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The International Writers Magazine

The Butterfly Effect: 2004
Dan Schneider

Written and Directed by Eric Bress J. Mackye Gruber
Ashton Kutcher
Amy Smart
Kevin Schmidt
Melora Walters
Elden Henson
Eric Stoltz
Change one thing. Change everything

‘and it is this simple act, now, which unleashes the fires of life from rock on a far away world six hundred million years from now: the complex genetic of beginnings reborn from the simple psychology of endings; as if invention, or fear, or the cosmos, really knows its own course.’

The epigraph to this article is from my poem called The Barber and is an illustration of the butterfly effect. This is a belief that small actions can have large consequences down the road, or - as popularly phrased- ‘A butterfly flapped its wings 60 years ago in Brazil, and today an earthquake hit China.’ This nostrum was first uttered in the 19th Century by a philosophe whose name is long forgotten, but it is misattributed in the film’s opening epigraph to modern chaos theory. The best popular illustration of the principle came from a sci-fi tale by, I believe, Ray Bradbury, in which a future time traveler goes back to the dinosaur age, breaches protocol by stepping out of a restricted area, accidentally kills an insect, and is stuck in the past as human civilization (and his time machine) never happens.

In the film of the same name TV pretty boy Ashton Kutcher portrays wannabe genius (or psychotic?) Evan Treborn, who has supposedly inherited time-tripping powers from his insane father. His life, at 20, is bad. The love of his life - Kayleigh Miller (played by Amy Smart) - kills herself one night after he returns to his hometown to find out about their past - which includes starring in a child porno film, murdering a mother and her baby, roasting a dog alive. She cannot take it. Grief-stricken, Evan reads his journals and changes time.

He goes back to a moment in childhood and when he wakens Kayleigh is his college lover, a member of a sorority, but they are stalked by her psycho brother - Tommy Miller (William Leigh Scott) - who was a psycho originally, but now is worse. He attacks Evan, who fights back and kills him. Kayleigh turns on him and Evan is imprisoned for murder - despite evidence of stalking and vandalism that would have easily cleared Evan as using self defense. After convincing a con that he is Jesus (for his time changing) he wills himself out of that timeline and in to another. But no matter the permutation, someone he cares about is in really bad shape. In one version Kayleigh is a drug-addled hooker, in another Lenny Kagan (Elden Henson)- a childhood pal - ends up insane for he murders Tommy to protect Evan and his dog from Tommy’s madness. In another Evan loses his arms and is paralyzed, rushing to protect a mother and child from a blockbuster the four young pals have planted in a mailbox. This results in Lenny and Kayleigh becoming lovers, psycho Tommy becoming a Born Again Christian, and Evan’s mom Andrea (Melora Walters) becoming an emphysemic due to chain-smoking her miseries away over Evan’s paraplegia. On and on Evan tries.

After a series of early scenes in which we unexpectedly see Evan blacking out, we later find out these are the times when his later self has re-entered his form to ‘change’ things. One time it’s to rebuke Kayleigh’s and Tommy’s father, George, as he’s trying to get the kids to star in a porno film. The film has logical inconsistencies mostly due to time travel (but more frustratingly those dealing with the assumption that Evan is nuts as a boy merely because he draws a murderous picture- any comic book loving boy draws that and far worse!), but more importantly just too much hammy acting. Kutcher is way out of his league- as the boneheaded hunk Kelso on That 70s Show he’s ok, but his lack of serious acting chops shows. At times the script seems to be dead earnest and at others comic- mostly due to Kutcher’s inability to react with emotional awareness. Still, the situations are so relentlessly downbeat that when the comic elements arise (mostly unintendedly) I was laughing at the characters, not with them. The best performance comes from Amy Smart who brings an ethereal presence to her roles as Kayleigh- whether hooker or sorority queen she’s fascinating to watch for she’s one of the few stunningly beautiful actresses I’ve seen in a film who do not rely on merely being beautiful to enthrall the audience. Her face and eyes can act- not just look lovely. The rest of the cast is good to solid.

Some people will carp over the ‘science’- wondering why does a single thing only effect the same few people in Evan’s life. Why, as example, is he not a doctor- happily married with three kids in any of them? The reason is probably contingency- that nothing happens in a vacuum. Not all changes will have profound effects. A little change may bring grave consequences while a seemingly huge one alters little. Contingency is more aptly shown in larger ways. For example, without Edison or Tesla some other inventor would have invented incandescent lighting within a few years after he did. The difference would be an entry in a textbook. Precious few things are without trends or precedents. Perhaps Evan had a desire to stay connected with his youth that almost always led him to have the same pals in many lives? I doubt the makers of this film know or understand that concept since they apply a comic book like approach to the script without either graphic novel seriousness, nor comic book whimsy.

Another objection is why can Evan recall things from lifetimes he’s wiped out? Or why does, in one timeline, Mr. Miller recall an instance of Evan’s timetripping in another timeline that has been erased? For me it’s obvious that the titular idea is used as mere contrivance to tell a tale. A bolder film would not necessarily have been one that was more logical, but one whose implications were far more grand. What if Evan had been that Bradburian time traveler? Or willed himself back to the classic ‘Hitler as a baby’ predicament? What if he killed the young Hitler? What if he assassinated George Washington? Then, again, it’s not fair to review a film that was not.

Kudos to this film for at least trying, though. It’s not nearly as bad as most critics make out, but it could have been much more. My wife originally wanted to see the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston film Along Came Polly, but I said I’d rather see a film that fails by breaking formulae than succeeds by following it. A Pyrrhic victory, perhaps. Writers and directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber cannot be faulted for trying, but their visual style is too melodramatic, as is their story.

The similarly-themed The Lathe Of Heaven was made into a very effective PBS film 25 years earlier with minimal effects and a far better story. That tale succeeded by letting us know, in the end, that the tale was the last moment death dream of a nuclear war victim. This film suffers because we never quite know whether this is all in Evan’s head- a more rich film would have tried it, or a sci fi/fantasy- which should have been more adventurous. Not letting us know could have only worked were the script, acting, and visuals more intriguing- merely shaking the camera and having the journal’s letters jumble just bores. Not too mention that, for a genius, Evan is a dolt. In one of the time trips he returns to light the blockbuster that killed a mother and child in one reality, but now waves it at the pedophilic Mr. Miller, and winds up killing his true love. And he does this as the adult Evan in control of his child’s body! That geniuses do stupid shit like this is a far bigger flaw in the script than any time travel continuity issues.

Still, the ending and last time jump eschew a Hollywood ending as Evan returns to the first time he met Kayleigh and scares her in to never being his friend. Years later - at 28- the two are successful New York professionals, pass each other on the street, look, but keep on walking. This ability to sidestep convention augurs potential for the duo, for not caving in to the expected and ending the film a la It's a Wonderful Life. Amy Smart has all the makings of future stardom, but Ashton Kutcher is probably doomed to a future in reality TV as a former tv star. If that’s the future he faces he can always avenge his legacy and screw the rest of us by stepping on another insect- just for spite.

© Dan Schneider Jan 26th 2004



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