I’ve been waiting a long time to see A Sound of Thunder. The movie is based on a classic Ray Bradbury science-fiction tale, and it stars two actors (Edward Burns and Ben Kingsley) whose work I eagerly follow. After missing its initial April 16, 2004 release date, A Sound of Thunder was bounced all over the schedule: from August 2004, to September 2004, to October 2004. All of those dates were missed as well. Then the film was in limbo for a while before being scheduled to hit theaters in March 2005. That date came and went too. Finally, it was dropped unceremoniously onto only 816 screens on Labor Day weekend (a.k.a. Hollywood’s dumping ground), with almost no promotion or publicity. It turns out that the only reason the movie finally made it into theaters at all is because Warner Bros. had a legal obligation to release it.
Given all this, I was expecting A Sound of Thunder to be a complete, unmitigated disaster. Well, it’s certainly a mess – that much is clear – but it’s a mess with a certain goofy charm. No one will ever accuse this of being a good movie, although it’s not hard to warm up to if you have a soft spot for science-fiction that borders on camp.
Set in the year 2055, the story centers around a company called Time Safari, Inc. Owned and operated by slick billionaire Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley), the company offers wealthy customers the chance to go back in time and hunt dinosaurs. Actually, they only get to hunt one dinosaur who was about to die anyway; killing random dinos would alter the path of evolution and there are very strict rules against that. The rules are: don’t change anything in the past, don’t leave anything behind, and don’t bring anything back with you.
Leading these expeditions is Travis Ryer (Edward Burns). Although he generally opposes the business end of Time Safari, it allows him to take partial DNA samples of extinct animals for his research. During one of the expeditions, one of the clients accidentally breaks two of the three rules, causing serious repercussions. The earth suddenly begins experiencing daily “time waves” which change vegetation, atmosphere, and eventually life forms. With the help of Dr. Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack), who invented the time travel technology, Ryer must figure out what happened, then go back in time to correct it.
Ray Bradbury’s short story played on the theory that everything in the world is connected. Killing a bug can theoretically upend the entire food chain. Picking a flower can alter vegetation, leading to climate changes, and so on. This one of the most fascinating sci-fi concepts ever, and A Sound of Thunder is ambitious for trying to tackle it on the big screen. However, its grasp seriously outweighs its reach.
For starters, the special effects look exactly like what you’d find in a cheesy made-for-Sci-Fi Channel flick. You can tell that the actors are often being filmed (badly) against a green screen, especially in the awkward sequences that feature “futuristic” cityscapes. It’s also pretty clear that they’re walking on a treadmill in front of that green screen. The dinosaurs look rubbery and have none of the majesty or realism of those in Jurassic Park - a picture that came out twelve years ago, by the way. When Travis and his groups go back in time, a large black hole opens up in the background while a shimmery platform emerges for them to walk through the Styrofoam sets. The volcano in the background looks like it was made on someone’s PC, and to simulate the effect of its eruption, the camera shakes while the actors flop around. (Shades of “Star Trek.”) Effects such as these would have looked really cool in the 1980’s. Today though, it’s hard to believe a major motion picture would put these cheap-o effects on the screen and expect the audience to take them seriously. (Rather than using well known, tried-and-true FX companies, the filmmakers used considerably less well-known, less tried-and-true foreign companies.)
Edward Burns is a likeable actor, but he looks uncomfortable in the action hero role. The script calls for him to go mano-a-mano with some of the mutated creatures that appear each time a time wave hits. You can feel Burns’s awkwardness fighting with thin air, knowing that a creature will be put in via CGI later on. Burns comes from films like The Brothers McMullen that were about people and situations. McCormack and Kingsley are classically trained theater actors. What are all these fine people doing in a movie like this?
The story ultimately veers away from Bradbury’s theory and turns into a generic chase picture, with Ryer and Rand battling one creature after another. This means more not-so-special effects and more inept action sequences. This culminates in a rather amusing finale; Ryer’s big plan to correct the time continuum seems to be going back in time to tackle the guy who would otherwise inadvertently alter evolution. That’s brainpower there!
A Sound of Thunder isn’t the kind of bad movie that you actively hate. It’s a movie that thinks it’s being really cool and cutting edge, with no realization that it is woefully outdated. Consider it the cinematic equivalent of your crazy uncle who tries unsuccessfully to incorporate hip-hop lingo into his speech so that the kids will be impressed. The movie means no harm; it tries hard and doesn’t realize that it’s often unintentionally funny. Its complete cluelessness is part of the charm. You desperately want to heckle the film but you can’t because…look, there’s a pack of marauding baboon-lizards! They think we’re actually going to be frightened by baboon-lizards! Isn’t that cute – they thought this was a good idea!
Director Peter Hyams has made a career helming bad films: End of Days, The Relic, Stay Tuned, Timecop, etc. This time he turns in one that’s at least watchable – perhaps even engaging - in its ineptitude. Despite having some strange affection for its unknowing goofiness, A Sound of Thunder is too still disjointed for me to recommend. However, when it comes on cable, you might want to check it out. It’s the kind of picture that will probably play better on the small screen in the middle of the night, when expectations and demands are significantly lower.
( out of four)
A Sound of Thunder is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, partial nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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