Thursday, September 1, 2005

Why, oh, why is “A Sound of Thunder” so fantastically bad? I didn’t see it coming. Really. I mean, I just don’t understand how the director of “Sudden Death” and “Timecop,” both starring my all-time favorite thespian, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and “End of Days” — which pitted no less than Arnold Schwarzenegger against Satan — could have failed me so utterly.

Paul Hyams should have knocked “Sound of Thunder” out of the park. It has all his favorite tropes. Like “2010,” the movie is set in the future, in this case 2055. Like “Timecop,” it involves traveling back in time to set right the present. Finally, like “The Relic” (don’t tell me you missed that one, too?) it besieges the mighty city of Chicago with some really awful monsters.

“Thunder” is based on a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury — more specifically on a scientific theory propounded by Ashton Kutcher that hypothesizes that if a butterfly flaps its wings in the forest and Demi Moore isn’t there to hear it, then … no, that’s not right. Let’s try again. Here’s how yours truly summed up chaos theory in a review of Mr. Kutcher’s “The Butterfly Effect”: how one little tug or tweak on the fabric of time can have scary, unpredictable consequences. (Science-writing judges, you can send the prize money to me care of The Washington Times.)

As “Thunder” has it, 50 years from now, men will dress like 1920s-era gangsters. Traffic will be just as bad, and every car will look like a boxier version of today’s Chrysler PT Cruisers in canary yellow. Most important to the plot, a company will have developed technology to send rich, bored thrill-seekers on prehistoric safaris where 65-million-year-old T. rexes are luxurious game.

All joking aside, “Thunder” has a couple of good stars in Edward Burns and Ben Kingsley, who plays the head of the safari company, a smarmy mercenary with a half-seriousness that’s almost funny. Mr. Burns is the handsome hero, a scientist who begrudgingly toils at Time Safari Inc. as a way to finance his research into reconstructing the DNA of undomesticated animals, which are relics in “Thunder’s” dystopia.

However, after one trip into the past goes horribly wrong, it means apocalypse for present-day Chicago-land, on the theory that the tiniest alteration in space-time can set off serious evolutionary ripples.

Natural disaster has been no stranger to the movies lately. Where “Thunder” fails is in the stupendously feeble way it delivers its calamities. We’re talking about a small budget here, it’s true; that explains the clunky special effects and a lack of extras, who are essential for creating scenes of mass chaos and institutional breakdown.

What’s intolerable is the clunky acting. Mr. Burns and his team — which eventually includes Catherine McCormack as the eccentric whiz-lady who developed the time-travel machine but was shut out of the action because she objected to its for-profit application — are strictly in Cinemax mode here.

As Chicago’s skies are filled with raptors, its subways crawling with giant sea snakes, its parks turned to jungles crawling with dinosaur-primate hybrids, Mr. Burns and company appear as unfazed as a suburban Neighborhood Watch group.

“Thunder” posits that the misuse of technology and greed will someday spell the end of humanity. Maybe. What’s certain for now is that they spell the end of good movies.


TITLE: “A Sound of Thunder”

RATING: PG-13 (Science-fiction violence; partial nudity; profanity)

CREDITS: Directed and photographed by Peter Hyams. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Gregory Poirier, based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. Production design by Richard Holland. Original music by Nick Glennie-Smith.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes.



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