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A Sound of Thunder

Director: Peter Hyams
Cast: Edward Burns, Catherine McCormack, Ben Kingsley, Jemima Rooper, David Oyelowo

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 2 Sep 2005; 2005)

Derivative

Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley) has scary hair. It’s tall and white and exceeding strange, like Trump’s collided with Siegfried Fischbacher. He appears in A Sound of Thunder as the ultimate corporate villain, making money off ignorant and way-too-wealthy thrill-seekers. Specifically, he’s the owner of Time Safari Inc., an agency that sends Hatton’s rich peers back 63 million years so that they can shoot very big, very toothy allosauruses.


The premise of Peter Hyams’ feeble-minded film is that the killing of these mighty reptiles does not affect the future but that the smooshing of a single butterfly causes havoc in 2055, the movie’s present. The explanation here—that the dinosaurs are about to die within seconds anyway, so dying slightly sooner is okay, time-continuum-wise—is so weak as to make you wonder, if the rest of the script weren’t so much more egregiously nonsensical.


Go-back team leader and vaguely defined “scientist” Travis Ryer (Edward Burns) shows his distaste for the whole shebang repeatedly: he scowls, grumps, and pouts, then goes along for the ride anyway. This includes sleeping with an especially creepy lady client, a careless one-nighter that suggests such behavior is routine, a sign of Travis’ sense of despairing sold-outness. Hatton has just that evening chewed him out for rudeness in front of clients, and so it seems that he’s just given up. The deal is simple, Hatton announces, not for the first time: “I hired you because you were a big deal scientist… They pay, you study, I get rich. Is this a great country or what?”


Hatton’s clunky logic and cartoonish villainy are bolstered by his collusions with government inspectors (who allow cheats in the system in exchange for payoffs), but soon obscured by the plot’s absurdity. The “action” sequences rather leave Hatton behind. Based—very, very loosely—on a short story by Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder conjures a future out of painfully unconvincing special effects: early on, Travis and spunky team member Jenny (Jemima Rooper) tread a sidewalk as they discuss their woeful chosen careers, cabs and other vehicles lumbering along behind them, designed to reflect a military-chic aesthetic (the Hummer seems the dominant model here). But they also seem of another register, rear projected apart from the other-dimensional characters. The effects are even worse when the team and clients enter the Jurassic mode, as a portal opens up onto a literal path from which they are forbidden to step off. Of course, someone does step off, and the future (their present) is changed.


The changes appear random and incoherent—winter days are suddenly balmy, trees start growing through walls, vines begin to take over interiors, pavement cracks, power goes out, and the population is suddenly absent (this last seems more a consequence of lack of extras than any understandable effect). Travis takes action, at last, by visiting Sonia (lost-looking Catherine McCormack), the angry scientist who invented the technology by which he time travels (she shows up early in the film to spray blood on Hatton and his clients, in a lone-woman PETA-style action, trying to make the point that the technology should not be used for commercial purposes). As they discuss the problem, they’re interrupted by a blood-curdling scream: a woman (presumably someone in Sonia’s apartment building?) appears outside her front door covered in larger, clattery-footed, roach-like bugs, who abandon that meal and rush into Sonia’s apartment. The scientists bat at them for a few minutes, then escape the room. End of episode.


Organized in fits and starts, the movie lifts scenes and ideas from any number of precursors—Anaconda, Total Recall, Aliens—lurching from scene to scene, dumping scientific “explanations” into senseless dialogue. Sonia, for example, counsels that more changes will come, each presaged by a “time wave,” wavy-shadowy effects that wash over the city (and Chicago is the only location noted here, though someone suggests in passing that the entire world must be similarly affected). These waves are insidiously silly, lifted from whatever Roland Emmerich disaster flick and tossing puny human figures—always including Travis—into the an oddly slow-motioned air and dumping them again into an altered physical space.


Clearly, something needs to be done, immediately. Unfortunately, the changed present is making it hard to go back again and undo the original change, as the machinery is destroyed by trees grown up in the lab. But strangely and conveniently, the physics, according to Sonia, are now impossible. The team jerry-rigs a power supply and next-generation time travel machine, and plans to “sling-shot” Travis in time, from 63 million and one years back to 63 million years. They need to get their last useful hard drive to “the university,” which somehow maintains a booth from which they can launch Travis back in time again. Their journey across town is hindered by all kinds of obstacles, including lack of light (no electricity), jungle growth, random fires, and mutated bat-primate mixes and primate-reptile mixes: oversized, big-nosed monsters who roam in packs, lurching examples of Sonia’s early warning, “If you mess with this [time travel], you mess with the whole of evolution.”


This messing arrives in theaters at an especially terrible time, as the environment Travis and Sonia traverse includes flooded subway tunnels. As they battle a gigantic, anaconda-like mutated eel, they wade through water that now resembles flooded streets images from New Orleans (so, on top of everything else wrong with it, Sound of Thunder also has bad timing). The clichés come fast and furious: Travis is the reluctantly macho hero, Sonia is the brains, and the black guy—tech officer Payne (MI-5‘s David Oyelowo)—sacrifices himself so the rest of the team can reach their destination (this with the promise that Travis will be able to get back in time and “fix it,” meaning that all this devastation will be erased. If only the same might be done for A Sound of Thunder.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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