in all of Kutcher.
P.S.: One of the first pics that came up when I Googled “butterfly effect” looking for images was one of the Olson twins topless, with flimsy foil butterflies over their nipples. By god, I wish I could go back in time to keep myself from seeing that…