A Sound of Thunder / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
If a dark screen bearing the title card “In the year 2055 …” gets you excited, then A Sound of Thunder will be right up your weird little alley. Directed by Peter Hyams, he of Timecop fame, Thunder tells the story of a group of scientists who travel back in time and accidentally alter the past, causing the future to be undone in waves, with every 24-hour period bringing more (de)evolutionary changes until humans will be wiped out. Their only hope is to set right what once went wrong and hope each time that their next leap will be the leap home —
Sorry. Slipped into a “Quantum Leap” flashback for a minute. Like that show, Thunder features a talking computer with a female voice and is set in an impossibly near future, so Sam Beckett’s adventures have been on my mind. Come to think of it, reruns of “Leap” — or even a test pattern — would have been more enjoyable and suspenseful than A Sound of Thunder.
Back to those title cards: After getting his hands on the ability to travel through time, two-dimensionally greedy Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley) forms Time Safari, Inc., to offer the super-wealthy the opportunity to hunt the ultimate game: nope, not man, but dinosaurs. The time jump crew, headed by Dr. Travis Ryer (Edward Burns), the kind of ruggedly handsome scientist only found in movies like this one, chaperones the temporal excursions to the Cretaceous, where clients kill an allosaurus that always gets stuck in a tar pit shortly before a volcano erupts and wipes out the region. By taking out an animal that was about to die anyway, they reason, evolution and (pre)history remain unaffected by their actions. But something inevitably goes wrong, and Ryer teams up with Dr. Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack), who developed the time travel machine, to set straight their mistakes. (Thunder’s machine even has a girl’s name: TAMI, for Time Alteration Mainframe Interface. Cute.) Ryer, Rand, and a few others wind up traipsing around a Chicago increasingly populated with giant baboon-lizard mutants and enormous vampire bats.
I won’t go into specifics about the ending, or what exactly happened to screw up the future, but I will tell you that this isn’t the type of movie to reach for a dark or complex conclusion in the interests of asking thought-provoking questions or deepening the cookie-cutter characters we’ve watched for the last 90 minutes. Things wind up exactly as you think they will, with complete predictability and zero payoff.
Time travel is hardly a new topic for science fiction films, although only on rare occasions is it handled with intelligence (Minority Report, the phenomenal Primer) or flair (Back to the Future). A Sound of Thunder is a plodding, uninvolving, by-the-numbers affair, too dumb to realize its inherent loopholes and too lazy to beef up the story. We’re never told how Rand, even though she developed the machine, is able to know that evolutionary waves will sweep through the world every 24 hours until everything is destroyed or changed. Similarly, Ryer’s plan to go back and stop the catastrophe-causing jump from ever happening is needlessly complex. One of the major plot points is that Ryer can’t jump back before the time waves (a botched jump puts him in the Old West before a group of Indians on horseback). But why go back 65 million years when you can just go back three days and tell the crew not to go? The story has no problem with two versions of the same person running into each other in the past, despite the obvious psychosis that would result from having one consciousness in two locations simultaneously perceive itself. So why not just go back 72 hours and fix the mess? We’re never given a reason, but Hyams probably assumes that since he didn’t think of it, the audience won’t either.
Thunder has been sitting on the shelf for a few years now; Kingsley has shot several films since, including House of Sand and Fog. When asked about the delay, Kingsley said that Hyams had told him he wanted to work on the effects. This is obviously a lie, because the effects in A Sound of Thunder look absolutely awful, like some Lou Diamond Philips movie made directly for TV and aired on the SciFi Channel. Jurassic Park is now 12 years old, so surely it’s possible to come close to replicating those effects for a far smaller cost. But the creatures in this ultimate B-picture are laughably fake, as are the poorly constructed green-screen scenes of Burns and other actors walking around town. Complimenting the cheap CG are equally bad “futuristic” cars: cheap vertical doors grafted onto a cheap chassis and slapped with a coat of paint, as if in 50 years we’ll all suddenly decide that the DeLorean was a good design.
Ultimately, A Sound of Thunder does nothing but mine old material, without a fresh spin or a reason to care. Despite the inherent sarcasm in Burns’ strained tenor, he seems to really believe in the story, or at least fake it well enough. For simply putting up with the production, he deserves some kind of honorary acting award. Everyone involved, though, probably wishes they had access to a time machine like the one in the movie so they could erase their involvement in it. They’ll live to work again, though; if Hyams survived Timecop, then surely Burns and crew will be hired again in the future. But they’ll probably leave this film off their resumes.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Growing Bald.