Chaos theory aside, The Butterfly Effect's premise is sound and it definitely caught my attention. Starring Ashton Kutcher in, perhaps, his first serious role, the story follows his character Evan Treborn through his childhood of memory loss to his adulthood of discovery. While initially very engaged by the film, upon reflection I found certain elements lacking.
Under the care of a psychologist, Evan is diagnosed with a strange loss of memory after traumatic incidents and is instructed to journal the events of his life as much as possible. The bizarre disease may be linked to his father's own, which has landed him in a mental institution. We follow Evan until his early teens, when he moves away from his friends and the horrors surrounding them. After several uneventful years Evan begins to reexamine these journals and discovers that he can not only recall these missing moments but change them as well. This added responsibility proves to be a quite a burden as Evan relives his childhood again and again attempting to set this right for him and his three good friends Kayleigh (Amy Smart), Lenny (Elden Hensen) and Tommy (William Lee Scott). Each time his goodwill is turned, in some way, to disaster, and he must go back.
While in the theater I was very much engrossed in the complex and delicate intricacies of writer and directors' Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber's carefully woven tale. After the minor annoyance of a trite intro scene, wherein we see Evan in peril that jump cuts back to his childhood, the story begins to unfold. Disparate, but numerous, caches of information are uncovered slowly. There were just enough tantalizing details to keep me enthralled but not enough to provide any concrete answers. At this point in the film, this technique works and its execution is well done.
Despite what he has been through, a grown Evan seems to be doing fairly well as a psychology major at the state university until he rediscovers his old journals and begins to remember those events he had blocked. He has some odd experiences where the words on the page shake and his memory returns. From here on, every time he returns to the past this same effect is used and the looks on Kutcher's face take on a melodramatic façade of intense pain. As he goes back in time several times, each with this same transition, both the effect and the overacting become tedious. Powerful for a preview, doggedly repetitive in actuality.
Before the film began, I was anxious to see how the normally comedic Kutcher would handle the role, and these scenes did little to elevate his status as serious actor. His interactions with the other characters, too, seemed overdone. At times these exchanges reminded me of his performances of convincing, used to trick fellow celebrities, in his MTV show Punk'd. However, considering the intensely emotional nature of the plot I could feel some sincerity in Evan's tearful moments. Overall, I was not convinced of Kutcher's ability to break free of his pigeonhole, but neither did he detract from the movie.
While I applaud the directorial debut of Bress and Gruber, who also wrote the script, there are times when their lack of experience shows through. Each time Evan goes back in time we are treated to the full breadth of each story and its effect on the timeline. While for diehard fans this is exciting and satisfying, it becomes tiresome for most. Many of the storylines could have been highlighted with a scene or two and not delved into as deeply as they were. I got the sense that the writer/director team was unable to ax these scenes they felt so proud of and so they were kept, complete, in the final film. These are the portions I might expect to find in the Director's Cut DVD release but not in the theater. While I lost count, there are at least six separate timelines and by the last, although he was determined to go forward, I was not. This repetition could, perhaps, have worked if we could have felt the awesomeness of Evan's determination against his the rising feelings of paralyzing despair and futility. Neither the script, direction nor acting was able to accomplish this.
Yet while some portions of The Butterfly Effect seemed to drag on forever, other things remained unexplained. The significance of the father was completely lost to Evan's overarching resolve, though its significance is alluded to several times. There are also moments that question what is choice and fate and the cyclical and paradoxical nature of Evan's travels, but this facet is not explored enough to make me believe than Evan ever considers these ideas with any seriousness, and neither does the film.
As a thriller and a mind-bender The Butterfly Effect excels. My first instinct was to feel completely enthralled, even if this first impression shifted the more I thought about it. The ending, while not epic or a twist (although the whole film is in a way) was somewhat unexpected in its particulars, and in that way refreshing. While The Butterfly Effect did leave something to be desired I found it engaging and worth my evening out and I look forward to more mature releases by Gruber and Bress.