Since Cinemascore began operation in 1979 only 14 films, give or take, have received the (second) lowest score. In this series I’ll be reviewing some of those films. This week, the story of how something as seemingly insignificant as a production company going bankrupt can have a profound effect on the finished film.
So What is it?
A Sound Of Thunder is a loose adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury story/Simpsons episode about a guy who goes back in time, steps on a butterfly, and screws up the future. By the standards of Bradbury, it’s action-packed and crammed with incident with two whole things happening over the course of the story (a dinosaur falls in some mud, and a guy steps on a bug, neither on purpose). But, nevertheless, a lot of padding is needed to stretch this out to feature length, or even to fill the roughly 8 minutes The Simpsons gave it. While the film starts off relatively faithful to Bradbury, the consequence of the protagonists’ insecticide is changed. Instead of the doomed future resulting in a Presidential election swinging to a guy that a bunch of wealthy time-poachers dislike, the film’s travelers return to a Chicago overrun by a prehistoric jungle and swarming with the strange monsters that resulted from the upended evolutionary process, thus needing to outrun a series of time waves in order to… but, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us travel back to the beginning…
We open, as we so often do, on a block of text. This one tells us that it’s 2055, time travel exists, and Ben Kingsley is using it to make money. And what’s the best way to make money when you have a legal monopoly on time travel? Time safaris!
We join our, I guess villains, in the midst of one of these safaris. Deep in a CGI jungle and dressed in sort of camo astronaut suits with enough glare on the helmets to make it difficult to distinguish between the actors, the ragtag group makes its way across a translucent time-path to a small clearing, where they wait – standing around awkwardly – as the earth shakes and thunderous footsteps approach. Then from out of the jungle, with much fanfare, emerges the single worst rendered monster I have ever seen in a theatrically released film. We cut back and forth between the actors staring up with awe and terror, and this dinosaur that looks about as lifelike as Rex from Toy Story [A] and moves about as gracefully as a character out of Robot Chicken. The team opens fire, not exactly pointing at the dinosaur, but managing to bring it down anyway. We cut to the after party where Academy Award-winning Actor Ben Kingsley is wearing a wig that looks like it belongs to Mr. Snow from that old Rankin/Bass movie.
Kingsley is having a ball and should have won another Oscar for this movie. Chief scientist/safari master Ed Burns is doing some research and has to be badgered into joining the party and entertaining the clients. The festivities are momentarily interrupted by Catherine McCormick, who sneaks in and sprays everybody with a bottle of blood before being dragged away screaming, and I’m only lightly paraphrasing here, “If you keep messing with the past, you’ll ruin the future! Stepping on a single butterfly could have monumental consequences! You idiots, didn’t you ever read that story in middle school about-”
Nobody takes this very seriously, even though she’s very obviously right and everyone knows it. Ed Burns follows her out (she isn’t arrested or anything and in fact isn’t even thrown entirely out of the building) and confronts her. It turns out McCormick invented the time machine. She gives us a bit of exposition, but unfortunately it’s impossible to focus on what she’s saying because our characters are now outside standing in front of some horribly animated sci-fi traffic, rear projected behind them, with absolutely zero compositing work done. The sound effects are also cartoonishly loud, as if the movie were desperately trying to draw our attention to the awful, awful special effects. Also the actors’ voices do not sync up with their lips in this scene. When I say the special effects are bad, I don’t simply mean by the standards of 2021, or of 2005 (for context, Peter Jackson’s King Kong [A-] was released the same year), I mean the effects in this movie are bad by the standards of the 1930s.
Ed Burns takes McCormick to a workspace he has set up in an abandoned zoo. It turns out that animals – all animals – went extinct 38 years ago. First killed out in the wild and “then the poachers started hitting the zoos”. That’s the movie I want to see. Burns is working for the time safari company in order to collect data on animal DNA, and eventually create synthetic clones. This is so much work to get here, and this is never mentioned again in the film. Curious where McCormick got a bottle of blood if there aren’t any more animals, but this too remains unanswered.
There are more scenes walking around in front of green screened sci-fi cities. They are even worse than what we’ve seen before. The actors are clearly walking in place, and no effort has been made to try and match the speed of the back projection to the pace of their movement. It seems like you could have animated them into a tunnel or hallway or something. I don’t know why the film was trying to be so ambitious. There’s also a half-hearted attempt to create a sort of retro-future fashion, with a couple of actors dressed like they’re from the 1940s. This is dropped quickly.
We get a bunch more exposition, and it all just opens up bigger and bigger holes into the premise. If I weren’t on board with time safaris in scene one, nothing you will ever say will convince me. It’s best in these sort of stories to keep things moving. Thinking is your enemy.
We follow another group on safari, this time seeing the whole process. Ben Kingsley warns the customers that “there’s no reset button” on this adventure, even though there totally is, ’cause time travel. One of the clients tries to blast a butterfly with his gun, even after being explicitly warned that killing butterflies can alter the entire flow of evolution and potentially cause the extinction of the human race. Luckily the guns are turned off until the dinosaur shows up, but our heroes are incredibly cavalier about this whole mass extinction thing.
The dinosaur arrives, and it is literally the exact same footage as the first scene. The film could be implying that they just kill the same dinosaur over and over again, but that doesn’t really make sense because the other team should also be here, and before you start diagramming multiple timelines, know that Ed Burns will eventually travel back to this spot to interfere with this party. Nope, this is pure chintz. These effects are unbelievably bad. It would genuinely have been better had the movie spliced in stock footage of an iguana like they used to do in the 40s.
The team’s equipment starts malfunctioning and the procedure breaks down completely. The clients run and hide, with none of the scientists bothering to go with them to make sure everybody keeps their ole butterfly mashers on the time-path. The audience stays with the pros who distract the T-Rex with flashlights in a sequence blatantly ripped off of Jurassic Park [A], except Jurassic Park didn’t have to keep its actors confined to a space about the size of a living room in order to fit in the green screen stuff. It becomes pretty clear that the dinosaur isn’t really interested in eating anybody, but eventually the guns are fixed and the lizard is put down all the same. The crew makes a hasty retreat back to the as-yet-unchanged present.
That night an invisible wave flickers across the skyline. Ed Burns notices that it’s unseasonably warm tonight. In the morning the news is reporting that schools of fish have beached themselves on the shores of Lake Michigan (a sad end to what was apparently the last species to survive the complete ecological collapse we were talking about just a few minutes ago) and giant plants are sprouting up through concrete all over town. The plant stuff is done with physical effects and looks startlingly good after so much of the movie looks like it was animated on a Sega.
The team has another safari scheduled for the morning, but the time machine spits them out five minutes too late, and they’re nearly wiped out by a volcano. One has to wonder what that butterfly got up to in those five minutes to have such a significant impact on history.
The team is concerned now and decides to run some diagnostic tests, and the slimy government guy even makes an official report. Chief scientist Ed Burns, however, takes the afternoon off and goes to visit Catherine McCormick, hoping she has an idea of what’s happening. Along the way more plants are bursting through the highway, and the city is very on edge. This stuff is well done, and a reminder that Peter Hyams does typically know how to make a movie. McCormick takes Burns up to a balcony where she shows him a time-wave rolling in across the horizon that hits with enough force to knock Burns off the ledge, although McCormick doesn’t seem ruffled at all. Also just to be clear, this isn’t just me making fun, they are called time-waves in the movie.
This particular time-wave brings a big swarm of bugs with it, and so Burns and McCormick decide to blow up her apartment. While the CGI on the bugs is a little more professional than the CGI on the dinosaurs or the future cars, it still doesn’t bother to incorporate the actors actions very much. Some of the shots here feel almost like pranks.
Our heroes take a very confusingly edited fall from the high-rise, but are totally unharmed. McCormick has to drop a huge chunk of ridiculous gobbledygook exposition in order to set up the rest of the narrative, and she does it like a real champ. Direct and full of conviction. This is a very underappreciated skill for an actor, and McCormick ought to have a steady gig any time Hollywood needs a doctor, scientist, spy-master, or mysterious librarian to explain space viruses or hell gates.
It turns out that when you change the past in a significant way, it sets off a series of time-waves. Each wave fills in a part of the evolutionary cycle, starting with simple organisms like plants and insects and working its way up the food chain until it finally gets to the top dog. And by dog I mean human. It’s sort of like when an image would update on an old computer, and it would go line by line, instead of all at once. Those of you with advanced degrees in theoretical physics may be able to spot some issues with this premise, but it’s the story we’re going with. I wonder how Ray Bradbury felt about the idea.
McCormick officially joins the team, and it’s decided that Ed Burns will jump back to just before the hunting party shows up, and immediately send them back (Forward? You know what I mean). I’m not sure why they don’t just jump back to yesterday and call off the expedition from there, but I’m sure it has something to do with time-waves and I don’t need to hear it.
The time machine glitches again sending him back hundreds of years instead of millions. There’s a native hunting party that runs right through him like he’s a ghost (I’m not sure why this happens) and then another time wave comes, and Burns tries to outrun it. Even more ridiculous than that time Dennis Quaid had to outrun the cold.
Back in the future, the next time-wave knocks out (most of) the power and wrecks the lab. Everybody decides that they need to investigate to figure out exactly what was changed, because this movie really wants to play the butterfly thing like a big mystery, even though the whole point of the story is that, over enough time, the effects of your actions are totally unpredictable. And now, at long last, we finally settle into the actual premise of the movie, as the team needs to venture across a Chicago that’s overrun with weird monsters and prehistoric plant growth.
The sets here are made with physical effects and so things also start looking like a real movie. Some of this set work is really good. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t really notice until it’s juxtaposed with genuinely amateur visual effects.
Once outside, David Oyelowo is attacked by some living vines, and immediately gives up the will to live. It’s implied that he’s been infected by some horrible poison, but he accepts his fate really fast and is almost immediately tells everyone to leave him behind even though there is very little visibly wrong with him. But before the team can suggest maybe putting some aloe on it, they are attacked by a monster that is just a velociraptor with the head of a baboon. I appreciate the creativity, but these things look ridiculous, even if the CGI work is a bit more professional here. Not good mind you, but on par with what you would expect from a network tv show, or a mid-tier monster movie circa-2002.
Even though the team is carrying future guns that could take down a T-Rex in one shot and tear through solid stone like it’s papier-mâché, the bullets bounce right off the baboonasaur’s hide without even irritating him. However the creature can be killed by shooting it in the neck. It’s a very videogamey mechanic.
The baboonasaur isn’t alone and soon an entire swarm is closing in on our heroes. David Oyelowo collapses, urging his friends to leave him behind. Which they do. But they only run off like ten feet, and then stop and watch the monsters continue to sloooooowly close in. Everybody yells for Oyelowo, but nobody goes to help him, even though they’ve got plenty of time. The whole thing is very drawn out and extremely unnecessary. Oyelowo is eaten and in the very next scene Ed Burns tells everybody that it’s no big deal cause they’ve got time travel. Which sure, but read the room dude.
The group comes across a refugee camp scrounging for food, and it feels like a reel is missing from the movie. The monsters showed up like 10 minutes ago. The characters have barely had enough time to walk across the park and society has already degenerated to Mad Max levels.
Burns blasts a few more monkeys and the team promises to bring the refugees food. A promise that they immediately blow off, arguing that fixing the timeline will mean they never made any promises to starving children in the first place.
At this point we’re basically in a chase movie. The team solves the great butterfly caper, gets a car, gets attacked by some giant bats that would be really cool if the effects were finished, gets attacked by a sea serpent that would be really cool if the effects were a finished, have some more run ins with the baboonasaurs, and eventually get whittled down until it’s just Burns and McCormick left. McCormick sends Burns back to the dinosaur hunt just before the final time-wave hits and turns her into a sort of fish monkey thing that looks right into the camera, seemingly as surprised to see us as we are to see it.
Back in the past Burns saves the butterfly, warns the team about time shenanigans, and generally sets things right. There’s a few more scenes wrapping up loose ends, but they’re not very interesting.
So Why D Minus?
A Sound Of Thunder began development in the late 90s as a project for Michael Eisner’s son, Breck, to make his directorial debut. This plan was eventually abandoned (Breck would get his shot with 2005’s Sahara [B+], after spending a bit more time learning the ropes in TV and advertising work). The movie was then given to Renny Harlin (fresh off The Deep Blue Sea [B]) who brought in Pierce Brosnan to star.
According to dubiously sourced rumors, Renny Harlin was fired from the movie over a creative dispute with Ray Bradbury, suggesting, hilariously, that the author was happy with the changes that actually made it into the finished film. More concrete is the story that Brosnan wanted a script rewrite but with the 2001 writer’s strike fast approaching the movie was rushed into production. Regardless of the reasons, both Harlin and Brosnan left the project and were replaced with Peter Hyams and Ed Burns, respectively. The production budget, already slim for a big effects-driven blockbuster, was cut, and production moved from Montreal to the Czech Republic, chasing tax credits. But as soon as filming began it was halted by a “once in a century” flood that ravaged the Czech Republic and much of Eastern Europe.
The hobbled production eventually resumed and principal filming was completed and the movie was sent off for post-production. Hyams had relied very heavily on greenscreen (perhaps as a result of the destruction of so many of the sets) and all of the creatures and many of the films environments were intended to be CGI. However, the production company handling the film, Franchise Pictures, was being sued for fraudulently inflating their budget numbers, having claimed that Battlefield Earth [D+] cost a ludicrous $75 million dollars to produce rather than the (frankly still ludicrous) $44 million they actually spent on it. Franchise lost the case, promptly went bankrupt, and A Sound Of Thunder saw its post-production budget drop from $50 million to $0 million. Over the next few years Hyams turned to a number of “mom and pop operations” who filled in the missing pieces of the film using pre-visualization software. The final effects range in quality from “SyFy Original” to “C- high school project”. Nevertheless, the still unfinished film was shoveled into theaters in September of 2005, after 4 whole years of production and post-production. It was not well received.
So Were they right?
I can’t really defend this movie. This is the sort of movie where everything exists just to get you from one effects set piece to another, and the effects are unfinished. And even if the effects had been fantastic, the rest of the movie is still deeply flawed. There’s way too much exposition, most of it struggling to patch logic holes and opening up dozens more in the process. It takes far too long to get to the main conceit. The acting is better than the typical bland monster chow, but the movie would really benefit from a Sam Neill or a Sigourney Weaver to carry through the saggy parts. And most importantly, none of the film’s emotional stakes hold up at all, especially since time travel completely undermines the consequence of everything that happens within the narrative.
And yet, I enjoyed the movie and was engaged throughout. And not just in a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way (although this one certainly qualifies for that). But genuinely, on its own terms, I had fun with this movie. It’s so easy to see the movie that could have been with just a bit of streamlining on the script and competent effects work. Peter Hyams, for all his faults, knows how to move a story. And I think the conceit is a lot of fun, even if the execution is awkward at best and, more often than not, literally unfinished.
Does the movie deserve a D-? Yeah, probably, but I’d still rather watch it than lots of movies I’ve seen that have won Oscars or grossed billions of dollars.