Poor Ray Bradbury. Has his work ever been treated right on the screen? In 1966, François Truffaut clumsily adapted Bradbury's most well-known novel, Fahrenheit 451, about a future society in which information is repressed through the burning of books. The Martian Chronicles became a mixed-bag miniseries starring Rock Hudson in 1980, though it is remembered largely by sci-fi purists and self-styled xenosociologists. It was during Disney's "dark years" in 1983 (which also produced the bleak 1985 animated feature The Black Cauldron) that someone came the closest to capturing Bradbury's spirit when Jack Clayton, with whom Bradbury had worked on the 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick, made Something Wicked This Way Comes (from Bradbury's own screenplay). That trend of misses continues, as the time travel misadventure A Sound Of Thunder is an inept wheel-spin which, at best, will earn a "wait until DVD" (followed by "...and skip it then, too.")
The movie, like the 1952 short story it comes from, takes place in a future where time travel is possible. An opportunistic businessman, Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley), co-opts the technology and opens Time Safari, Inc. in order to serve the whims of wealthy hunters in search of the ultimate thrill of bagging a T. Rex (the dinosaur, not the longhaired freaky people). Despite all the restrictions meant to preserve history such as "Do not step off the path" (which levitates above the unsullied ground), "Do not bring anything back with you" (the only souvenir being a commemorative video) and "Do not feed the Mogwai after midnight" (wait, wrong cautionary tale), something naturally goes horribly wrong.
If you would like a two-word review, there it is: "horribly wrong". The seed of Bradbury's story is here, but it is explored with next to none of his imagination. We are primed for all the inevitable cause-and-effect of changing the past so that when it comes, it loses most of its punch. During all its whining and warning, I half-expected Jeff Goldblum to show up and start breaking down Chaos Theory for us. At least Jurassic Park, as unoriginal as it may have been (a fusion of this chestnut and Frankenstein), was quite fully realized. Here, it's as if its trio of credited screenwriters knew they had to build a feature-length script out of a 10-page story, but instead of expounding and creating new conflicts out of Bradbury's core concept, they just did what an 8-year-old would do when he falls short of his word count on a book report and just kept adding the word "very" until it met spec. Think of the drum solo in the 17-minute version of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and you'll have some idea as to what sitting through this colossal misstep is like.
Director and cinematographer Peter Hyams took this concept a whole lot further in the Jean-Claude Van Damme flick, Timecop (1994), believe it or not. Hyams, whose filmography is dotted with minor sci-fi features like Capricorn One (1978), Outland (1981) and 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984), is barely here at all. Actually, as the end credits began to roll and Hyams name flashed across the screen, I turned to my friend and said, "That movie had a director?" Nothing, from the design, to the performances, to the special effects seems connected to anything, and that's a hard feat to pull off.
It would be easy to say that A Sound Of Thunder lazily mimics the look of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), as it contains many of the same futuristic "Jetsons" trappings, but this film has been in the pipeline for nearly five years now. A series of setbacks, including a writers strike, the subsequent loss of their star, Pierce Brosnan, and then-director Renny Harlin being fired for wanting to take the future-altering dead butterfly out of the mix entirely delayed the movie, and has caused delays in its release a number of times over the last two years. Of course, this is the kind of apologetic spin that Warner Brothers' marketing department might put on it, but what it all boils down to is that the movie is virtually unreleaseable, even in the most forgiving of markets (like in remote Aborigine villages where they have never seen pants, let alone a movie).
Whenever I see an otherwise distinguished actor like Kingsley stuck in the muck of pure yuck like this, I murmur apologetically, "Oscar polish must be expensive" or "His mother must have needed an operation." And he doesn't even have to speak for us to know there is trouble ahead, as his snow white pompadour is enough of a signal flare. Floundering former indie darling Edward Burns (who replaced Brosnan) plays the cynical mercenary tour guide, and every line he delivers seems to have behind it the exasperated words "I'm stuck in Prague [where the film was shot] and my career [like the hapless T. Rex of the story], is sinking into a big tar pit." It's sad, really.
The CGI effects are so awful that they look like they were produced in that awkward time in the late 70's and early 80's when FX outfits were trying to catch up with ILM, who was already looking to computers to replace the time-consuming rotoscoping and stop-motion effects that are more dated than they are charming to look back on now. At least in the last treatment of this story (on "Ray Bradbury Theater" in syndication in 1989), the miniscule per-episode budget was the big reason the dinosaurs looked like big rubber puppets. Here, $80 million -- only a fraction of which appears on the screen -- should buy you an actual dinosaur.
So now comes the sound of blunder, during the late summer of our discontent, the garbage dump/tax shelter known to the movie studios as Labor Day Weekend, when we're actually expected not to expect much. In that respect, A Sound Of Thunder succeeds. But think about it -- if the movie was really any good, Warner would have found occasion to release it far sooner, and at a time of year when people would have actually gone out to see it. It's practically a movie that reviews itself before even being seen. It is, quite simply -- and please forgive me for putting it this way -- a big waste of time.