Alternate timelines have long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy. Their implications have been examined in classics like Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven and more recently in films like Run Lola Run and Frequency. The Butterfly Effect is the latest of these offerings, the "butterfly" in the title referring to the often quoted theory that the breeze caused by the movement of a butterfly’s wing could unleash a chain of events that result in a typhoon. Ashton Kutcher stars as Evan Treborn, a young man gifted with the ability of traveling through time and obsessed with altering past events in an increasingly desperate quest for a happy outcome.
The movie opens with a scene near the end of the story. Bearded and disheveled, Evan breaks into a darkened office, barricades himself inside, hides under a desk and begins writing in a notebook as outside, figures distorted by the frosted glass of the office begin shouting and pounding at the door. He’s got to try one more time. Maybe this time he can save her.
Veteran filmgoers mentally fasten their seatbelts for a flashback and the screenplay jumps back thirteen years, when Evan is a seven year old boy being raised by a single mother (Melora Walters). Dad’s not around because, well, it’s just not safe, and Mom’s getting worried about young Evan (Logan Lerman). The picture he draws in class about what he wants to be when he grow up shows him wielding a blade and standing over a pile of dismembered bodies. He keeps having memory lapses, one of which has ended with him standing in the kitchen clutching a carving knife. Is Evan going to follow in the maniacal footsteps of his father, who only slightly coincidentally is named and referred to throughout most of the film as "Jason"?
Engaging viewers by showing the climax first and inviting them to watch how a character gets from point A to point X is a compelling approach when done well, and in this film, various elements come together to make it work. Much is owed to the performances of the two child actors who play young Evan. (In addition to Logan Lerman, John Patrick Amedori plays Evan at 13.) The time travel elements in the film are handled logically enough so that as the story unfolds, even the presumed "insanity" of Evan’s father begins to make sense. And, because it deals with alternate timelines, The Butterfly Effect offers a smorgasbord of roles for actors Kutcher, Amy Smart, Eldon Henson, and William Lee Scott, whose characters shift believably from damaged, marginal survivors of child abuse, to self-absorbed college Greeks, to institutionalized mental patients, to earnest young preppies.
Unfortunately, there’s that chronic problem of any film dealing with the fantastic–verisimilitude. It’s as if directors and screenwriters J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress paid so much attention to making the supernatural elements logical that they neglected more mundane plot points. What is one to make, for instance, of a psychiatrist who thinks a troubled kid would benefit from visiting a father who can only be interviewed safely while drugged and manacled? The result is a flawed film that’s interesting when being watched, but doesn’t really stand up to examination afterwards.
Still, viewers may have some lively conversations afterwards about free will, sacrifice, nature vs. nurture, the whys and wherefores of certain alterations to the timeline resulting in certain outcomes. This is no Lathe of Heaven, but it’s not bad story-telling, and in an era of senseless action and lobotomized scripts that rely too heavily on special effects, even the modest food for thought offered by The Butterfly Effect is welcome.