Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) wants what we’ve all wanted, even if only fleetingly, at one time or another — to go back in time and change things in our lives for the better. Evan, however, can actually do it, though he soon wishes he couldn’t. The Butterfly Effect follows Evan as he ping-pongs through time and space, revisiting the disasters of his childhood and adolescence and trying to change a detail here and there to make everything turn out differently. The movie, a first feature by writers/directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who wrote Final Destination 2), tries hard to be affecting and mind-blowing, and sometimes it comes close. But most of it is a very remote head game, a screenwriters’ exercise that sounds better on paper than it plays.
Some of the horrors in Evan’s past include being forced into doing homemade kiddie porn at age eight (Eric Stoltz gives a rather one-note, transparent performance as the sicko behind the camcorder), watching his beloved dog go up in flames, and taking part in a prank that goes tragically wrong. Evan is subject to blackouts at key moments during these traumas, and he later finds that if he reads from one of his journal entries from those days he can transport himself back to the traumatic event and do his best to alter it. Of course, every time he changes something, he wakes up in a whole other reality that came about because of the change, sometimes worse off than before.
The throughline in all of this is Kayleigh (played in adulthood, and in variations ranging from a cheerful sorority sister to a heroin-addicted hooker, by the appealing Amy Smart), Evan’s childhood love. The problem is, the movie is so busy skipping between timelines that it never establishes a core reality in which we can believe in the bond between Evan and Kayleigh. Ashton Kutcher (making a credible dramatic debut) and Amy Smart are affectionate together, though in most of their scenes Evan doesn’t know what’s going on and Kayleigh doesn’t know why he’s so clueless.
The changes affect other people in Evan’s life. There’s Kayleigh’s cartoonishly sadistic brother, and another kid who is or isn’t emotionally scarred for life by the disastrous prank, and big Ethan Suplee as a goth who is or isn’t Evan’s roommate. Evan keeps going back, and everyone keeps getting affected one way or another. Evan hits bottom when he’s sent to prison for murder, but by then we know all he has to do is read from his journals to escape that reality (the method by which he does it, after some skinheads steal the journals, is somewhat clever), so we know things won’t suck for him very much longer. The same goes for a sequence in which everyone in Evan’s life is happy except himself and his mom, who made herself terminally ill after he was … Oh, never mind.
As a message, The Butterfly Effect has solidity: Everything in one’s life happens for a reason, and going back to change bad moments may not necessarily result in a happily-ever-after ending. As a narrative, though, it holds us at arm’s length because nothing in it is permanent — nothing we see really counts, and no decisions have consequences because Evan can always diddle around with them. The very end, which depicts a certain poignant self-sacrifice, puts a good cap on the story, but we’ve been skipping around for almost two hours through various realities — some of them exceedingly unpleasant — without much of a point in sight except for the message, which, to put it mildly, is solid but no big news.