The logistics of time travel remains one of science fiction's great challenges. The thrill of tampering with the past or peering into the future is self-evident, but getting from here to there is what requires ingenuity. Over the years, from pulp novels to B-movies, the protagonists of chrono-warp adventures have hopped aboard time machines, zoomed through deep-space wormholes, prayed to God, hitched a ride with aliens, gotten high on experimental drugs, tumbled down interdimensional portals, intercepted radio waves, and adapted the theory of relativity. Compared to its predecessors, The Butterfly Effect is breathtaking in its, um, simplicity. In this version of the universe, Ashton Kutcher discovers that he can inhabit his child self whenever he reads aloud from his journals and squints really hard. You have to, if not love, at least not mind a movie in which the very act of Ashton Kutcher reading is enough of a cosmic trauma to rip a hole in the fabric of space-time.
Its wonderfully pure disregard for the laws of physics notwithstanding, The Butterfly Effect is dreary and overfamiliar—a strained bid for Donnie Darko cult cred on the part of its star (who also co-executive-produced and sports a serious-looking beard). But things don't get darko so much as absurdo. Plagued by blackouts throughout a miserable childhood, Kutcher's Evan, now an undergrad obsessed with "memory simulation," uses his newfound powers to improve the fates of his old friends: sad-sack Lenny, abused Kayleigh, and her evil little brute of a brother, Tommy. Needless to say, the cautionary message of the title repeatedly kicks in: saving someone means damning another. Returning from each shakycam excursion to his youth, Evan finds himself variously imprisoned, institutionalized, and armless. His beloved Kayleigh (Amy Smart), meanwhile, morphs from dowdy waitress to dim sorority sister to bitter, scar-faced prostitute.
The movie comes to resemble a parody of Frequency, the most grossly entitled of recent time-travel whimsies, where the point is to keep fine-tuning the past until the present is perfect. (Frequency's writer, New Line honcho Toby Emmerich, is one of Butterfly's executive producers.) The Butterfly Effect acknowledges the control-fantasy aspect of time travel, but not enough to truly punish its God-playing hero. Directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber (who wrote the screenplay for the oxymoronically named teen-horror trashfest Final Destination 2) try to compensate for the lack of suspense with a monotonous tone of roiling Grand Guignol that ill-serves the star. It's easy enough to imagine Kutcher, with his fluttering lashes and barely concealed smirks, in a different kind of time-travel movie, an excellent adventure with less facial hair and more punking pratfalls. Dude, where's my neutron star?