The Butterfly Effect

Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
The Butterfly Effect
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 

A teacher insists that young Evan Treborn's (Logan Lerman, "The Patriot") mom (Melora Walters, "Magnolia") come into the school to see what Evan drew the day before.  when queried 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' Evan produced a sophisticated rendering of a boy wielding a bloody knife atop pile of corpses, which he claims to not remember doing.  Mrs. Treborn puts her child under psychiatric care, where it is suggested he keep journals and that his blackouts are stress-related.  Years later in college, Evan (Ashton Kutcher, "Just Married") starts to go through his journals and begins to get hints of what happened.  A visit to his boyhood sweetheart Kayleigh (Amy Smart, "Scotland, PA") to unlock the past so upsets her that she commits suicide and Evan, using his journals as a time travel tool, goes back to change their history.  But each of his attempts cause different disastrous results - he's setting off "The Butterfly Effect."

Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, the screenwriting team behind "Final Destination 2," make their directorial debut with this earlier script.  Their last film proposed that fate frustrated would prevail with a series of Rube Goldbergesque Grand Guignol set pieces and the results were slick and grotesquely funny.  "The Butterfly Effect," however, uses a series of disturbingly dark events to spin off story threads that become more and more hysterical and the results are sickening and silly.

Evan's blackouts are caused by the pedophilic behavior of Kayleigh and her brother Tommy's dad, Mr. Miller (Eric Stoltz, "Pulp Fiction"), Tommy's acting out against what he's witnessed - a dangerous prank that results in two deaths that push Evan's best friend Lenny into mental illness and the vicious killing of Evan's dog, and a visit to his insane dad who recognizes his own affliction in Evan and attempts to kill him.  Evan revisits each trauma and effects a change, but upon getting 'Back to the Future,' the history that has unfolded in the interim finds Kayleigh a junkie prostitute, or himself a murderer in a high security prison. The more disastrous Evan's predicament, the more eager he seems to be to jump back in time and mess things up some more.

The idea behind the butterfly effect is that if a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, it can set off a hurricane on the other.  Bress and Gruber do get points for keeping their parallel plot lines pretty airtight (and steering clear of a happy ending), but they never attain the proper balance between the savagery with which they treat their child characters and some of the idiotic dialogue and actions of their adult ones.  Scenes in Miller's 'movie set' basement and shots of a squirming sack doused with gasoline make one queasy, then the directors introduce the junky Kayleigh delivering putrid dialogue like 'If I knew you were coming, I would've cleaned the stains off the sheets' or Evan making inane comments to a pitifully withdrawn Lenny (Elden Henson, "Manic").  The writers put much of their stock in psychiatry, but ignore developmental behavior theory, making the adult Evan a sneering preppie or self-pitying martyr at will.  They're even more reckless with Tommy (William Lee Scott, "Pearl Harbor") who is alternately a violent thug or born again Christian based upon the same 7 and 13 year old ordeals.

Kutcher cannot get his grip on this material, with hysterical reactions that dip into the laughable, He's OK in scenes with Smart who is more capable creating distinctly different versions of the same girl all rooted in events of the past.  The adult Tommy and Lenny are little more than game pieces, but young Jesse James ("Blow"), who portrays sociopathic thirteen year old Tommy, is chilling.  Lerman is too cartoonish in the 'trauma revisited' scenes, but John Patrick Amedori does a good job portraying Evan as a quietly troubled teen as does Irene Gorovaia as the middle Kayleigh.  Ethan Suplee ("Blow") is entertaining as the adult Evan's roommate Thumper, an obese goth with sex appeal, although the script underutilizes him.  The chameleon-like Waters is strong as the young worried mom, but one wonders why she is never given the role of confidant in Evan's adulthood.  Instead, she's treated much the same as Scott and Hensen.  Stoltz is brilliantly cast as the creepy Miller, conveying evil intent with a swirl of the Scotch in his glass.

Technically the film owes most of its trickery to director of photography Matthew F. Leonetti ("2 Fast 2 Furious"), who makes the words in Evan's journals dance, fractures his present like a breakaway set and color tints his alternate realities.  Production designer Douglas Higgins ("Serpico," "Needless Things") gives the film an overall drab and dreary look.  Composer Michael Suby provides a subtly effective score.

"The Butterfly Effect" is an intriguing concept (the title has been used before, in a Spanish production), but as executed by the "Final Destination 2" guys, it's an unpleasant and overlong experience.


Eight-year old Evan Treborn (Logan Lerman) is plagued by blackouts. His worried mother takes him to the doctor but nothing is found wrong. Perplexed, the physician advises the boy to keep a journal of his seizures in the hope that they will provide a clue to the boy’s condition. 13 years later grown up Evan (Ashton Kutcher) is becoming an expert in memory loss and uses the journals he wrote to help him get to the bottom of the blackouts and what they mean in “The Butterfly Effect.”

Sci-fi author Isaac Asimov wrote a time travel story back in 1955 called “The Ends of Eternity” where the time-altering participants change history by making minimum changes to things in the past. The action of moving a beaker on the shelf in a laboratory could mean a major scientific discovery is missed and the world is changed in dramatic ways. The co-writers of “Final Destination 2,” Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, join together for their first co-helming stint and come up with a tale that is not all that different from Asimov’s early tome.

Young Evan’s blackouts cannot be explained by any medical means and he follows the doctor’s advice and maintains a chronicle of the events around any time he blacks out. He is faithful about his entries and, over the years, fills notebook after notebook. Now older and in college, Evan discovers, by chance, that the journals, when read, propel him back to the time of that particular blackout. When he finds that his adult self can make changes in the past that will affect the future he decides that he can correct life’s problems.

This is a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for kind of movie that has the hero learning that he has mystical powers to change the space-time continuum. At first, Evan begins reading his old journals to make sense of the past but something happens and he is thrust back to the time of one of his early blackouts. When he comes back to the present, things have inexplicably changed around him. He returns to his hometown years after he left with his mother (Melora Walters) to start a new life. He left behind his childhood sweetheart, Kayleigh (played by Amy Smart, Irene Gorovaia and Sarah Widdows as the adult, 13-year old and 7-year old Kayleigh, respectively), with the promise to come back for her.

Once back in town Evan discovers that life has not treated Kayleigh very well. She is in a go nowhere job as a waitress in a greasy spoon and thinks that he has come back out of pity. Evan, realizing that his new found power can change lives, goes back to the journals and returns to the moment in time where Kayleigh’s father, pedophile George Miller (Eric Stoltz), is trying to get his daughter and Evan to perform in his porn movie. Evan (Logan Lerman) brings the pervert father to task and makes him see the error of his ways. When Evan returns to the present, he and Kayleigh are in college and devoted to each other. But, when you fix one thing, another is likely to break and he discovers that his other childhood friends, Lenny (Eldon Hanson) and Kayleigh’s brother Tommy (William Lee Scott) have not fared so well.

The groundwork is now laid down for the remainder of the film where Evan, horrified at the unanticipated, devastating changes his trips back in time and memory have made, keeps trying to make life good for all. It is an impossible task and, every time, he faces a new tragedy visited upon him or those close to him. Unfortunately, these repeated sojourns always have negative impact and it makes me wonder why the guy would keep doing the trip over and over again. When, on one return, Evan finds himself severely handicapped, I kept thing, “Evan, give it a rest!” He doesn’t.

Co-helmers/co-scripters Bress and Gruber had created an imaginative and campy script for their  “Final Destination 2” collaboration, evincing winces and winks with their clever ways of doing in that film’s players/victims. With “The Butterfly Effect” they cover more serious territory, replacing camp with complexity. The writers try to juggle the time travel dilemmas with the idea that a little change can have huge effects on the future – the title refers to the concept that the beating of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the earth can cause a typhoon on the other. It’s the Chaos Theory come to life. Unfortunately, once the filmmakers make this point, they hit you over the head with their many visits, by Evan, to the past – you know that something will go awfully wrong with each subsequent journey.

The directors do a decent job in marshalling their considerable cast around the set with Evan, Kayleigh, Lenny and Tommy played as 8-year old adolescents, budding teens and young adults. The elder characters, led by Kutcher, are required to put several spins on their characters as their lives are irrevocably changed by Evan’s trips back in time. Kutcher is surprisingly earnest and not awful as Evan. Amy Smart is suitable in her several incarnations with the exception of the change that makes her a squalid, down on her luck hooker who became that way because of her father’s abuse. This out there version of Kayleigh is over the top and a real distraction. The Tommy character, Kayleigh’s violence prone brother, really hits the mark with the 13-year old version played by Jesse James. The inherent hate and violence in the boy is chilling. The elder Tommy, played by William Lee Scott, has several interesting incarnations, from psychopath to born again, goody two shoes Christian. Eldon Hanson, as Lenny, is relegated to various loser characters and, at one point, Kayleigh’s boyfriend, but without much impact. Eric Stoltz, once again, plays an edgy, sleazy character in the small part as George. Melora Walters is OK as Evan’s caring mom.

Techs are above average.

“The Butterfly Effect” is too clever for its own good as Bress and Gruber try to handle the complexity of time travel in a slight of hand manner. They make the point that there are unpredictable dangers inherent on the future by making changes in the past. The make this point over and over and over again – twice, maybe thrice, too many times in my mind – and I wanted the film to end long before the completion of its near two-hour run time. I give it a C.

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