Movies

Review: A Sound of Thunder (2005)

I found this one in the files from way back, and decided to share it as a humanitarian gesture, in case anyone comes across the movie at some point and thinks “oh, this looks like fun!”

Spoiler Alert: It is not fun.

Sweet Freaky Jesus. Would that my memories of watching this movie could be erased as easily as some of the events in the plot. Given my personal preferences, you’d be excused for wondering how on earth a movie with dinosaurs, time travel and temporal paradoxes could possibly go wrong. Well, allow me to tell you.

A Sound of Thunder is one of Ray Bradbury’s best loved short stories. Hailed as a classic time travel story, it first introduced the idea of snowballing chaotic changes in history coming from small causes, such as stepping on a butterfly in the Jurassic period. Bradbury suggested that even the tiniest change in the past would create vast and unpredictable changes to the future. Kill an insect, and the plants it might have pollinated wouldn’t reproduce. The animal that fed on those plants might then starve, and the predator that would have fed on that animal might have to go elsewhere, maybe eating the animal that contained the genetic potential to eventually evolve into man. It’s a great idea, belied somewhat by the fact that in the short story, history pretty much stays the same except for a bad election result, people being a tad meaner and some superficial changes to English.

In the story, in the future time travel is a lucrative business, allowing the rich to travel back to the age of dinosaurs and hunt the most dangerous creatures ever to exist. Time Safari, Inc., panders to the wealthy, and seeks to avoid altering the timeline by targeting dinos that are just about to die from natural causes; being crushed by a tree, drowning in a swamp, etc. Clients and staff avoid interacting with the environment by wearing breathing helmets and walking on a special path that floats above the ground. When one of the clients on a hunt panics and steps off the path, he accidentally steps on a butterfly, and the world is changed as a result.

The movie takes the short story and expands on it, diverging pretty rapidly from Bradbury’s original plot. Instead of having our heroes arrive home to find the world already changed, the changes come in waves – portrayed as actual waves – which gradually erase our world and replace it with the new reality. People can remember the old timeline, and themselves aren’t affected by the changes until the final ones, which will affect “the last creatures to evolve”, which is supposed to be us. So, apparently, temporal disruption will be really good for your garden, not so good for you.

It’s not a bad idea, I guess. It’s logically flawed, but allows for an entertaining story. Which makes it rather a shame that they stuck with the one they’d got, really. It was a prime example of lazy writing, the sort of movie you’d expect to see being produced by the Sci Fi Channel for a Saturday night, usually with a title like Alien Budgerigar or Final Paycheck. Only it had a much bigger budget, which made the fact that it was awful seem all the more staggering. As I said to a friend afterwards, while reeling from the theatre, “you’d think there was a point when they were reviewing the rushes when someone would have said, ‘you know, this thing stinks’.” But no, apparently that no longer happens.

The first big logic flaw turns up when the characters first discover that something is wrong. When attempting to return to the point of the disruption the first time – they can apparently revisit the same point in time without stumbling over previous trips, which could be the subject of an entirely different rant – they arrive five minutes late, in time to nearly be caught in the pyroclastic cloud of a nearby volcanic eruption. That site had been chosen because they knew when and how the target dinosaur was supposed to die, and the area would be scoured by the eruption about five minutes later, reducing the chances of anything they do making a difference. Can you see the problem here?

Last time I looked, butterflies can’t fly very fast. Not only that, they’re inherently fragile creatures, prone to being shredded by the hurricane force winds emitted by, let’s say, a volcanic eruption. Not only will the butterfly that supposedly causes all the problems die in five minutes anyway, but so will anything in the area that might be able to eat it. Certainly any plants it might interact with are going to die. So how the heck does its premature death change the course of evolution?

Despite the large amount of money spent on the movie, the special effects aren’t that special. Much use is made of virtual sets to flesh out the future world of 2055, which succeed in looking remarkably like the sort of back projection they used in the 1940s. In one scene, where the hero and his “spunky girl companion” are walking down a city street, it’s painfully obvious that they’re walking in place in front of a green screen. It’s that bad. At least in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, they had that fake lens fuzz effect to cover up the seams between live action and CGI. They didn’t have that here, and it showed.

Worse is the supposedly dramatic scene where the time travellers face off against a hungry allosaurus in the past. The dino is obviously CGI, and is remarkably unrealistic given the state of CG technology in 2005. Not only that, but the characters don’t seem to react with any degree of urgency, with the exception of the two clients who go and screw up the timeline. Everyone just stands there, with less dynamic tension than a bus queue. With non-slavering dino jaws approaching, no-one ducks, steps back, or even screams (except the clients). I’ve seen more life-like action on the Muppet Show.

The casting was unambitious. I’d heard that Pierce Brosnan was involved with the project at one stage, but he wisely ducked out fairly early on. Obviously he’d read the script. Ben Kingsly further cemented the reputation of British actors as people who’ll do anything, no matter how awful, and play it like it was Shakespeare. For some reason he was saddled with a bizarre white wig, but actually did a credible job of playing the corporate sleazebag behind the Time Safari business, a man capable of spinning gold out of manure.

This is not a good movie. It’s not even a good bad movie. It’s a bad, bad movie – be aware that I like Godzilla movies, so you’ll understand how awful this movie really is. It’s a dull, unimaginative pile of cliches, strung together in the vague hope that together they might resemble a story… but they don’t.

Most of the writing was taken from The Lazy Bastard’s Guide to Writing Crappy SF Movies. You could almost hear them ticking off the list of idiotic cliches. “Black guy is the first one to die? Check. Does crazy acting while preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil? Check. Doctor snuffs it after exhibiting first signs of character? Check. Doctor dies immediately after proving himself useful? Check. Cowardly government stooge fucks up and dies? Check…” after a few minutes of this I actually started getting angry that my intelligence was held in such contempt by the makers of the movie. I wanted to buy a ticket to LA, find Peter Hyams’ house and slap him in the face with a kipper. A kipper with nails driven through it.

Part of the sheer dumbness of the movie came from the fact that the characters all seemed perfectly fine with the idea of being picked off one by one by the products of variant evolution, since it’d all get put right in the end. One of them actually says this. The hero – obviously a graduate of the Mahogany School of Acting – exhibits more distress over the token black guy’s death than he does over the sudden demise of the young woman he promised he’d take care of. Though he stands by and watches the poor bastard get swarmed by flesh hungry monsters, instead of doing something useful like putting a bullet through his head and saving him the agony of being torn to shreds and eaten. (although, we don’t actually see the guy get eaten. For all we know, the monsters might just have been horny. Who knows?)

I could go on, but I’m too tired. It’s too late for me, save yourselves. I’ll hold off the tides of idiot movies as long as I can…

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