A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

A SOUND OF THUNDER j

2005, PG-13, 102 mins.

Travis Ryer: Edward Burns / Charles Hatton: Ben Kingsley / Sonia: Catherine McCormack / Jenny: Jemima Rooper / Clay Derris: August Zirner / Christia: Corey Johnson

Directed by Peter Hyams /  Written by Ray Bradbury, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Gregory Poirer

 

Okay gang, let’s put on our scientific thinking caps as I propose a question to you.  I love playing games of “What If?"

Let’s say that I sent my own mother to the local video store to pick me up a DVD to watch as I lay on my couch in pain following a stressful wisdom tooth extraction.  She eventually came home from the store with a copy of A SOUND IN THUNDER.  I watched it, found it cataclysmically awful, and have regretted it even since.

Now, what if I had a time travel machine at my disposal (okay, that a huge what if) and I decided to send someone back in time to tell my mother – before she even arrived at my apartment to receive her instructions to go and rent me A SOUND OF THUNDER - not to go to the store and rent me A SOUND OF THUNDER no matter what I say to her to convince her other wise.  Still with me?

Okay, most logical people would say that if mom did not go to the video store to pick up A SOUND IN THUNDER for me, then I obviously would (a) have never seen it, (b) would have never recounted what a dreadfully inept sci-fi thriller it was, (c) would have never written a bad review for it here and (d) all of the words that I have just written should have instantaneously disappeared…right?  If I did not see the film, then why would I write about it?

Okay, maybe that last example was convoluted and a bit too round-about.  I will offer up a much more simplistic what if scenario, one that has probably been posed before.  Let’s say that I time traveled back to…1955.  I met my mother and in turn stopped her from meeting my father.  I also accidentally caused her to die in a horrible accident.  Still with me?

Okay, most logical people with even a miniscule amount of intelligence would correctly postulate that this obvious paradox would mean that I should not exist.  Why?  Well, for starters, my mother is my mother; she gave birth to me and gave me life.  If she died before she was able to do so, I should not, in theory, exist.  Thus, when my mother died in the past I should have instantaneously vanished…right?  Either that, or that incident in the past could - as Doc Brown from BACK TO THE FUTURE would say - “Create a time paradox, the results of which could start a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum, and destroy the entire universe!”  Hmmm…I would not chose the latter explanation on any day of the week, but maybe the destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to my own galaxy.  That I could live with.

Time travel has always been one of my favorite movie conventions - if done right -  and has made for such a rich diversity of film going experiences.  The BACK TO THE FUTURE films had a cheerfully macabre spin on time travel and had a real zeal in probing in to the theory of paradox.  THE TERMINATOR films had time travel as a plot device, but it more or less acted as a close line for their more action oriented moments.  Then there was the great PRIMER of 2004, arguably the most thoughtful and perceptive film about time travel and the incredible inherent dangers of paradox.  That film never made time travel fun; it was almost like an addiction that its two characters could not get over until it was too late for them to realize the error of their ways.

Regardless of what type of film it is, if you use the concept of time travel make sure you use it with a modest amount of logic.  The previously mentioned films at least had a brain in their heads about the prospect.  A SOUND OF THUNDER is so mournfully and unbelievably stupid with its own concept of time travel that I spent more times counting all of the paradoxes it creates with its story.  This film does not seem to have even a rudimentary clue as to how time travel might, in fact, work.  Maybe I am being intellectually pompous, but this film is – for lack of a better metaphor – is dumber than a bag of hammers.  Sometimes I relish in films that know they are dumb, but this one does not even seen remotely self-aware.

A SOUND OF THUNDER keenly demonstrates how a filmmaker can take a classic work of fiction and turn it into an ultimately inane and moronic film.  The literary work in question is Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story masterpiece of the same name.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with filmmakers taking a classic past work as a jumping off point for their own modern take on the material.  Yet, the makers of A SOUND OF THUNDER not only take the jump, but they proceed to fall into the dark, desolate and endless cavern of mediocrity in the process.   It’s amazing – and equal parts stupefying – how a great, intelligent, and chilling story can be so easily spawned into such an intellectually bankrupted film.

Bradbury’s story hit a nerve in the sense that it did not glorify time travel.  Like PRIMER, it tells how utterly dangerous it could be.  His story basically concerns a futuristic business called Time Safari that promises to take rich people back to the prehistoric times to hunt down dinosaurs like wild game.    However, before you can yell out, “Wait!  You can’t do that,” Time Safari has a set of principles that all passengers must follow to not allow for a time paradox.  Even the slightest thing that is changed in the past can have huge, unrelenting changes for the present.  For example, if you have a cold and sneeze on a dinosaur, that modern day plague could prematurely kill out the dinosaurs and – in the process – alter evolution as we know it.  The premise is scary; that could mean that humans may not have evolved at all. 

Bradbury’s story was a landmark work in the way it explored the “Butterfly Effect” (or "sensitive dependence upon initial conditions") and his story even predates the very coining of the phrase.  Certainly, this story could have been made into an equally unsettling and invigorating sci-fi thriller and Bradbury himself – back in 2002 – stated publicly that he had high hopes for this film version’s success.  Unfortunately, the film neither celebrates the author nor his story on any successful level.  Bradbury is still alive and kicking, but after watching a A SOUND IN THUNDER, he just may wish he was not around. 

The film follows the basic path of his story.  The year is 2055 and in Chicago time travel has become chic.  If you have the money, then you definitely have the clout to convince billionaire entrepreneur Charles Hatton (Sir Ben Kingsley…what he’s doing in this film is beyond me).  Hatton has not invented time travel, but he does head it up like a business.  He offers his affluent clients a chance to go back to prehistoric Chicago and allows them to kill a dinosaur.  Along for the ride is paleontologist Travis Ryer (the hopelessly miscast Edward Burns), who ensures that nothing - and I mean nothing - interrupts the space time continuum. 

Okay…am I the fist to say…"Huh?”  If I follow the film’s premise, every “trip” goes back to precisely the same time in the past.  Why?  Because the scientists know that at this time a dinosaur will die so that if they kill it this will not create a paradox.  How do they know it will die?  An ancient volcanic eruption will do it in eventually, thus, the time travellers arrive just before the eruption.  Okay, but what if they leave futuristic evidence like footprints and bullets?  Well, the time travelers hover on over the ground on some sort of time travel bridge and they shoot bullets that conveniently dissolve once impacted.  Hmmmm…oooookay.

Anyway, it seems that during one trip something has gone very, very badly.  Travis is a complete stickler for details and does absolutely everything in his power to ensure that nothing gets left behind and that nothing has changed.  However, after they arrive back after one nearly fatal trip, Travis and the rest of humanity soon begins to notice something – the future (or is it the present?) is slowly changing. 

Dr. Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack) invented time travel and has always thought that no one should venture back in time, and now her fears are realized.  It seems that something did – in fact – happen in the past and now the future (or present) is de-evolving right before their eyes.  A series of “time ripples” (which take the form of a giant, transparent pulse wave) strike through the future at certain arbitrary (but convenient) moments that are causing the future to change.  The city is slowly being covered by primordial foliage and strange hybrid creatures are popping up everywhere.  Some look like apes mixed with dinosaurs and Sonia realizes that evolution has changed.  Humans will too, in fact, change with further time ripples, into what she is not certain.  Homo sapiens, I guess, will be the last to change because they are the last and most advanced species to evolve.  Uuuuh...Oooookay.

Instead of channeling a intense layer of tantalizing intrigue in its audience (like PRIMER did) A SOUND OF THUNDER pummels us by insulting our common sense.  The overall story has so many temporal holes that I grew impatient and dizzy just thinking about them.  Okay, so the travelers worry a lot about not leaving anything behind (like bullets in the dino carcass), yet they know that a volcanic eruption will destroy it…so why bother worrying with that aspect? 

Another thing, the travelers always go back to the same time at the precise same instant.  If you are a studier of "Basic on Time Travel 101," then should they not bump into the past expeditions that were there?  If ten other trips were taken to the exact same point and time would the current travelers not bump into those ten other voyagers and the 10 other duplicates of Travis, the expedition leader?  Oh, and the future evolves because of something that is killed in the past.  Yet, wait a tick, if the volcanic eruption was to kill everything in its wake, wouldn’t the thing that one of the voyagers kill not make a difference at all to evolution?  The volcano killed it in the original history and things evolved naturally, so what would be the difference in a time traveler killed it in the seconds below?  My head hurts.

And then there is the ridiculous business of the “time waves” or "time ripples."  This movie creates a level of science that sort of dictates that anything that is changed in the past will not instantly alter things in the present.  So, if you change something millions of years ago, it will take the “time wave” a lot longer to reach the present day.  What?  Excuse me, but am I missing something here?  Shouldn’t things change instantaneously?  If my mom was killed before I was born in the past, does that mean that my future self will have a little while longer to live because the time wave has not hit the future yet?  C’mon!   One thing is for certain, the de-evolution does not take on a specific and logical progression – the time wave comes precisely when the story needs it.

A SOUND OF THUNDER – aside from its lack of logic in the science arena – is also a completely lackluster film from an aesthetic standpoint.  The visual effects are incompetent and gut-wrenchingly horrendously.  This could be attributed to the fact that the film was made in 2002 and one of the companies that made it went bankrupted during post-production, and it sure shows.  Yet, the film had a respectable $52 million dollar budget and - judging by my usually sharp eyes - only about a tenth of that is apparent on screen at any given moment. 

Early scenes from the film involving dinosaurs make them look as realistic as the ones from the original LOST WORLD from the 1920’s and the futuristic cityscapes and vistas are ambitious, but are absolute failures in terms of plausible and realistic CGI visions.  I have long been a CGI-apologist for films, but only if they're done well and precisely with a level of polish.  People by the names of Lucas and Jackson use them with conviction, whereas the effects in A SOUND OF THUNDER look about as convincing as something a 10-year-old child would do with his PC.  The film's recreation of 21st Century Chicago is so jaw-dropping and pathetic in execution it makes the futuristic cityscapes in ULTRAVIOLET look like Curoscant in REVENGE OF THE SITH.  Perhaps the worst visual effect is Ben Kingsley's hilariously fake, silver streaked wig and Edward Burn’s lack of charisma.  Kingsley should be given a special Oscar for "Academy Award winning actor that has allowed himself to drown in terrible films."  If you doubt this, then don’t forget his participation in SPECIES, THUNDERBIRDS, and WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? 

A SOUND OF THUNDER should have been called “TIME TRAVELING FOR DUMMIES.”  It certainly does not have a brain in its head for even giving us a plausible take of time travel gone amok.  It’s one thing for a sci-fi thriller to be wonderfully insipid and enter into a decidedly B-grade territory.  Yet, A SOUND OF THUNDER does not even begin to enter the category of “so bad, they’re good” cinema.  It could have went for cheeky and silly camp entertainment value, but it fails for us to even by into it on those simplistic levels.   When you don’t buy into its story, or characters, or even – for the love of God – it’s visual effects, then what’s the point (A SOUND OF THUNDER even fails at being good eye candy)?  And all of this wretchedness comes from the once promising director Peter Hyams (who has made some good films like 2010 and OUTLAND and has made even more dreadful works like END OF DAYS, TIME COP,  SUDDEN DEATH, and STAY TUNED to name a few).  Anyone out there with a time travel machine, please go back in time and tell me not to watch this…but don’t go too far back.  The “time ripples” won’t catch up with me as fast as I would like them to in the future.  Damn those time ripples...damn them to hell!

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