Dir: Eric Bress & J Mackye Gruber. US. 2004. 113mins.
This efficient if wildly elaborate supernatural thriller, which world premiered at Sundance this week and opens through New Line on Jan 23, should be a moderate-to-strong moneyspinner for the studio which has become the home for smart, low-budget youth-oriented horror like Final Destination and its sequel.
International distributors will target the same youthful audiences in their territories and both domestic and international marketers will be immeasurably helped by the dominant star turn of global heartthrob Ashton Kutcher who reveals enough acting talent and well-toned flesh to make teenage girls drool across the world and sympathise with his character's unusual plight.
For the dishy Kutcher, whose uneven film career (Just Married, My Boss's Daughter) to date has been eclipsed by his personal life and status as TV star and prankster, The Butterfly Effect represents a watershed moment. His broad media appeal should reach fever pitch as the film is rolled out across the world.
Bress and Gruber, who wrote Final Destination 2, demonstrate some flair as film-makers and the well-edited picture keeps the thrills coming even if the plot loses control towards the final act.
The problem comes with the convoluted central premise. Kutcher plays Evan Treborn, a troubled college student who, from early childhood, has been plagued by the same curse that sent his father to a mental institution: crucial moments of his life disappear from his memory.
The film scans through his childhood for a long opening stretch in which John Patrick Amedori plays the young Evan. Terrible events in which Evan, his best friends Kayleigh and Lenny and the local bully Tommy are involved occur but, like Evan, we don't see what actually happened - only the build-up to the event itself and its consequences. As a result of a childhood prank gone wrong and child abuse at the hands of Kayleigh and Tommy's villainous father Mr Miller (Stoltz), Evan leaves the neighbourhood, Kayleigh lives a life of torment, Tommy becomes a vicious criminal and Lenny is forever mentally backward.
Evan has been encouraged by a psychologist to keep a day-by-day journal of his memories, and one day at college many years later, he reads from one of them. Suddenly he is transported back in time and starts to relive the memories he has never known. The childhood prank involves the death of a woman and her baby, the abuse at the hands of Mr Miller involves a film he shoots of the kids in his basement, a fight with Tommy results in the death of Evan's dog.
The way Evan changes these events and thereafter alters the course of his life makes for the meat of the picture. Every time he affects one incident, the rest of his life is altered in sinister new ways (hence the title). Each time he seeks to relive his memories, violence, illness and disaster ensue.
At 113 minutes, the film is too long. Indeed the set up is so laborious and the visits to the past so numerous that the very conceit starts unravelling well before the plot begins to wind itself up. Although the conclusion is nicely melancholy, audiences will find themselves picking apart the laboured plot machinations - if they care.
The film also contains some teen-unfriendly elements, including the central, ugly plot strand of child abuse and a wildly distasteful prison sequence.
Prod cos: Benderspink, Filmengine in association with Katalyst
US dist: New Line
Int'l sales: Kathy Morgan International (+ 1 310 472 6300)
Exec prods: William Shively, David Krintzman, Jason Goldberg, Ashton Kutcher
Prods: Chris Bender, AJ Dix, Anthony Rhulen, JC Spink
Scr: Eric Bress & J Mackye Gruber
Cinematography: Matthew F Leonetti
Ed: Peter Amundsen
Music: Michael Suby
Main cast: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Eric Stoltz, William Lee Scott, Ethan Suplee, Melora Walters