A Sound of Thunder
(SPOILERS) Does A Sound of Thunder deserve its relegation to the movie dungeon? It’s been languishing there for a decade and a half, egged along by a six-percent Rotten Tomatoes score, and I think it deserves a break. Sure, it has its work cut out for it there, as any non-judgemental viewer will have to get past some truly appalling special effects (but, to be fair, some that aren’t nearly so bad), a time travel plot that doesn’t make a lick of sense (but, to be fair, name one that does) and… Edward Burns. And yet, you can see director Peter Hyams is really trying to make this work. If it doesn’t, his attempts are nevertheless honourable ones.
Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story experienced a number of production hiccups on the way to the big screen, such that a movie snuck in in the meantime with its central concept in the title. And it was a hit. You know, the one in which Ashton Kutcher’s penchant for threesomes with his much older spouse resulted in devastating consequences for the space-time continuum. Renny Harlin and Pierce Brosnan were attached to A Sound of Thunder back in 2001. Harlin was fired, it has been suggested, while Brosnan wanted a rewrite (not unreasonable, given the plot holes). This led to the situation of Hyams’ hiring (positive) and Burns as the lead (not so much). The backers (Franchise and Apollo Media) had a dreadful track record, and one of them (Franchise) then went bust during production, meaning the $80m budget – most of which was going on effects – was slashed. How much the production actually worked with in the end varies from about $30m to $52m, depending on whom you read.
Hyams’ son John, now a director himself (including a string of Van Damme pictures, just like dad), commiserated over his father’s experience, reflecting that having to rely on all that green screen, and the adverse results when it didn’t come through, convinced him to rely as much as possible on practical effects in his own movies. There’s some truly rotten pre-vis-at-best style work here, most notably on the future streets as Travis Ryer (Burns) “walks” and talks with Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack). And also when the Allosaurus “attacks” during the time safari. On the other hand, the apeosaurus/baboonlizard hybrids that arrive later in the picture are really quite reasonable. As ever, Hyams serves as his own cinematographer, which means he tends to under light (Arnie hates that, and hates Hyams criticising his friend Jim Cameron. Arnie is a chump). Which is at least conducive to attempts at atmosphere and disguising the holes in the budget.
The movie and the short story share the year (2055), company (Time Safari Inc) and its mission (offering the wealthy a chance to travel back in to hunt and kill extinct species). In both versions, the travellers are required to stick to a levitating path and neither leave anything behind nor bring anything back with them, in order to cause minimum disruption. Their targets are also those that would have died with minutes anyway. In the movie, however, various additional hit-and-miss rules are bashed out for how these laws of time work. Let’s face it, Bradbury’s situation is pretty damn tenuous to begin with, since even these safeguards can’t skirt the potential for altering the future just by being there (sound, vision, microbes dropped, microbes removed, physical space occupied – even given, in the movie, an all-encompassing volcano about to blow).
The movie has it that the facility is overseen by the Temporal Regulation Commission, but how likely is it that the government would (a) permit any private individuals to dabble in such a potentially hazardous business as time travel and (b) refrain from dabbling in such a potentially hazardous business as time travel for their own profit? Somehow Sonia, who developed the tech, is not detained in a top-secret facility and milked of expertise for all she’s worth.
The movie also utilises a head-scratching premise whereby safari travellers return to exactly the same Allosaurus encounter each time. Somehow, they do not encounter themselves on each occasion (but when Travis takes a roundabout route to warn the group who inadvertently brought back the butterfly, he does). The only theory that might account for this is one of multiple timelines, but that is usually based on going forward, rather than backwards, and Travis’ attempt – and success – in changing the mission clearly does not factor in such an effect.
Then there’s Sonia’s assertion that “When you change something in the past, the future isn’t affected all at once” It isn’t? I mean, by the rules of the movie she is proved correct, but she knows this how? From watching Back to the Future Part II? The time ripple effect is actually one of the more effective concepts here, though, as waves of changes gradually overtake 2055, from invasions of CGI bugs, to plant overgrowth of the city, to variously evolved predators. It also means Hyams can gradually dim the lights as the dwindling numbers of humans are required to journey across the increasingly dangerous urban landscapes in order to determine the cause of the disruption and from thence a means to travel back to correct it.
Adding to hassles of 2055, we’re informed a “virus” (you know, one of those pesky Pasteurian creations) has wiped out the animal population, such that Travis relishes “actually seeing real animals in the wild” on his trips (it’s unclear if there are domestic animals, as there is also a reference to a pet dog). Cloning doesn’t work because the virus screwed up DNA… Okay. Travis has the idea of taking remote DNA readings – whatever they are – on his trips as physical samples are not allowed, with a view to one day reconstructing species (what, of dinosaur?)
So yeah, nothing much makes sense in A Sound of Thunder. But nothing much made sense in critically-acclaimed Looper, and I tend to be much less forgiving when a filmmaker – cough, Rian Johnson – boasts of having rigorously worked through the temporal ramifications only for you to realise he’s done nothing of the sort (God knows how he’d fare with a whodunit…) On top of all that, there’s that the effects stink so badly, many won’t even give A Sound of Thunder the time of day. And that Edward Burns is in it.
I assumed Burns had entirely dropped off the radar after it was realised absolutely no one wanted to see his lack of personality headlining movies, particularly ones he wrote, directed and produced himself. All this time, I’ve been blissfully unaware he’s still at it, still writing and directing and producing and starring in movies (and TV!) no one wants to see. He must have some serious dirt on someone, such that his auteurish abandon continues to get a boost. His presence is expectedly devoid of charm or impact here, but a few of the faces are more memorable. Early on, McCormack just about survives the most unflattering exposition dump ever, against a (barely) greenscreen street. David Oyelowo crops up in a very early movie role and goes down in a blaze of apes. Corey Johnson (nu-Who’s Dalek) and Heike Makatsch (Love Actually) also show up. Most notable is Ben Kingsley in a Claude Rains wig doing a Henry Gibson impression. He’s good fun, and I wish there’d been more of him.
I didn’t catch the reference to “Brubaker on Mars” (Capricorn One’s fake Mars mission). Of which, one take might have been time travel turning out to be a big money-making scam on Kingsley’s part. It might be nice one day if someone got the funds together to give A Sound of Thunder the effects it deserves. True, the illogical plot would still be there, and you’d also have to CGI Brosnan over the top of Burns, but it would definitely cast Hyams’ film in a better light. As it is, I’d still argue this one may have been maligned for reasonable reasons, but that drubbing isn’t altogether earned.