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Recapturing the past with violence


The producers of The Butterfly Effect open the movie with a prose epigraph citing the familiar statement from chaos theory about the beating of a butterfly's wing on one side of the planet eventually leading to hurricanes on the other, as if that notion explained their picture.

          In reality, the movie owes more to a fine Ray Bradbury short story, which it actually alludes to in a mere nanosecond, about the consequences of tinkering with time. In the story, a time traveler accidentally steps out of the sanitary zone that protects the past from any changes, and kills a butterfly. When he and his companions return to the present, they immediately discover that the infinitesimal event has changed their whole world.

          In The Butterfly Effect, a troubled young man named Evan Trehorn (Ashton Kutcher) suffers from unexplained blackouts related to moments of crisis, a condition he has apparently inherited, in a perfunctory back story, from his deranged, institutionalized father. In childhood his therapist recommends keeping a journal of the blackouts, a practice he continues into his college years.

          When he rereads his journals he discovers that he can not only recover his memory but can also, like Proust, recapture the past. Once he journeys to Shakespeare's "dark backward and abysm of time," he works some imaginative reconstruction, cleverly altering some terrible episodes in his childhood that come to ruin a whole constellation of lives.

          Every time Evan returns to the past, however, the outcome of his rearrangements of one or another horribly damaging event transforms the lives of his family and friends in ways he could never have foreseen. Since the story takes Evan back a number of times, the film's plot wanders through many possibilities of permutation, so that each of his alterations results in some shocking and horrible consequence. In one alternative reality he pursues a college career, in another he goes to prison for murder, another maims him, another blights the life of the girl he loves, another kills her, and so on. He must continue the journeys into the past so that he can determine the one moment he can alter so that nobody will suffer.

          Despite the fascination of its subject, The Butterfly Effect depends far too heavily on depictions of some particularly nasty and vicious brutality. Instead of relying on the ingenuity of the concept and the general fascination of revisiting and repeating the past, once it establishes its premise, the picture tends to employ a horror film form of shock and fright, complete with a rich and somewhat puzzling religious iconography, to indicate the consequences of changing the past. Perhaps because the filmmakers simply retreated from one of its essential concerns --- the mingling of memory and identity --- the movie too often settles for the simple and easy expediency of gratuitously specific and even sadistic violence.

          Ashton Kutcher, apparently a hot item these days both on and off the screen, performs functionally throughout the movie, suffering visibly, popping his eyes in shock, and providing a handsome presence for the young audience the film presumably attracts. As his sometime childhood antagonist, the short, energetic William Lee Scott suggests something of the early James Cagney, only with a psychopath's gleam in his eyes and a genuine delight in sadism. For entirely unclear reasons, the filmmakers cast an enormous and grotesque personage named Ethan Suplee, a cross between a punk Dracula and Jabba the Hutt, as Kutcher's college roommate, a great argument for living alone.

          Despite its preposterous premise, the picture depends on a rich and fascinating concept, and its version of time travel aligns it with a number of recent movies devoted to the subject, like The Time Machine, Terminator 3, and Paycheck. Whether that interest demonstrates the awakening of a dormant concern for history, a desire to escape our own era, or even a new interest in the Einsteinian four-dimensional space-time continuum, I cannot say. But the cinema provides a useful and entertaining vehicle in which to explore the possibilities and paradoxes of time.

          Although the filmmakers probably do not realize it, Henry David Thoreau, of all people, suggests something of the intellectual foundation for The Butterfly Effect when he wonders in Walden whether one can kill time without injuring eternity. That should be the real epigraph of the movie.

The Butterfly Effect, starring Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, William Lee Scott, Melora Walters, John Patrick Amedori, Irene Gorovaia, Kevin G. Schmidt, Eric Stoltz, Jesse James, Nathaniel Deveaux, Ethan Suplee; written and directed by Eric Bress and J. Mackeye Gruber. Cinemark Tinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

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