Beyond the Pretty Face

Despite Ashton Kutcher, 'Butterfly Effect' is a thought-out and suspenseful sci-fi film.

Everyone's so mean to that pretty Ashton Kutcher. Just because he's pretty and rich and famous and not such a good actor and dating an animatronic robot that's loosely based on Demi Moore is no reason to hate a man. I mean, for all you know, he might have the heart of Albert Schweitzer burning in his smooth, hairless chest.

So, I'm not gonna jump on the dog pile that's slamming Butterfly Effect. In fact, it's a thoughtful and tightly plotted film that recaptures the idea-centric science fiction of the '70s at its best. It's got pretty stars, a good amount of suspense and a well thought-out story that plays some nice games with audience expectations, even if it does cop out in the end.

It's also Ashton Kutcher's big dramatic debut. Unfortunately, Kutcher is, at heart (and remember, that may well be Dr. Schweitzer's heart), a comedy actor, so the acting part of the movie doesn't work out so well. His broad gestures and rubbery-faced expressions, while well-suited to the goofball work he's done on shows like that show about the '70s (I can't remember its name right now) and that movie where he can't find his car, don't really work so well when he has to convey grief and loss and sadness and itchiness.

Of course, Kutcher's young enough that he can still get over these acting deficiencies. Look at Christopher Lee's career: He started out as a bad hambone actor in B-movies, continued as a hammy actor in bad B-movies, and then suddenly, just by living a long time, he's elevated to the status of Major Thespian. Hang in there, Ashton: Only 40 years until your cinematic apotheosis!

Beyond the acting trouble, though, this is a well-executed, if disturbing, sci-fi film. Which is to say, if you don't want to see scenes of a dog being burned alive or children forced to perform in a porn video, you'll want to avoid Butterfly Effect. On the other hand, if you can countenance that kind of unpleasantness, and you're a fan of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits or The Teletubbies Are Turned Into Soylent Green, then you'll no doubt enjoy Butterfly Effect.

The film opens in the suburbs, roughly 20 years ago. Evan Treborn, 13, is enjoying life with no knowledge that he will one day be played by Ashton Kutcher. He is in love with his best friend, Kayleigh Miller. They are young and happy and pretty, and will only get prettier as they age. Could life be more wonderful?

Sadly, yes. It seems that Kayleigh's brother and father are not about to let her enjoy the fact that one day she will be played by Amy Smart and will get to make it with Ashton Kutcher.

Her evil father (Eric Stoltz) owns a video camera, and he fancies himself something of an amateur Roman Polanski, if Polanski were to combine film with the other thing he's famous for. Meanwhile, her brother is a sick sadist who loves his sister in an improper and adult manner.

Evan, being a sweet and innocent young man, deals with this and some of the other, more horrifying parts of his life by blacking them out. For example, when he goes to the insane asylum where his father is kept, and the guards beat his father to death in front of him, well, he doesn't entirely remember it.

But here's the part of the movie where main plot point kicks in: Years later, Evan acquires the power to go back in time to the moments he forgot, and to re-enact or even change them, and also he gains the power to be played by Ashton Kutcher, which is a pretty cool power, though not quite as cool as time travel.

Of course, if there's one thing we've learned from President Bush's foreign policy, it's that going back in time to change the past often results in unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. Thus, every time Evan goes back to the past to make the present better, something terrible happens. If only he'd paid more attention when he was watching Back to the Future!

All the time-travel consequences are well thought-out, and these sequences are scary and engaging. They're also well-shot. The cinematography neither intrudes on the film by drawing too much attention to itself, nor does it vanish completely in the background. It's well balanced and creepy, with a dark tone that accents the movie's ugly side (i.e. the side that is not Ashton Kutcher).

The story is also supported by a decent performance by Amy Smart. Or maybe it's a bad performance. I have no idea. She's just so pretty; it's like she could be reading from a Chinese menu, and I'd give her an Academy Award.

Cult favorite actor Ethan Suplee also has a nice turn as Kutcher's goth-rock college roommate. Suplee's 6 feet 3 inches tall, and he has to weigh at least 300 pounds, so he's quite the screen presence. The many scenes of him caked with eyeliner, making sweet, gentle love to leather-clad goth girls go a long way towards humanizing this movie, or at least making it one of those rare films where big, fat guys get laid.

In the end, Butterfly Effect turns away from its increasing grimness for a bittersweet finale that doesn't quite keep with the desperate feel of what went before. Still, this is one of the more interesting science fiction films of recent years, in that it's strongly idea-driven, tightly plotted, and doesn't have any Jedis or laser battles. That alone more than makes up for Kutcher's intense and untalented prettiness.

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