Things fall apart: One flutter, lots of waves
The title and Chaos Theory are both explained by the opening title card in The Butterfly Effect. It informs us the flapping of a butterfly's wings sets in motion a chain of events that can ultimately cause a typhoon on the other side of the world. Or something like that. It sounds a little like Reagan's Trickle-down Theory, but that's another story.
What follows illustrates the theory in ways filmmakers Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber may not have intended. The more chaotic things become, the more difficult it is for the audience to take them seriously, so when things should be reaching a fever pitch of excitement, there's a lot of unwarranted snickering going on in the peanut gallery.
Perhaps the problem is that the story, while highly original in some respects, bears an unfortunate resemblance to Groundhog Day in others. Like Pavlov's dog, which gets a mention here to weed out non-intellectuals in the audience, we've been conditioned by Bill Murray to laugh whenever someone relives a portion of their life in an effort to get it right.
That's what Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) does in The Butterfly Effect. Let me say right off that if no other films are released this year Kutcher has a shot at an Oscar nomination. While his attempt at serious drama isn't embarrassing, he doesn't have the authority to keep us straight-faced when things start to fall apart.
Except for a brief opening scene to set up the flashbacks, Kutcher doesn't appear for quite some time as we revisit some traumatic experiences in his childhood. These are moments he's blocked from his memory, but thanks to the advice of a psychiatrist when he was seven, he's recorded the events surrounding them in a series of journals. The same therapist hypnotizes the boy with his mother in the room– most unprofessional.
The unremembered traumas involve a drawing he made in school, a video made by a friend's father, a meeting with his own father, an explosion, and the killing of a dog. These situations ultimately lead to tragic consequences for Kayleigh (Amy Smart), young Evan's first love in a match that aroused the jealousy of her psycho brother, Tommy (William Lee Scott).
Evan finds a way to go back in his mind and change earlier events with the hope that the net result will be different. It is different, but it's not better. As he puts it, "Every time I try to help someone, everything turns to shit."
Each reshaping of the past changes how everyone else turns out. The other actors have fun playing broad variations of the same characters, but Kutcher changes nothing but his clothes as his circumstances alter. It can be argued that the script eventually accounts for this, but the limitations of Kutcher's acting ability make an equally viable explanation.
The childhood scenes are disturbingly effective in the early part of the film and later, as some details are filled in. Evan is played at 13 by Jason Patrick Amedori and at seven by Logan Lerman, Kayleigh by Irene Gorovaia and Sarah Widdows, Tommy by Jesse James and Cameron Bright, and their friend Lenny (Elden Henson as an adult) by Kevin Schmidt and Jake Caese.
It's the things that happen to the adult Evan, from fraternity life to a prison term, that don't have the impact they should, especially after they begin to seem silly. A climactic revelation falls particularly flat, and the hero immediately finds a loophole of sorts to circumvent it.
I suppose the best thing you can say for The Butterfly Effect is that no butterflies were harmed in the making of the picture.