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(2004) (Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart) (R)

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Suspense/Sci-fi: After discovering that he can change both the past and present by revisiting his childhood memories in his mind, a young man sets out to right the wrongs of the past.
Evan Treborn (JOHN PATRICK AMEDORI) is a young and troubled boy. Raised by his mother, Andrea (MELORA WALTERS), due to his father being institutionalized, Evan has various bouts of blackouts where he can't remember anything. A doctor suggests that he start keeping diary-like journals, but they don't do much good in recovering some deeply repressed memories.

Most of them involve his best friends, siblings Kayleigh (IRENE GOROVAIA) and Tommy Miller (JESSE JAMES) as well as Lenny Kagan (KEVIN SCHMIDT). With a prank gone terribly bad and some unsavory moments involving Mr. Miller (ERIC STOLTZ), a video camera, and child porn, it's no wonder Evan isn't quite right.

He isn't alone. Years later, while Evan (ASHTON KUTCHER) is a college student with a Goth roommate, Thumper (ETHAN SUPLEE), Lenny (ELDEN HENSON) still appears shell-shocked from a past event; Kayleigh (AMY SMART) has been out on her own since the age of 15 and brother Tommy Miller (WILLIAM LEE SCOTT) is a jerk.

As Evan tries to recall the past with aid from his childhood journals, he ends up imagining a certain event in a slightly different fashion. To his shock and amazement, that minor change mysteriously alters the present. Armed with such knowledge and apparent power, he sets out to return to the past - in his mind - and right the various wrongs that occurred there. Yet, as he does so, he also creates various unexpected ramifications that radically change the history and personality of his friends and those around him.

As things progressively begin to spiral out of control, Evan races to return to the past in hopes of fixing those changes he accidentally created, only to have more of them occur.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
While I grew up watching the likes of "The Twilight Zone," "Star Trek" and even "Lost in Space" on TV, one of my first experiences with literary sci-fi was the Ray Bradbury short story, "A Sound of Thunder." In it, a company creates a time machine where clients can travel back to prehistoric times and bag themselves a dinosaur. The only catch is that they must not wander off a special boardwalk built specifically for such purposes.

One person does, however, and accidentally steps on a lone butterfly. They then return to the present to find it forever changed by that one seemingly insignificant alternation that obviously had some major ripple-down effects. That surprise ending was a mind-blowing experience that introduced me to both the fun and conundrum-based pitfalls of time travel stories.

When I heard about "The Butterfly Effect," I first thought it had something to do with or at least was inspired by that short story. It does thematically, but its true inspiration comes from the butterfly wing-flapping element of the Chaos Theory (where such resultant meager air movement ultimately affects things half a globe away).

Digging a bit deeper into the premise, I then thought that it had about the goofiest plot description I'd heard in a long time. You see, instead of traveling into the past via a time machine, vortex or the like, the lead character does so simply by remembering his troubled past. Once there - in boy form but with his adult conscience - he makes changes that alter the past and thus the present as well.

And with the star of "Just Married," "Dude, Where's My Car?" and TV's "That '70s Show" in the lead role, I figured the film had less than or only equal to the chances of the proverbial snowball in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks at succeeding.

Thus, I'm happy - and frankly, quite surprised - that both Ashton Kutcher and his film aren't half bad. Despite the actor's track record and the horrid sounding plot, the film manages to work rather well. That is, as long as you don't mind the standard array of time travel conundrums and some missed and/or misplayed cinematic opportunities that prevent this from being a sci-fi classic.

Following one of those unnecessary introductions that are supposed to spur our interest before they rewind and show us the preceding story leading up to that moment, the plot unfolds much like some of Stephen King's novels or even the recent "Mystic River."

We're introduced to a group of kids, some traumatic events occur, and we see how those have affected the kids-turned-young adults. A chance memory then "sends" Kutcher's character back to the past where he wills or just imagines the scene differently than what really occurred.

Upon his "return," he notices a change - although he's not as flabbergasted or questioning of his sanity as most would be - that then persuades him that he can made additional amends for his and others' past misdoings.

Once one gets past the suspension of disbelief needs as well as the various plot problems and related questions that arise, the film manages to turn into a fun, "Twilight Zone" type story where things progressively spiral out of control with each subsequent change and attempted fixes of those temporal alterations.

The fact that some of that deals with trying to prevent child abuse, molestation and kid porn might not sit well with some viewers who could see it as too unsavory, sensationalistic and/or manipulative. I found that it gave the film some added dramatic weight and makes one root even more for the protagonist to succeed.

Some of that, however, is stymied by various plot and directorial missteps that occasionally distract the viewer. While writers/directors Eric Bress & J. Mackye Gruber (making their feature directorial debut after penning "Final Destination 2") have obviously put a fair amount of thought into the work, there are various issues that somewhat undermine the effort.

They include why the protagonist needs his old journals to trigger the memories (I guess to allow for the fun time warp visuals that start with those words starting to jump off the page) and why the flood of newly "uploaded" memories (after a change) don't flush out the old ones they're replacing, etc. They're not enough to derail the film, however, and actually serve to generate post-movie discussion and/or debate about them and all of the related material, which is always a good thing.

I'm not sure everyone will view Kutcher's performance with the same latter adjective, as there are some occasionally shaky moments. Yet, and for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised by the actor and his work in the role.

John Patrick Amedori ("Almost Famous," "Unbreakable") is good as his childhood counterpart, as are Irene Gorovaia ("It Runs in the Family," "The Royal Tenenbaums"), Kevin Schmidt ("Cheaper by the Dozen," "Minority Report") and Jesse James ("Pearl Harbor," "Blow") in the other memory-based kid roles.

The likes of Amy Smart ("Road Trip," "Varsity Blues"), Elden Henson ("Under the Tuscan Sun," "The Mighty") and William Lee Scott ("Identity," "Pearl Harbor") along with Ethan Suplee ("Remember the Titans," "John Q") get to have some fun playing various versions of their characters that constantly hang upon the whim of the protagonist's temporal alternations. Eric Stoltz ("Mask," "Pulp Fiction") briefly appears as a disturbing heavy from the past.

Despite having seen the ending at the beginning (a sort of additional time travel element), part of the fun is not knowing how things will end. Without giving anything away, I'm happy to report that it doesn't conclude in pure Hollywood fashion. Even so, I would have stopped it at one certain point that could have elicited the "Oh, man" response from viewers - due to what would have been an open-ended interpretation of what we had just seen -- if everything was handled just right.

Overall, the offering isn't anything remotely brilliant and the nitpickers out there will likely have a field day with the various time travel and other related problems. Nevertheless, if you can manage to ignore, overlook and/or accept them, you might just have a fun and thought-provoking time with this effort.

While it won't likely alter the way Hollywood makes such films, "The Butterfly Effect" is a rather engaging and entertaining enough diversion from the norm to warrant a rating of 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 14, 2004 / Posted January 23, 2004

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