Even by the lax standards of January film releases -- this month is the traditional dumping time for studio films that didn't quite work out -- The Butterfly Effect is staggeringly bad.
Starring Ashton Kutcher, the shaggy-haired young actor best known for Dude, Where's My Car? and for dating Demi Moore, Butterfly is a supposed thriller that mines the memory loss theme that has been turning up with striking regularity in American movies, from Memento to Paycheck. Kutcher's character, Evan Treborn, is an earnest college student whose life has been marked by a series of blackouts surrounding traumatic events. Majoring in psychology (he keeps a rat maze in his dorm room), he hopes to discover the reason behind the mysterious black holes in his mind.
Simple self-protection might be one possible explanation, given that his repressed memories include, as the film reveals in a spiraling series of flashbacks, being nearly strangled to death as an eight-year-old by his criminally insane father; being forced to participate in a child pornography video directed by the abusive father (Eric Stoltz) of the little girl, Kayleigh, he has a crush on; watching as a young woman and her baby are blown to bits in a practical joke gone wrong; and watching as the neighborhood bully, Tommy (who also happens to be Kayleigh's brother), ties Evan's beloved terrier up in a canvas bag and sets it on fire. That's a lot to handle right there, but the film's writing and directing team, Eric Bress and Mackye Gruber, have some even more appalling atrocities in store for Evan as a young adult.
PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX FILMS
For reasons the film does not trouble to explain, Evan discovers that, if he reads a few lines from his childhood journals, he will be projected back in time to his traumatic moments, where he can change his behavior in small ways that will make a big difference later on. (This is where the title comes in, with its reference to the old canard about a butterfly flapping its wings in China and producing a tidal wave in New York.)
Sometimes Evan's adjustments seem to work out, as when he awakes from a time-travel session to find himself sharing a sorority house bed with Kayleigh, now grown into a radiantly happy 18-year-old (played by Amy Smart). But mostly his changes just lead to greater disasters, including one alternate reality in which Kayleigh is a scarred, drug-addled prostitute, living in what looks like Jodi Foster's old digs in Taxi Driver, and another in which Evan loses his arms and the use of his legs.
The complicated plotting soon spins wildly out of the control of the filmmakers (their last credit: Final Destination 2) and begins producing unintentional laughs, as when Evan wakes up to find himself the newest and prettiest resident of a prison full of predatory neo-Nazi homosexuals.
But if the storytelling induces brain cramp, the imagery brings on a bad case of acid indigestion. The Butterfly Effect is inhabited by a genuine spirit of cruelty, both toward its characters and its audience.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
Written and directed by: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
Starring: Ashton Kutcher (Evan), Amy Smart (Kayleigh), Eric Stoltz (Miller), William Lee Scott (Tommy), Elden Henson (Lenny), Ethan Suplee (Thumper) and Melora Walters (Andrea)
Running time: 113 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
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