Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) is a smart, attractive college guy. He had some rough spots in childhood, but he's grown beyond them fairly successfully, thanks, in part, to a series of blackouts that occurred at crucial, difficult moments. But he's been blackout-free for seven years cause for celebration with his enormous, amorous Goth roomie Thumper (Ethan Suplee).
When Evan takes a snoopy girl back to the dorm, a pile of journals is uncovered journals Evan was told to keep as a kid to help him fend off blackouts. The date goes bad when Evan is suddenly transported back to a creepy moment with a childhood girl pal's father (Eric Stoltz) who has a new video camera and sleazy intentions for it.
Back in the future (er, the present), Evan tracks down the old friend, Kayleigh Miller (Amy Smart) to figure out what happened that night years ago. She gets upset and runs off, and later her nasty, violent brother Tommy leaves a voice-mail to let Evan know that he screwed up and that Kayleigh had killed herself.
It turns out that Evan's journals hold secrets to several key moments in his childhood that served as turning points in his development: a vandalism prank that went awry and killed a mother and child, Tommy's vicious incineration of Evan's dog, a troubling drawing Evan did as a child showing what he wanted to be when he grew up, etc. It turns out also that by staring reeeeeeaaaallly hard at a journal entry, Evan can go back and relive an important moment. And he does, with predictably tragic results.
It's not enough to stop the molestation of him and Kayleigh or to save the dog. Invariably, each resulting scenario is worse than the one before. Every time the past is changed, the future is also changed. In one variation, Evan becomes a frat guy, living blissfully with Kayleigh as his girlfriend but because he prevented the molestation of only him and Kayleigh, it turns out that brother Tommy got the brunt of it and turns out messed up. And Evan winds up in prison. Then in a psych ward. Then Kayleigh is a hooker, then a sorority girl again. Every future is different.
I would like to afford Kutcher some credit for the ambition behind this film. Known chiefly for his antic performances in That 70's Show, MTV's Punk'd, sophomoric movie comedies, and Demi Moore, he is tabloid fodder and the unfair target of Ben Affleck-sized scrutiny. Many will see this film to determine his acting ability. Let me save you some time: Yeah, he can act. He's green and the inexperience shows in the form of nuance and diction (he mumbles some). But he's earnest and committed and not remotely showy unless the strange script or direction forces him. Bravo, Ashton. If only the rest of the film were as earnest and wholesome as he.
The first 30 minutes are a parade of horrors: the exploding baby, an attack on an innocent moviegoer, the burning dog. Hell, back in the past they even go see the movie Seven and we relive the horrifying scene in that film where the murder investigation leads to the badly decayed corpse of a morbidly obese glutton. As if the bad luck in this film were not sufficiently terrible.
"The Butterfly Effect" is a component of chaos theory that suggests "if a butterfly flaps its wings where I am standing, then it can create a monsoon halfway around the world." For that matter, so can a sneeze or a handshake or any decision whatsoever. Makes you think twice about doing anything. The problem in this movie (among a handful) is that the Butterfly Effect seems only to affect the "here" and gives no sense of "there." Evan's decisions have no bearing on anything outside of his own life. It's like tossing a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples more than anything involving monsoons.
There is an amusing battle among nature, chaos, fate, and free will in this film, and by the end, we lose patience with Evan because his decisions are never very smart. When he goes back in time he always seems to do or say the wrong thing never learning from one trip back to the next. No wonder life gets so screwy! Kutcher, in his first attempt at generating box-office gravitas, deserves better than this complicated script that lets him go nowhere. While Kutcher goes back to the past for his gravitas, serious fans of time travel should go Back to the Future.