Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Film Review: A Sound of Thunder

Just in case anyone thought that all I do is give positive reviews, here's a true, natural-born turkey. Peter Hyams' new film, A Sound of Thunder is bad. Way bad. I'm pretty certain it's the worst movie I'll see this year, and it may just be the worst movie I've ever paid to see.

Here's the plot of the Ray Bradbury short story that the movie is based upon, which I skimmed in about three minutes while waiting for a train at Penn Station: man interested in exotic pleasures goes on time-travel safari where they're hunting dinosaurs; despite repeated admonitions not to stray from a safe path, things go wrong and man goes off path; when they return to the present, they find that things have been changed by man's misadventure--a german despot has been elected president--and man discovers that even the most insignificant creature can have a profound effect on the future; man gets wasted by his safari guide, who is understandably miffed that man has destroyed his reality.

It's a fairly simple story, not terribly long, quite deep for its time, although it is so well-known and imitated that other stories have taken better advantage of its premise by now.

To extend this very short story to a 103 minute screenplay, great violence is done to Ray Bradbury's creation. The basic premise of a time travel safari remains, as does the name of the tour guide. Everything else seems to get chucked--Nazi's take over the world is replaced by some silly concept of gradual reality change with "time waves" which change the evolutionary path of creatures, in reverse order of their evolutionary complexity.

If that last sentence sounds like nonsense, that's because it is. It's all an excuse to repopulate the planet with scary monsters--killer vines, giant bats, toad/dinosaur/ape things--for a Special Effects Extravaganza(tm). The idea is that the past has been changed, repopulating the earth with all these beasties in waves (like a video game). Now, this is wholesale change of reality, but all the buildings and stuff remain the same. Don't ask.

Now, maybe think that the nonsense could be justified by the filmmakers creating a world of fantastic creatures so real, that you're not about to quibble with the details. You'd be wrong. These are the worst digital effects ever, perhaps the worst special effects seen since Plan 9 from Outer Space. The background keeps shifting from absurdly artificial backgrounds (I'm talking stuff out of Tron, here) and hideously cheap--but all too real--sets. I won't be the first to claim it, but the CGI dinosaur in this movie somehow looked worse than the cheesy special effects in the Saturday morning TV series, Land of the Lost. It was just brutal.

The star of this flick is Ed Burns, cast as a reknowned biologist/hunter--in a world where wild animals have all been wiped out by a mysterious plague. Casting Burns as a biologist is a stroke of genius based on the fact that all of his characters exhibit such curiosity. By this I mean, that in almost every film where Ed Burns has appeared as an actor, he plays the role of the plain-spoken, down-to-earth working class guy, who always has the line "What I don't get is..."

As in "What I don't get is, how anyone who read this script willingly paid a single dollar to help make this movie. I simply can't understand this. Can you explain this to me?"

Yep, sounds like a scientist to me (that line, specifically, is not in the movie; however, it might as well be). Early in the film, Burns engages in "witty" banter with a HAL-like computer. At the time, I told my pal Rich, who came with me to see this turkey, "I bet that's the most chemistry he shows with anyone in this movie." I was right.

More credibly scientific is Catherine McCormack (who looks like she's aged about 20 years since Spy Game) as the Scientist Who Knows of the Danger. Her roll consists of looking mildly daft and extremely passionate, while simultaneously knowing altogether too much about the movie's cockeyed idea of time travel theory. She does an excellent job of keeping a straight face while uttering complete idiotic nonsense. Generally speaking, she deserves a better script, role, lighting, and makeup, than she gets in this film.

The other performances barely merit any mention whatsoever. Ben Kingsley is in this movie, albeit for just a ridiculous over-the-top cameo. The mortgage must have come due, or perhaps the movie's producers had photos of the great thespian in bed with a dead woman or a live boy. The other actors serve no other purpose than to act as cannon fodder in the great game of "who gets eaten next?" The answer is almost always who you expect, using the standard rules of engagement for monster movies.

After all of this, I must admit that--in a perverse way--I enjoyed this movie greatly. Don't get me wrong, it's bad, but it's so bad that if you're in the right frame of mind, you can get some good laughs out of the brutally dumb stuff that's in this movie.

What makes for a "so-bad-it's-good" movie is that a few smart ideas are sprinkled in with the dumb ones. For example, there are little touches about the time travel that make sense: the time travellers wear space suits, for example, to prevent the possibility of leaving microbes from the future in the past. They also use bullets made out of ice, so that no evidence is left behind when they kill the dinosaur.

But for everything this movie gets right, something huge is bound to go mind-numbingly wrong. Take this example of peliculum non comprehendis, the characters make it quite clear that each time they go on safari, it's the same dinosaur, that they're killing. That, I guess, excuses them from having to have multiple dinosaur effects, or something.

But does that make any sense? They go on multiple safaris during this movie, and the movie gives the impression they've done many, many, more. How can you go back to the exact same place and moment in time, over and over again, to kill the same creature? Wouldn't the hunting parties run into each other? It makes no damn sense!

Man, I just realized I could have done this review in a single sentence. Stay away from this film, unless you're in the mood to experience some Mystery Science Theater 3000-level sci-fi.

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