In my last column about the upcoming re-adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (”Bradbury on Fire”), I mentioned that another Ray Bradbury work, his 1953 short story, “A Sound of Thunder”, had recently (2005) been made into a film. Having been on somewhat of a Ray Bradbury kick of late, I decided to head down to Blockbuster and grab a copy. Naturally, I found it nestled neatly in the ‘New Releases’ section.
I had read the bad reviews, but I usually don’t prejudge. I like to give a movie a chance (and an actual viewing) before I decide to praise/trash it. Almost immediately after starting this sour sci-fi saga, however, I had already started looking at the clock. I soon realized this was going to be a long 110 minutes. It took everything I had not to hit the fast forward button on the remote. I also had to spend 10 minutes afterwards talking my husband out of kicking the television (he obviously didn’t like it, either).
The movie, directed by Peter Hyams (responsible for cinematic offenses such as Timecop and End of Days), is purportedly based on Bradbury’s narrative about a futuristic company that offers ordinary people the chance to travel back in time. Their main selling point is a prehistoric expedition where one has the opportunity to observe dinosaurs. The main plot twist deals with the skittish space/time continuum and reminds us of the dangers that can occur in the present if the past is accidentally altered.
The film mirrors the short story’s plotline in that it centers on a time safari and takes place in 2055, but that’s where the similarities between the film and the short story end. Hyams took this basic idea, put Ben Kingsley in a ridiculous white wig, and ran away on a specious, speculative fiction adventure film that came off as Jurassic Park mixed with Battlefield Earth.
Bradbury’s story (which can be found in his collection R is for Rocket, among others) begins with the main character, a man named Eckles, paying $10,000 to Time Safari Inc. for one of their trips. Along for the ride are Mr. Travis (his guide), and a host of other specialists. The rules of the expedition are simple: while back in time, no one is allowed to touch anything, remove anything, or leave anything behind. After Eckles comes face-to-face with his prey, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he panics. In his haste, he runs off the virtual path and unwittingly steps on a butterfly. When he arrives back in the present, the dead insect is still on the bottom of his shoe. This little mishap results in a modification of the continuum, which in turn results in a massive political change. A feared dictator is elected president, taking the place of the democrat who won the White House originally (much to everyone’s relief).
In the film version, we have to endure a lot of boring exposition and clichéd characters before we’re even introduced to Eckles (played by William Armstrong). These archetypes include: Travis Ryer, a good guy scientist (played by Edward Burns) who is mandated by the greedy Time Safari, Inc. to collect DNA samples of extinct species; the rebel scientist named Sonia Rand who invented the time machine, but now opposes the project vehemently (played by Catherine McCormack); and Charles Hatton, the gluttonous money monger CEO of the company (played by Ben Kingsley).
Although he has his moments, it’s hard to believe that Ben Kingsley is actually a brilliant actor—his performance here is that bad. First off, the Colonel Sanders-like hairpiece he sports is a major distraction. I wanted to reach into the television screen and tear it off his head while yelling, “How much did they have to PAY you to do this?!” It reminded me of the shock I experienced when Christopher Walken started appearing in those dreadful Prophecy movies. The other actors don’t seem all that thrilled about being a part of A Sound of Thunder, either. As a result, most give pretty mediocre performances. Ed Burns often looks just moments away from shrugging his shoulders, throwing down his props and saying, “Screw this.”
Then there are the atrocious special effects. The reported budget for the film was $80 million. I don’t know what they spent all their money on (maybe it was to bribe Ben Kingsley to join the cast and wear that wig) because it certainly wasn’t used on state of the art CGI. One of the best examples of the bad visual effects occurs in the beginning of the movie when Travis Ryer takes a walk with Sonia Rand. They’re supposed to be ambling down a busy Chicago street, but it looks like they’re walking on one of those moving treadmills and the cars passing by on the high speed motorway appear to have been cut from magazines and pasted onto a green screen. I thought maybe Hyams was purposely going after this sort of hokey B movie look, but the rest of the film takes itself far too seriously for such a ‘sophisticated’ approach.
Bradbury wasn’t involved in the production or the screenwriting of the movie, but in 2002, he was quoted as saying he had “high hopes” for the project. The film definitely strays from his short story toward the end, turning into a race between the good guys and the universal concepts of time in order to see if things can be set back to the way they were. After a myriad of predictable events (high speed chases, shootouts, and the perfunctory offing of the bad guys), things can somehow be fixed and everyone lives happily ever after. This is nothing like the original short story, which ends on a very creepy note. In the story version, upon returning to their proper time, Eckles and the scientists realize that something at Time Safari, Inc. isn’t… quite… right…
This abysmal adaptation reminds us why a short story is best left as a self-contained work of fiction. Bradbury was imagining a future from the ‘50s, and arguing that prospective technological advances like time travel (and nuclear weapons, et. al.) are probably not a good idea. There is a clear subtext about ‘playing God’ and ‘tampering with nature’ in his prose, something all but absent from the film. When reading his version, we’re able to suspend our disbelief because Bradbury creates his context in swift, compact prose, getting straight to the point of his narrative.
The film version of A Sound of Thunder, on the other hand, makes the mistake of trying to flesh out the science, expand the characters, and spoon-feed explanations for everything to the audience. The result is a bunch of bad acting, stupid dialogue, and crappy GCI. To quote New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott: “[the adaptation of Bradbury’s tale] illustrates the dangers of turning a lean, elegant short story into a loud, noisy, incoherent B movie.” Hyams and company also managed to take an excellent metaphor for man’s technological hubris and strip it of all importance. The tagline of the film is “Evolve or Die”. If this is evolution, I’ll take the latter, thank you.
A Sound of Thunder  - Theatrical Trailer