Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Butterfly Effect

I really want to 'splain why I feel the way I do about this movie, so after the short and sweet sour review, we will go into spoiler mode. You can probably see the alert from here.

Anyway, Roger Ebert - who's about the only movie critic I read for the actual review of the movie - says a critic's job is to review the film itself (was it effective, well-done, artistic, skillful, good plot, etc.) and not necessarily the topic of the film. Yes, if the topic of a film is repugnant, you should say so, but you have to be careful in judging a film thus, because what may be repugnant to you many not be to others. Now, if you are a constant reader, you know I break this rule all the time. But I typically break that rule when nothing, such as a good quality production, can save a film, or conversely when sloppiness can't diminish its grandeur.

This film walks right down the razor's edge in that context. For a film presenting its story, this movie is very well done. The acting is outstanding. Since this is a movie about shifting timelines that have different outcomes for the characters, each actor has to portray their character in vastly different states, sometimes through just scant seconds of screen time via body language and costume, and boy do they bat it out of the park in that regard. In a technical and mechanical sense, the film is top-notch. The direction's sharp and the story is riveting.

But, the actual events depicted are an entirely different matter. Wow. Gotta tell ya. This baby is just mind garbage. The writers (at least the originators of the story) are either very young and don't know any better (extreme youth doesn't offer the perspective or wisdom to consider how some topics may play to the more experienced (or more innocent), hence the shabbiness of many first-time novels by people in their early 20s), or the writers are morally bankrupt in their ability to discern what comprises appropriate topic matter for a film of this nature, or at least lack the skills to frame such matter so that it doesn't sink the narrative. So, away we go...


(Scroll down to continue)

Ashton Kutcher plays Evan, who has the ability to go back into the past by re-experiencing that moment through any recording of the events, such as a journal he's kept his entire life. Evan's childhood buddies, Kay the quasi-girlfriend, Tommy her brother, and Lenny the fat kid, go through a series of over the freakin' top and leaving-the-stratosphere traumas. They go through them ALL conceivable childhood traumas actually. Here's a quick, partial list:

- Kay and Tommy's father forces Evan and Kay to have sex when they're about 8 or 9 year old, and tapes it, while Tommy looks on.
- All four kids decide to play a prank after Tommy finds a stick of dynamite. They light it and have Lenny deposit it in someone's extravagant mailbox (that looks just like the main house). Just afterwards the woman who lives there returns home and decides to check for mail with her toddler. Just as the toddler lifts the top of the mailbox, the dynamite goes off. We don't see the aftermath, but we do see the effect it has on the four kids. Lenny essentially has to be sent to the funny farm for a while.
- After the above events, Tommy, who's messed up himself from his abusive, pedophile father, sees Kay and Evan kissing, which pops a fuse in his young head. He decides to teach Evan a lesson by burning his beloved dog to death. Lenny has just come back from the Thorazine ward, when Evan and Kay lure him from his room to go for a walk. They come upon Tommy putting the doggie in a sack, dousing it with lighting fluid, and then fetching a torch from a fire he has set. Though the three try to prevent the horror, Fido fries.
- Tommy, though only a shrimpy 8 or 9 years old, beats a teenager who mocks him in a movie theater with one of those metal poles used to create velvet-rope people corrals, to show Evan and Kay how tough he is and that Evan is next if he doesn't leave his sister alone.

And these are just some of the horrors we witness directly. Many other terrible things occur off-screen that we are only told about. Tommy ends up in prison after killing someone, frinstance.

This is just the setup of the movie, folks. It really kicks into gear when the adult Evan accidentally discovers his gift for returning to the past and being able to influence events. Kay has ended up a twitching mess who works as a waitress in a greasy spoon, as Evan discovers when he goes looking for her to get some answers about the past. See, when the events above occurred, Evan would pass out and "lose time" and not remember the climax (sorry) of each of the events. We find out that this is when his adult self came back from the future and took over. Before he knows this, he goes back to ask Kay what happened as a result of dynamiting the mailbox. This sets Kay off, and later psycho Tommy calls Evan to say Kay killed herself after Evan's questions, so Tommy is going to kill him for it. This provokes Evan to start returning to the past to try to fix things, in a sort of Bedazzled meets Se7en horror show. Every time he tries to fix it, something else in their lives has one wrong, often making things worse.

I'll not delve into all the horrors that happen in those alternate timelines. However, if pedophilia, baby killing, and puppy torching weren't enough to contend with, in one of the timelines, the one that starts out the most optimistic, Evan ends up in prison, getting an "ass pounding," as it is so vividly put in the now-classic Office Space. This particular episode ends when Evan goes into the skinheads' cell to offer them conciliatory blowjobs in order to join their gang, the most powerful one in the prison. He is really there to retrieve his journal so he can hop back into the past and hopefully avoid prison in another timeline. As Evan is performing his initiatory task, his cellmate, who has been duped into believing Evan has powers from God (the cellmate is very religious), closes the cell door. Evan then stabs the skinheads in the little skinhead, grabs his journal, and flees into the past just as the most of the other prisoners break into the cell to kill him.

Well, Evan eventually tries everything. Literally. He returns to every horrific episode to fix things and none of them does (thus we get to revisit some of the nastier events again and again). He comes to the conclusion that everything happened because Kay didn't go live with her mother, and thus stays with her evil father, because she wanted to stay where Evan was because she's always loved him. (K, let's pause right here. What mother lets BOTH of her children stay with an alcoholic, abusive dad simply because the very young daughter wants to for unnamed reasons.) Evan decides that he has to be removed from Kay's life so that she'll stay with her mom and everything will be OK.

Here we branch into the two endings available on the DVD, one the "theatrical cut" and the other the "director's cut." Common to both versions is the information that Evan's dad and granddad had this ability, too, and both ended up in the cuckoo's nest. Also, a gypsy palm reader discovers that Evan has no lifeline, which causes her to declare that Evan "doesn't have a soul" and that he "wasn't meant to be here." (Which, if you're counting, is unintentionally funny. Evan thus far has been a victim of pedophilia, baby snuffing, pet torching, sodomy, (oh, and his own dad trying to kill him when he visits him in the psyche ward - I've left that one out so far) and now he's told he doesn't even have a soul. The guy just can't get a break, huh?)

In the director's cut, we find out that Evan's mom had had two miscarriages before she had him, and is her "miracle baby." Evan somehow gets his hands on a film of his mother giving birth to him, and through his gift, he hops into himself in the womb. We see him open his eyes as a fetus and then proceed to strangle himself with the umbilical chord. We cut to the mother screaming, "No! Not again!" Seemingly pre-birth infant suicide has plagued her attempts to be a mother in the past. We then see her sitting forlorn in her hospital room afterward, but, through the narrative of a collage, we see everyone else has been saved from their terrible, previous fates. Credits roll. At which point my wife looked at me and telegraphed with her eyes that my input into video selection has been suspended for at least a couple weeks.

In the theatrical version, Evan goes back to the day he met Kay, at a kid's party of some sort. He makes a point of leaning over and ferociously whispering to her, "I hate you and I don't want you near me ever again." She walks away, crying and hurt. Again, everyone is saved (same collage as the other version). Granted, this is only a little less silly than strangling oneself in the womb, but at least it's not as grotesque. In my opinion it's a better ending not only for that, but because it accomplishes the same thing as the womb-snuffing version, and it doesn't leave mom a hollow shell - everyone is truly saved in this version.

Still, the events you have to witness for what is essentially a light entertainment completely ruin the film; they're just too heavy for the larger topic. It's like trying to carry rocks with a wet Kleenex. It would be like ending It's a Wonderful Life like it was The Sixth Sense. "Well, George, yes the world is a better place for your having been in it, and yes you still have Zuzu's petals, but you succeeded in killing yourself when you jumped off that bridge. The bell's ringing because of your ghostly presence brushing against it, not because I got my wings. Merry Christmas!"


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