According to the adherents to the mathematical discipline known as Chaos Theory, something as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can set into motion an unpredictable chain of events that could lead to a hurricane in another part of the world. Such is the underlying concept of The Butterfly Effect, a time travel film whose power lies somewhere between the flap of an insect’s wings and a tropical storm.
Evan (Ashton Kutcher) is a young grad student whose study of memory is partly spurned on by his own history of blackouts he suffered as a child. He finds that some of these memories resurfacing revealing an incident of sexual abuse suffered at the ends of the father of his childhood friend and first love Kayleigh (Amy Smart). Now estranged from her, he returns home to confront her about the incident. Soon after the encounter, a traumatized Kayleigh commits suicide.
Evan soon discovers that his memories are not returning so much as he is actually traveling back in time to those moments and that he can change the outcome of those incidents. With each trip back into time Evan to change something, a new reality is created around him. However, there are unforeseen consequences when Evan changes things so that Kayleigh’s father never abuses them, and Evan must continually traveling back in time to try and ensure a happy ending for himself and Kayleigh.
For a film with such a rich premise (though admittedly similar to the television series Quantum Leap), The Butterfly Effect has a surprisingly pedestrian, straightforward narrative. All the alternate realities that Evan creates are fairly broadly sketched, with only one having a fairly interesting twist. This in some ways is ironic. As this is a film about taking risks and making choices, it seldom takes those risks and only makes safe narrative choices. Each alternate reality has a predictability about it, once the basic “premise” of the reality is explained. There are no unforeseen twists to further complicate the story.
The time travel method is a workable conceit, provided you don’t think too deeply about it. With Evan’s abilities linked to the blackouts he experienced as a boy, we’re left to wonder if they were a symptom of his time traveling that manifested before he started traveling or if their existence allowed him to be able to travel in the first place. But as is often the case in films like this such “chicken or the egg” questions about causality are over looked for the sake of the story. Fortunately, audiences have progressed far enough from a film like Back To The Future II, which actually had to stop in the middle of the narrative to have one of its characters explain to another (and the audience) the theory of alternate universes. The script does manage a few clever touches here and there, such as Evan’s method of securing the help of a religious convict while in prison.