'Thunder' Clouded

Sci-fi adventure is over-acted and under-thought. But its many goofy missteps are part of the charm.


September 02, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A Sound of Thunder is retro in a refreshing sort of way, a return to those sci-fi films of the 1950s, filled with cheesy special effects and over-the-top acting, but with a gem of an idea at its core, and all done with just enough wit and inventiveness to keep audiences in the cheap seats happy.

When the Ray Bradbury short story on which the film is based was published in 1952, the idea that the death of a butterfly 60 million years ago could change the present in ways unimaginable was an intriguing novelty. Since then, dozens of scenarios have been cooked up, speculating on what would happen if a person traveled back in time and changed something. Some of the results have been marvelously inventive (Back to the Future, for instance), some heavy-handed and plodding (last year's The Butterfly Effect). A Sound of Thunder falls somewhere in the middle but gets extra credit for going back to the source.

Of course, this being Hollywood and all, the filmmakers couldn't be satisfied with a classic original. This Thunder pads Bradbury's story considerably, especially the ending, which was left hanging a bit originally, but concludes neatly, if clunkily, here. Still, not all of the story's subtleties have been hammered out, and there's an amateurishness to the whole movie that makes it oddly endearing.

Edward Burns stars as Travis Ryer, leader of a group of hunters who routinely go back in time to off a dinosaur or two, giving their rich customers the thrill of a lifetime. Realizing they could be playing with fire here, the safari organizers take all kinds of precautions. People must stick to a designated pathway, made of a glass-like material that floats above the ground, thus ensuring that nothing other than the target dinosaur is touched. And only dinos that are about to die anyway are killed, with bullets made of liquid nitrogen that leave no trace behind.

Those steps, however, are not enough to satisfy the time machine's inventor, Sonia Rand (Catharine McCormack), who's convinced that only ugly, nasty things can happen when you play around with time. Cavalierly dismissing her objections is oily Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley, overacting with great glee), owner of Time Safari, who firmly believes that theoretical questions about the nature of time shouldn't get in the way of making a fast buck.

Turns out they should have listened to Ms. Rand. When a safari returns after having momentarily strayed from the path, things begin to change. Badly. Giant plants begin taking over, genetic crosses between bats and apes start feasting on the local population, buildings begin to crumble. Evolution has gone seriously awry, with changes coming in waves reminiscent of ripples on the surface of a pond. Something obviously happened back there, but what? And can anything be done to make things right again?

A Sound of Thunder has the look of a slapdash affair, and in many ways, that's what it is; the filming was done in 2002, but the movie's been sitting idle ever since, as the production company cobbled together enough money to finish the special effects (which may explain why there are 20 producers listed in the film's credits).

Obviously, they needed to raise more. The backgrounds are largely motionless matte paintings (or their computer equivalents), and it's painfully clear that the actors have often been artificially projected onto their surroundings. There's an encounter with a nasty sea beast that ends with an obviously plastic head floating in the water. And the dinosaurs are hardly up to Jurassic Park standards.

In addition, the movie becomes groaningly bad in spots, most notably when one of the characters dies (or, more precisely, awaits being eaten) while staring at the moon and imagining his son is next to him. This scene, especially, belongs in a Hall of the Ridiculous.

And yet, Bradbury's short story has stood the test of time, and the Saturday-matinee spirit of the film makes its transgressions easier to overlook. Director Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, Timecop) has been doing this sort of stuff for more than three decades, and he maintains a brisk pace. And none of the actors have mistaken this for great drama, doubtless taking their cue from Kingsley, who runs through the film in full Snidely Whiplash mode.

Yes, it would be nice to see A Sound of Thunder that's truer to the nuances of its source. But until that becomes possible, why not have a bit of fun with this one? If nothing else, it might make you think twice before swatting that pesky moth next time.

A Sound of Thunder

Starring Edward Burns, Catherine McCormack, Ben Kingsley

Directed by Peter Hyams

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi violence, partial nudity and language)

Time 103 minutes

Sun Score ** 1/2 (two stars and 1 half star)

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