Director Peter Hyams is no rookie when it comes to bad films. He has made more than his fair share. The best that can be said is that he’s an average director capable of decent work. His films range from acceptable (Outland and 2010: The Year We Make Contact) to forgettable (The Star Chamber and Narrow Margin) and occasionally regrettable (Timecop, Sudden Death, The Relic, End of Days). None of his past films, however, reach the level of cinematic atrocity that A Sound of Thunder manages to achieve.
Since ASOT is bad far beyond what Hyams is notorious for, a forgiving viewer might want to believe that the cause of their pain is a troubled production. If you can manage to make it through to the end credits, you’ll see a few indicators that this is a distinct possibility. Five different screenwriters are credited, as are five different producers, and seven (!) executive producers. Add these numbers to a budget topping $80,000,000, and you have a clear cut recipe for disaster.
That’s right, count those zeros again. Eighty million dollars. Where did the money go? How does a film in this day and age consume that much money and not turn out a single impressive special effect? A college student with a Mac Book Pro could turn out better effects than what is showcased here. Just look at other CGI-heavy films also released in 2005, and their respective budgets: Sin City/$40Million, Serenity/$39Million, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy/$50Million. The three Lord of the Rings films, made four, three, and two years prior with older technology, managed amazing effects at only $13Million more per feature. Yet A Sound of Thunder burns through $80Million, and they still end up with computer graphics that Thunderbirds-style puppetry would have improved upon.
Considering the amount of screen time it received, a huge chunk of the budget must have gone towards the computer rendered (futuristic) street backgrounds, featuring (futuristic) city streets studded with (futuristic) CGI street lights and crossing signs and teaming with (futuristic) CGI cars. Apparently, enough of the budget went to these painfully unrealistic backdrops that they tried to squeeze every possible dollar from them. Thus, in the first act of the film, there are no less than three lengthy walking-and-talking dialogue scenes, effectively dragging down the pace of the film in order to showcase the over-priced special effects. The filmmakers were at least smart enough to try and kill two birds with one stone, as most of the fake walking scenes are used to absorb some of the ungodly amount of exposition-heavy dialogue (more on that later). The drawback to this solution is that it is hard to concentrate on the dialogue when you are constantly distracted by the poor quality of the backgrounds and the ridiculous actors-pretending-to-walk shuffle.
All of this bitching about computer graphics is beside the point. A decent script with good dialogue and a strong story can always overcome crappy effects. Most the films that came out of the 80’s prove this. Unfortunately, this lame production’s screenplay offers as much support as a rubber crutch.
The setup is simple enough. Rich douche bag Charles Hatton (Oscar winner Sir Ben Kingsley) is the owner of Time Safari, a company that sends other rich douche bags (wearing futuristic business suits) back in time 65 million years to hunt dinosaurs. Charles Hatton is apparently smart enough to be a self-made billionaire, yet not creative enough to come up with a better name for his company than Time Safari. The idea of a private company being allowed to rent out, let alone own, such technology is explained away with the presence of a single government official monitoring the operations. Considering how the government has been run in the real world lately, this is probably the most plausible element of the film.
The handsome, competent, and rebellious Travis Ryer (Ed Burns, whose sole direction must have consisted of “Look good, and occasionally concerned.”) leads the hunting expeditions, which are a bit of a scam. The millionaires who pay for the honor of slaying a T-Rex can only fire when Ryer’s gun does, and every hunting party kills the same T-Rex. So as not to change the past and thereby endanger the present, the often-slain dinosaur is killed just as it steps into a tar pit, and moments before a volcanic eruption lays waste to the entire area. Oh, and they use (futuristic) ice bullets (fired from futuristic guns) so they don’t leave any (futuristic) technology behind.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #1: How can they kill the same dinosaur over and over again, at the exact same moment in time, without bumping into themselves? Considering how well Time Safari is doing, there should be close to a hundred copies of Ed Burns and his crew taking pot shots at the same dinosaur. Theoretically, they can’t. When writing a film about time travel, it is always a good idea to have a basic grasp of the concepts and philosophies behind that particular branch of theoretical science. Timecop made more sense than this.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #2: The mechanism that takes the hunting parties into the past is nothing more than a jury-rigged roller coaster harness, with the hooked restraining bar the comes down over your head. Once the bar is in place, passengers are warned not to move, or else nasty things will happen. When building a time machine, is it really a good idea to design it so that potentially catastrophic head mobility is not restricted? Or to make it look like a Six Flags ride?
It is during the after-hunt party that the romantic interest is introduced, scientist-turned-activist Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack). She crashes the party and sprays the fearless dinosaur killers with red paint sprayed from a (futuristic) champagne bottle. She is quickly escorted out as she rants about killing innocent prehistoric creatures and endangering humanity by tampering in the past.
Catherine McCormack comes across as completely and utterly unlikeable in her role, and sadly enough, it is not her fault. The blame for her grating performance rests fully on the shoulders of the directors and screenwriters, who seem to labor under the misguided assumption that strong female characters have to be bossy and abrasive, and that intelligent characters have to be rude and arrogant. The end result is that McCormack comes off as a real bitch, and not in an endearing or entertaining way.
Sonia’s pointless protest hurts Ryer’s feelings, and he rushes out to ask her who she thinks she is to judge him. It turns out that she thinks she is the inventor of the (futuristic) computer that makes time travel possible (TAMI, or the Time Alteration Mainframe Interface), who was forced out by the corporation when she rebelled against their evil capitalist plans for her invention. So why hasn’t Ryer, one of the top employees in the company, and someone who interfaces with TAMI on a regular basis, ever heard of her? Her answer: “I’m a nerd, not a lawyer.” Right, because being one of the creators of the greatest technological advancement since atomic energy wouldn’t have rated a mention in a magazine article or two before the whole thing went commercial.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #3: Sonia Rand is enough of an egg-head genius that she invents the technology behind time travel, yet she is incapable of any advanced forms of electronic or industrial sabotage, like hacking into computer mainframes and erasing sensitive data? No, apparently she is forced to resort to symbolic scare tactics that even PETA protesters tend to shun nowadays.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #4: Clever acronym names for intelligent computers were cute and trendy back when 2001 and War Games were big. That was over twenty years ago. Stop.
Upset at being lumped in with the other evil money-grubbing entrepreneurs, Ryer drags Sonia back to his place to expose his agenda. Unfortunately, exposing his agenda isn’t a metaphor for sex, but the guise under which the film is brought to a screeching halt before it even has a chance to start up. It seems that in the future all animals are extinct due to some mysterious virus (He live in the now-defunct Chicago Zoo. Get it?). The only reason Ryer works at Time Safari is so he can collect data that will aid his research into restoring the animal population once again. This scene is exposition-heavy, with Burns and McCormack vomiting mouthfuls of back story and pseudo-scientific theories while standing around a (futuristic) hologram of a now-extinct lion. It is also a complete waste of time, as this sub-plot has no bearing on the rest of the story, and is in fact never heard about again. Apart from absolving Ryer for the sin of profiting from his involvement with Time Safari, this scene serves no purpose.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #5: How does the human race survive with the rest of the food chain taken out of the equation? Wouldn’t the mass extinction of most of the world’s wildlife pose at least a minor strain on the planet’s delicate ecosystem? Again, having at least a passing knowledge of middle-school science lessons might be helpful when writing a science fiction film.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #6: If all animals are extinct, why are they schlepping rich thrill-seekers back to kill dinosaurs? Killing any currently extinct dangerous animals would earn a wannabe big game hunter bragging rights, and killing a Lion in the Serengeti a couple of hundred years ago would leave less room for a catastrophic time paradox then millions of years of evolution.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #7: Exactly what good is studying one extinct prehistoric animal, when the other animals that went extinct did so millennia later, under completely different circumstances, and in a completely different environment?
Needless to say, the next trip doesn’t go well, as the Time Safari crew takes two new stuffed shirts (Corey Johnson as cliché boisterous jerk who is secretly a coward Christian Middleton, and William Armstrong as cliché nervous and scared but secretly courageous and strong Ted Eckles) back in time to kill a dinosaur. Time Safari employees apparently don’t routinely inspect their weapons before going on a mission. If they did, Ryer might have noticed that his gun had been damaged when a tripped while checking out the ass of one of his teammates. His gun locks up at the crucial moment, freezing all of the other guns, and chaos ensues. It is during the mad scramble to avoid the dinosaur and escape before the volcano explodes that someone does the unthinkable and steps off the path. The audience is not shown this, nor is the person responsible shown, but you would have to be a Time Safari employee to be dense enough to miss it.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #8: Customers of Time Safari are apparently rushed through a brief refresher course on time travel safety and etiquette minutes before the actual hunt. There is more training and preparation involved in learning how to operate the key grinder at Home Depot.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #9: If it so important that no steps off of the (futuristic) walkway that the time machine materializes for the game hunters, maybe they could program the computer to make one wider than four feet? Maybe some kind of guard rail would be in order. Where the hell is OSHA when you need them?
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #10: All other guns in the hunting party are locked until Ryer’s gun is fired. First, why would his co-workers not be trusted, and second, how does controlling when a customer shoots prevent them from shooting the wrong thing?
Time Safari employees and customers call it a day after their near death experience, but it isn’t too long before the ever observant Ryer begins to notice that things are amiss. Temperatures start to rise. Plants and vines begin sprouting up all over the place. Giant holes open up in the (futuristic) street right in front of his (futuristic) taxi. All of these bizarre events occur after the first passing of what will soon be identified as a Time Wave.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #11: That’s right. A Time Wave.
Ryer wisely suspecting that rapid vegetative growth and giant potholes equal time paradox. Desperate for answers, he races over to Sonia’s place. Sonia’s neighbors are blaming her for the sudden rain forest infestation because she has a greenhouse (makes sense to me), so she answers the door with a shotgun and tells him to take a hike. Ever the wily hunter, Ryer sneaks into her place by disguising himself as fertilizer delivery man. Once again, the filmmakers strive to endear McCormack’s character to the audience by having her treat the supposed delivery man like a mentally handicapped golf caddy.
Ryer unmasks and immediately wins Sonia over by informing her that she was right about everything. Her ego satiated, she summons Ryer to the window just in the nick of time for him to witness a Time Wave. The Time Wave brings with it a swarm of flesh eating insects that swarm devours anyone in its path, in CGI work reminiscent enough of The Mummy to be legally questionable. Ryer and Sonia beat a hasty retreat by leaping out of the sixteenth-story window, undoubtedly with the intention of figuring out the rest of their escape plan on the way down. Dumb luck saves the day again, however, and they just happen to be saved by the sudden appearance of vines and trees that have sprouted up because of the Time Wave.
The scientist daredevils race back to the lab, where they meet up with the other Time Safari employees to try and figure out what is happening. With the aid of a (futuristic) laser pointer, Sonia explains to the group that something was obviously altered during the safari mishap, causing Time Waves as the ripple effect of something being changed in the past effects the course of history in incremental steps.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #12: Sweet Jesus on a Vespa. Where do you even begin with the Time Wave? This theory assumes that time not only travels in waves like water, but does so at a much slower rate than the time travelers themselves, who manage to jump back and forth instantaneously. These changes also happen gradually, as each ripple hits, for no really good reason. Also, if the ripple effect is akin to dropping a pebble in a lake, wouldn’t the lab be the epicenter of the ripples? If so, why is the Time Wave seen traveling over the ocean? Does the Time Wave need to allow for daylight saving time? Can you surf a Time Wave?
A review of the (futuristic) mission tapes reveal that one of the clients from the last trip might have wandered off the path and inadvertently brought something back with them. This would normally be impossible, but it turns out that the Kingsley’s character had, in true cliché greedy corporate mode, turned the bio-filters off in order to save on the electric bill. The government regulations stooge is in on it, of course, because there’s nothing more original in a sci-fi film than making the rich and powerful characters easily corruptible, uncontrollably greedy, and inherently evil. It might be realistic, but it has still been done to death.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #13: Why bringing something back something as small as 1.3 grams would matter, especially after the damage has been done by straying off the path and altering something in the past, is never fully explained. Most likely, this is because it doesn’t make any sense.
Sonia musters all of her unappealing character traits for this scene, as she lectures the other professional time travelers around the table about the intricacies of time travel. If only the screenwriters had attended such a seminar. With the help of a (futuristic) laser pointer, she explains what is happening, and insists that the only way to save the world is to go back in time and stop whichever Time Safari customer botched the last trip.
Inexplicably, the group decides not to rush into action and jump back in time right now. Instead, a plan is devised that involves traveling on foot across a rapidly changing jungle/city landscape, tracking down Middleton and Eckles, and deducing which of them altered the past by examining their souvenir time travel suits. This pointless trek must be done quickly, however, before the final time wave permanently changes the course of history.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #14: According to the film’s Time Wave theory, you can’t travel back to the moment the time waves began, because you can’t travel through the time waves. However, traveling back one year before and then doubling back bypass all of the waves should work like a charm. Back to the Future II was more logical than this film.
What follows is nearly indescribable. Our intrepid team of weapons-trained time travel safari hunters makes its way through a (futuristic) city now overrun by dense rain forest foliage and bizarre evolutionary advancements in deadly animals. Along the way they encounter groups of citizens who have managed to survive these events. Curiously enough, it only takes a single day for society as a whole to collapse into a state of pure Anarchy. In the course of a single day makeshift blockades have been erected, grocery stories have been looted clean, and society as a whole as collapsed into a sparse collection of survival outposts and desperate scavengers.
The laws of nature, physics, and supply and demand might have collapsed under the strain of ill-conceived logic, but the rules of by-the-books story structure still hold fast and strong. This is clearly demonstrated when, as should be expected, the black team member dies first. He is paralyzed by poisonous animated plants and torn apart by what can only be described as a pack of Monkeysauruses.
The survivors track down Eckles at his apartment complex, now surrounded by makeshift fencing and armed guards. They find him inside keeping a huge bonfire going, no doubt so the survivors can huddle around and stay warm in the tropic heat of the sweltering jungle night. The sweaty and nervous Eckles proves to be a (futuristic) red herring, and rats out Middleton as the guilty party.
With time running out, they steal a car (unfortunately overlooked during the planning phase of the journey) and race to Middleton’s penthouse. Middleton waves a gun around menacingly before turning it on himself. This is a rather insensitive time to introduce the aspect of suicide to an audience no doubt eager for a way out of the film themselves. Middleton’s apartment is ransacked for clues. The clue turns out to be a gigantic butterfly pasted to the sole of his time travel suit’s boot.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #15: According to this film’s theories on evolution, removing a single butterfly from a prehistoric ecosystem will change future climate patterns enough for rainforests to thrive where they would have previously been unsustainable. It will also somehow allow primates to cross breed with reptiles, creating deadly Dinoragutangs with Kevlar-lined skulls.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #16: It is worth pointing out at this point that the hunting location visited by the Time Safari crew and clients was arrived at moments before a volcanic eruption laid waste to the entire area. One would think that such a cataclysmic blast that could destroy a dense jungle would have incinerated the butterfly. If the butterfly was actually capable of surviving such an event, then a size eleven work boot shouldn’t be able to finish it off.
Now armed with the pertinent (yet essentially irrelevant) information, the dwindling team of hopeful saviors rushes back to Time Safari. Another Time Wave beats them there, however, and they arrive to find the portal out of commission and the building now home to a swarm of the bulletproof chimp raptors. They beat a hasty retreat, leaving the evil capitalist bastards to their fate in true heroic form. The new plan is to plug the time travel software into the nearby university’s (futuristic) portal, and use that to un-alter the past.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #17: When simians and reptiles manage to crossbreed, their freakish offspring will hang from ceilings like bats when they sleep. Because, you know, that makes sense.
With time running out (sigh), Ryer and crew decide to reduce the risk factors involved with crossing dangerous jungle terrain. The obvious choice is to travel on foot through the murky swamp that now resides within the subway system. With the university right over their noses, they are forced to travel through a submerged subway train that has somehow managed to remain air-tight beneath the swamp. Believe it or not, this proves to be a bad idea. A giant sea snake breaks through the carriage window and takes out one of the few remaining non-essential team members. The train then fills with water almost immediately, proving that the filmmakers know as much about basic physics as they do time travel theory.
Travis and the phallic anaconda-shaped creature are quickly locked in an underwater struggle that would make Freud blush. Our brave hero loses this wrestling match with his Id, and Sonia pulls his limp and spent (my apologies to Freud) body out in time to perform one of the worst depictions of CPR ever seen on film. Seventies exploitation film action stars pulled their punches more realistically than her heart massage, and she is barely blowing air in his general direction when she manages to revive him. Ed Harris’ patented Screaming and Slapping Resuscitation Technique from The Abyss was more believable.
They finally get to the University, only to have the Chimpanzillas hot on their trail. Sonia sets up the time machine and launches Ryer into the past just before the final Time Wave hits and turns her into a giant humanoid catfish.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #18: That’s right. Remove a butterfly from prehistoric Earth, and mankind will evolve from fish. Anyone suffering from severe migraines at this point may be excused for the rest of the review.
Travis successfully slingshots back to the ill-fated Time Safari expedition. He manages to keep Middleton on the path during the confusion, and then exposes himself to the team member in charge of recording the hunt. He tips her off to the bio-filters being off, tells her to give the trip recording directly to him (not him, of course, but his other him), then prevents Middleton from stepping off the path before vanishing in a puff of logic.
SCI-FI GEEK CONNIPTION #19: It is at this point that most Sci-Fi Geeks will simply collapse from sheer exhaustion. How come the hunters never bump into themselves when shooting the same dinosaur over and over, yet Ryer is able to meet up with them and warn them of the danger to come? Since they’ve altered the past once again, why does it change instantaneously this time? Do Time Waves occur only during every other paradox, or is this the cosmic equivalent of a Mulligan?
Ryer receives the recording and immediately notices that there are two of him in it. Recognizing this as possibly time paradox related, he rushes it to Sonia’s greenhouse penthouse and presents it as the proof she needs to have Time Safari shut down. The relationship they forged in the previous time line now starts anew; but will these two be able to bond emotionally without the assistance of a tragic time travel disaster of epic proportions to bring them together? It’s as about as likely as monkeys cross breeding with lizards, and almost as unappealing to contemplate.
The Editing Room: What we would do differently
At the end, Ryer knocks on Sonia’s door. The door opens to reveal Claude Van Damme’s character from Timecop. Claude kicks the snot out of him and tells him that the next time he pulls a stunt like this, he and Guy Pearce from the Time Machine remake will drop his sorry ass in fifteenth century France.
At the end, Ryer knocks on Sonia’s door. The door opens to reveal that she has inexplicably remained a humanoid catfish. Ryer looks at the camera, shrugs, and gives her a wet sloppy kiss as ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ plays in the background.
No comparison was made between this film and the Ray Bradbury's original story by the same name out of respect for the author. There's no reason to drag the man's good name into this.