For about its first twenty minutes, this supernatural mystery promises to be something very special indeed. Evan (Ashton Kutcher), as is explained much later, has the ability to go mentally back in time to re-enter his frequent episodes of blackout.
No wonder Evan blacks out so much as a kid. His best male buddy is a violent sadist, his girlfriend is a likely abuse victim, his father tries to strangle him during visiting hours at the mental hospital, and he is casually cajoled by a sinister adult (Eric Stoltz) into joining what seems to be a kiddie-porn operation.
With its initially brutal, disorienting leaps in time and its many strategically missing pieces, The Butterfly Effect is genuinely captivating, as well as scary. And how many films, beyond the telemovies broadcast daily at noon, ever dare to go near such topics?
So, it starts like a David Lynch movie for the multiplex, but then goes somewhere less tantalising, more in the generic vein of The Twilight Zone. The more that Evan explores his past we realise that he can, it seems, travel through time and alter destiny. This is, sadly, a very American film: every such alteration involves some horrific act of violence dished out to Evan's acquaintances or even himself.
The story starts to get especially odd around the time that Evan finds himself in unfamiliar worlds like a girl's campus dormitory or a brutal penitentiary. Is Evan altering destiny so that it better resembles movie-fed clichés? The film eventually begins to wobble, shedding its more intriguing aspects as it concentrates on the somewhat tiresome mechanics of its plot.
Co-writers and director Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber cut their teeth scripting Final Destination 2 (2003). This time around their ambitions are much higher, although they still tend to get bogged down in a repetitious structure that, as it grinds on, begs many questions and produces many oddities.
On the one hand, every time Evan changes the future and zaps himself into it, he is like a clean slate – a stranger in a strange land who has to catch up on how the world has yet again changed around him. But, on the other hand, when he hurls himself backwards, he retains full consciousness – resulting in the spectacle of tiny Evan scheming and swearing like an adult.
Also, like almost every time travel story ever filmed in Hollywood (with the near-exception of John Woo's Paycheck ), the effects of destiny-changing – and the curiosities of those who experience it – are extraordinarily limited. Couldn't Evan, as he zips about in time, perhaps consider stopping the Gulf War rather than ensuring he doesn't lose his girlfriend, Kayleigh (Amy Smart)?
The chief disappointment (or cop-out) of this movie is that it sets up a fascinating ambiguity – can Evan really time-travel or is it all his elaborate fantasy devised unconsciously to screen out the sordid truth? – but refuses to explore it seriously. If only Bress and Gruber had taken a leaf from Abel Ferrara's grim The Blackout (1997) rather than the collected lightweight works of Stephen King.
Still, despite its loss of nerve, this is one of the most fascinating ordinary movies to come out of the Hollywood system in a long time. To see a teen-oriented entertainment, far from the protection of the arthouse, casually raise such hot issues is an exciting phenomenon.
© Adrian Martin March 2004