There are few golden rules to be gleaned from the movies, but let me propose the following: Don’t, under any circumstances, fuck with time. Should you acquire the ability to speed it up, slow it down, or travel around in it, just stay put and watch reruns on the couch. Ashton Kutcher’s new movie, The Butterfly Effect (New Line), impressively sets a new standard for time travel gone awry. In form and content, it plays like a driver’s ed video— Wheels of Tragedy or The Last Prom—yet it encompasses so much more than mere car wrecks: child pornography, pedophilia, blunt object trauma, mutilation, prison rape, heroin addiction, animal cruelty, and matricide.
The movie starts with a quote about chaos theory, as if that would explain anything. The gist of the “butterfly effect” seems to be: If you change one little thing, a lot of unexpected stuff might happen. (Like, say, if you’re a sitcom actor who starts dating a well-preserved actress almost twice your age, everyone will suddenly think you’re A-list material.) When we first see Ashton, he’s looking very John Walker Lindh, wearing hospital garb, hiding under a desk, and scrawling a note to himself that he must “save her.” There’s a pounding at the door, and then a quick cut. The first of many, many extended flashbacks occurs. We’ve been transported to a sunny, green suburb, where we meet the Wonder Years Ashton (Logan Lerman), age 8. Mom is fixing the car in the driveway, because, well, that’s what mothers have to do when Dad is a psycho locked up in a mental ward.
Next, more astonishing events. Young Ashton draws a murder scene. Mom takes him for brain tests. There is no sign of his “father’s illness.” Young Ashton and his friends put a stick of dynamite in a mailbox. A mother and her baby pull up in their car. She decides to get the mail. Young Ashton doesn’t know what happens next. He “blacks out.” Mom drops him off at neighbor’s house to play with his young son and his daughter, Kayleigh. The neighbor takes them to the basement and forces young Ashton and Kayleigh to perform in a sex video. Another blackout. Young Ashton and Kayleigh kiss at a movie. Kayleigh’s brother sees them and retaliates by going to the junkyard and lighting Ashton’s dog on fire. It’s at this point, with the dog, where the audience really becomes upset.
It’s also when the main event, the dramatic acting debut of Ashton Kutcher, finally gets underway. He reappears in the movie as a college student, complete with undergrad-dorm facial hair. It’s been eight years since Ashton has had a blackout, so, in celebration, he goes to a bar, shoots some pool, and picks up an attractive coed. Before they hook up, the coed reaches under Ashton’s bed to search for “some scented candles or something” and discovers his journals. Bad move. He begins to read from them and the words start to vibrate on the page and then the screen goes blurry. Suddenly he’s back in the junkyard, watching his dog become charcoal.
Ashton’s character, no doubt using the skills he acquired as a psychology major, figures out that the journal acts as some kind of portal back into time. Freaked out, he goes back home to see Kayleigh, who has blossomed into the actress Amy Smart and works as a waitress at a roadside diner. Ashton tactlessly starts grilling her about the day in the basement. Kayleigh gets mad and tells Ashton to go back to college and shave. When he arrives on campus, there’s a message on the answering machine that Kayleigh has committed suicide. Sad, hurt, and well-dressed for her funeral, he now has a mission. He’s going to travel back in time, mess around with past events, and bring Kayleigh back to life.
Now we get to see the butterfly effect in action. Ashton revisits the past and acts differently during the aforementioned tragic situations. When he returns to the present, all the new memories of his altered life come rushing into his head, an event we see on screen as a rapid montage of photographs. (Why didn’t this happen to Michael J. Fox at the end of Back to the Future?) But whenever Ashton tries to fix things, there’s always a catch. One of the first things he does is revisit the now-infamous video day and tell the father to leave his daughter Kayleigh the hell alone. Ashton then regains consciousness, waking up in a sorority house with Kayleigh in a post-coital embrace. She’s very alive and they’re in love and everything is fine until her homicidal brother shows up (apparently the father abused him instead of Kayleigh) and Ashton accidentally beats him to death. But when time can be constantly messed with, are we really supposed to care?
These episodes provide plenty of out-of-nowhere violence, but they also appear to be misguided attempts to have Ashton show his range as an actor. Every time he wakes up, he’s in a different genre. There is the innocent-prisoner episode, with Ashton getting spat on by the inmates, the heroin-junkie episode, with the moist-eyed Ashton giving impassioned speeches, and most painfully, the Born on the Fourth of July episode, with Ashton as a wheelchair bound cripple trying to commit suicide in the bathtub. It’s as if the young actor decided that he would prove himself as a dramatic actor by trying out every clichéd serious role in the history of cinema. (Amy Smart takes care of the hooker with the heart of gold.) Yet, on a crude level, the movie is an effective scare machine, shrewdly designed for maximum exploitation. Executive produced by Kutcher, it also serves notice of his ambition: He seems willing to try anything. He might even learn how to act. He’s a young man, and time, after all, is on his side.