Sound of Thunder, A (DVD)

Starring Edward Burns, Catherine McCormack, Ben Kingsley, Jemima Rooper, August Zirner

Directed by Peter Hyams

Released by Warner Home Video

“A Sound of Thunder” is a classic short story written by science fiction master Ray Bradbury back in 1952. The story deals with a futuristic time travel company called Time Safari that takes people back in time to hunt prehistoric dinosaurs. Working with the principle that even the slightest change in the past can have monumental impact on the future, Time Safari participants are required to remain on a path that hovers just above the ground and can only shoot animals that are already moments from death. Nothing can be left behind and nothing can be brought back except for a visual documentation of the hunt. One hunter returns to the future and can’t shake the feeling that something just isn’t quite right. It turns out that during a brief moment of panic he had stepped off the path and crushed a butterfly, causing a ripple effect through time. One change leads to another, then another, and the whole thing snowballs throughout history – hence the scientific theory known as the “Butterfly Effect.” Bradbury’s short story never went into any real details involving the differences to the future other than changes in language, spellings, ambience, and politics.

A Sound of Thunder the motion picture feels like someone took Bradbury’s short story, adapted it into a survival horror video game, and this film is Uwe Boll’s movie version of that game. Characters skulk about, navigate from one location to another, get chased by monsters, do a little puzzle solving… if this movie was an actual survival horror video game then it might have been entertaining to play, but as a motion picture it’s the world’s most expensive Sci-Fi Channel original movie. That’s not a good thing.

After gathering dust on a shelf for several years following no shortage of problems getting to the big screen – many of the sets in Prague where the movie was filmed got destroyed in a flood, the production company filed for bankruptcy, etc – A Sound of Thunder got unceremoniously dumped onto a paltry number of screens the weekend after Hurricane Katrina struck. If nothing else, at least those responsible for the film could say it wasn’t the most expensive disaster of that week. How big a disaster was A Sound of Thunder? Well, let’s take a look at the numbers courtesy of boxofficemojo.com:

Budget: $80 million
Domestic Gross: $1,900,451
International Gross: $5,313,824

I do believe I can safely say that this is one of those films that won’t make its money back on DVD. It’s a pity that the only extra the studio bothered to include on the DVD is a trailer for the film, because I suspect an audio commentary track or featurette detailing the film’s troubled history would have proved quite fascinating, infinitely more so than the movie itself.

In Uncle Creepy’s review of the film’s theatrical release, he talked about what a shame it is that Hollywood doesn’t make more monster movies these days. I agree with that sentiment 100%, but A Sound of Thunder is the kind of movie that explains why Hollywood doesn’t make more monster movies. Director Peter Hyams previously made The Relic, a far from perfect creature feature that was still infinitely superior to this turkey. I dare say that between this and Van Damme’s temporal kickfest Timecop, Peter Hyams needs to stay the hell away from the time travel genre because he sucks at it.

Edward Burns, the poor man’s Ben Affleck, which is a really depressing thing to have to say about someone when you consider that these days Ben Affleck himself has become the poor man’s Ben Affleck, plays the scientist that works as the lead tour guide for toupee wearing Ben Kingsley’s Time Safari in futuristic Chicago.

Let me stop right here for a sec. The first time I saw Ed Burns walking around the poorly computer generated matte painting of futuristic Chicago as even less realistic computer generated futuristic cars drove by, I honestly began wondering if I was actually watching one of those 3-D computer animated Hot Wheels DVDs with Edward Burns blue screened in front of the action. I don’t know where the hell that $80 million went but I have a hard time imagining much of it went into the computer effects, since the majority of them are not terribly believable and a few like this are laughably embarrassing.

Anyway, Burns doesn’t particularly like going back to prehistoric times so that rich snobs in need of kicks can kill a dinosaur with a gun that fires ice bullets, but then the real reason he does it is because a virus has wiped out virtually every animal on the planet and he gets to collect some digitized DNA data on every trip that may one day lead to him bringing them back from extinction. This subplot serves no purpose other than to try and establish that his character isn’t really a money-grubbing prick like his boss, toupee wearing Ben Kingsley.

Catherine McCormack, here playing a poor woman’s Helena Bonham Carter, is the scientist that used to work for toupee wearing Ben Kingsley, having created the time travel process only to see it stolen out from under her and transformed into a money-making theme park ride for the super rich while she gets tossed out in the cold. She shows up at Time Safari ranting and raving like a PETA activist at an all fur fashion show about the dangers of time travel in the hands of a scheming industrialist like toupee wearing Ben Kingsley.

Naturally, her worst case scenario comes true on the next safari when the group survives nearly getting eaten by a dinosaur and killed by a volcanic eruption only to come back and see the world and every living thing in it getting progressively altered because one of the tourists unknowingly squished a prehistoric butterfly. Not knowing exactly what has happened or how to fix it, Burns seeks out McCormack’s advice and eventually they (a group also consisting of the token black guy, a federal agent, Burns’ niece, and other Time Safari employees that exist just to have someone to kill off along the way) all realize that they need to figure out what has happened and how to reverse it before it’s too late and humanity gets erased.

Toupee wearing Ben Kingsley is the only bright spot in the cast; at least he realizes the movie he’s starring in is crap and decides to have some fun by playing the greedy, reckless Time Safari CEO as a huckster cross between Rupert Murdock and a used car salesman. Compared to his lifeless Bloodrayne performance, Kingsley displays an almost manic personality here. Everyone else in the cast is as flat as the film’s finale. That final scene is so flat I couldn’t believe that was how it was going to end. I assure you it will only pound home the pointlessness of the entire production.

Apparently, the producers and screenwriters got it in their heads that the title A Sound of Thunder meant they needed to make the movie version big and loud and about as subtle as the gargantuan computer generated time ripple that roars across the planet like a thunderous earthquake.

Gone are the subtle political and aesthetic changes in the wake of altering history. Instead, with each new ripple effect a variety of beasties spawn out of thin air, including highly poisonous carnivorous plants, super bats, giant eels in the sewers, and a pack of half reptile/half Mandrill monkey creatures. Those baboon raptor thingies pop up most frequently but once you’ve gotten past their odd appearance there isn’t much to them. None of the film’s monsters are particularly menacing and fail to capture the imagination; every encounter, every chase with these creatures is utterly devoid of suspense, excitement or even camp value.

Well, almost all. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t chuckle quite heartily when their vehicle is a chased by a flock of those super bats. Between the absurdity of the situation and the “you gotta be kidding me” effects bringing the scene to life, it’s a howler for all the wrong reasons.

Two scenes perfectly typify exactly what’s wrong with this film and why it was doomed from the get go. Almost as soon as Burns arrives at McCormack’s condo after returning from the ill-fated safari, she tells him there’s something he needs to see outside the window. He peers out, everything looks normal for a sec, and then the gigantic translucent time tsunami comes across the horizon, striking like a massive earthquake. I don’t think anyone would have missed one of those the first time around and there was no sign of it coming at first so how the hell did she know about it and know that he should look out the window at precisely that very moment?

Immediately afterwards, a swarm of bugs (big ants I believe?) swarm into the condo. The two of them escape the insect onslaught by blowing up the apartment and jumping off the balcony, a move that should prove equally fatal since her apartment was several stories up. Nonetheless, they survive because they land in a giant tree that magically appeared during that last time ripple, a tree neither knew was there when they seemingly jumped to their deaths to survive the explosion designed to kill the ravenous insect swarm.

The more grievous insult if you ask me occurs after they find conclusive evidence that one of the Time Safari security guards has been brutally killed by an unseen creature and yet still decide to take a nature hike through the park rather than drive across town to get where they need to go. Naturally, carnage ensues. Once at their destination it isn’t long before they realize they need to go to yet another part of town. This time they elect to drive there. You come to realize that the only reason they didn’t just do the logical thing by driving to the first place is because the screenplay required them to go walking through the park so that they could get attacked and chased by the first round of monsters.

Pointing out stuff like that isn’t nitpicking. What I’ve just described are two proof positive examples of lousy screenwriting that insults the intelligence of the audience. There’s more where that came from. Take for example when the time machine is incapacitated. All is lost right? Wrong! With just a few minor adjustments, the nuclear supercollider on a nearby college campus can be modified into a time machine. I know this is a dopey sci-fi flick but come on already!

A Sound of Thunder has a few isolated moments where you can see the good movie it wanted to be and the so bad it’s good movie it might have been if the filmmakers had just said “screw it” and gone for broke, but mostly its a tedious adventure that’s very slow to get going and even once it does you never get the feeling it’s going anywhere interesting. Essentially, this is a sci-fi monster movie version of Timeline. That is not a good thing.

But at least I did learn one thing coming away from the film: If anyone ever travels back in time and steps on a butterfly, mankind will eventually evolve into a life form that looks like a cross between a humanoid catfish and a puppet created by the Children’s Television Workshop. Now that’s what I call creative design!

I can only imagine Ray Bradbury actually sitting down to watch this and repeatedly slapping his forehead as the film goes on. If traveling back in time and stepping on a butterfly could have prevented this movie from being made I bet Bradbury would be willing to do it. Judging by those box office numbers, the producers probably would, too…

Special Features
Two theatrical trailers

2 out of 5

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Jon Condit