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‘Butterfly Effect’ just doesn't fly

Ashton Kutcher stars in this thoroughly unpleasant thriller. By John Hartl

Last year’s “Final Destination 2” was, if nothing else, one of the great oxymoron movie titles. How could there be a “2” to a “Final”? Was the joke deliberate? Or a conscious homage to the blithe nonsense of horror sequels that resurrect dead characters and give them second, third, tenth lives?

Now its creators, Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber, are back with “The Butterfly Effect,” a less inspired but more logical title. It refers to the theory that when a butterfly flaps its wings in on one side of the globe, a chain reaction could lead to a typhoon elsewhere.

Bress and Gruber wrote the screenplay for both films, and they’re making their directing debut with “The Butterfly Effect.” Their ambitious but thoroughly unpleasant script imagines several variations on the life of Evan, a traumatized boy who is somehow able to manipulate the past. Like Christopher Reeve in “Somewhere in Time,” all he has to do is concentrate very hard to find himself in another place, in an earlier time.

Through the help of his diaries, Evan thinks his way back to decisive moments in his childhood, then alters them in a way that seems less destructive. Alas, he doesn’t allow for unexpected consequences. In one rewrite of his life, he saves his best friends from disaster but ends up armless in a wheelchair. At another point, rather like the hero of “A Beautiful Mind,” he’s diagnosed as having imagined his entire predicament.

Lack of acting skill or simply bad filmmaking? Evan is introduced in the form of Ashton Kutcher, though Logan Lerman plays him at 8 and John Patrick Amedori plays him at 13. Evan goes through so many changes that the movie almost requires the actors to express multiple personalities, yet the opportunity for a “Three Faces of Eve” demonstration of versatility is missed. Were the actors not up to such demands, or did the writer-directors not see the potential?

Hard to say. Indeed, “The Butterfly Effect” exasperates mostly because it doesn’t seem to know what it’s aiming for — or why we should care about a group of kids whose connection to each other is rarely compelling. Kutcher seems out of his depth, and the child actors are even less persuasive.

Amy Smart fares somewhat better as Kayleigh, the girl Evan loves even when she becomes a self-destructive hooker and, in one alternate existence, a suicide. William Lee Scott is scary as her psychotic brother, Tommy, who likes to twist the heads off dolls and burn pet dogs alive; he’s less credible when Tommy becomes a born-again do-gooder.

The most effective performance comes from Eric Stoltz, as a sleazy pedophile who forces Evan and Kayleigh to make child porn videos. These sequences are the most nightmarish in the movie, and the most revolting. Pitched far too close to the edge of exploitation, they’re hopelessly hard to watch. Anyone expecting a harmless followup to Kutcher and Scott’s “Dude, Where’s My Car?” is in for a nasty surprise.