Even in a season of bad action movies, this one marks a new low. It makes “The Island” sound cerebral and “The Cave” seem realistic. The 1952 Ray Bradbury short story on which Peter Hyams’ movie is based is deservedly a classic of its type, the crystallization of the term “butterfly effect” (not actually coined until some years afterward)–the idea that the slightest change in the past could radically alter the future. In the tale, a group of rich big-game hunters travels back to prehistoric times via cutting-edge technology to bag the rarest of quarries–dinosaurs. While on their expedition one accidentally kills a butterfly, and that alteration changes all history since, sending “waves” of evolutionary change into the present to endanger the human species entirely. The premise has been put to use frequently since then–just think of the recent Ashton Kutcher movie and the “Simpsons” Halloween episode that ruffed on Bradbury’s story. But “A Sound of Thunder” is the granddaddy of them all, and it’s rather sad to see it so dreadfully adapted to the screen as it has been here.
To be sure, like most of Bradbury’s fiction the idea at the center of the story is pretty silly–just think of “Fahrenheit 451,” with its central notion that every book is worth memorizing for posterity simply because it’s been written. But silly ideas can make good movies. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. The script by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Gregory Poirier turns into a long chase flick in which the Time Safari team headed by scientist Travis Ryer (Edward Burns) and aided by disaffected but brilliant ex-employee Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack) dodge various (and definitely hungry) CGI critters to discover what the expedition did to alter evolution and then reverse the process; but it’s so muddled, and the dialogue so incredibly lame, that the result doesn’t go beyond the level of the most puerile 1940s serial. The creature effects, mostly shown in semi-darkness intended, one supposes, to mask their mediocrity, wouldn’t have passed muster in one of Ray Harryhausen’s old stop-motion efforts; and while it was a cool idea to set the movie in a futuristic Chicago in which actual buildings (the Wrigley Building, the Hancock Tower) are joined by imaginary structures, the result is chintzy and utterly phony (the little cars speeding around the streets look ridiculous, and the green-screen work is awful, especially when two characters supposedly walking on the Michigan Avenue bridge across the Chicago River are so obviously sauntering on a treadmill while the manipulated landscape is arrayed behind them). The acting is terrible across the board, with a dejected-looking Burns delivering his lines in a droning monotone and McCormack so strident and screechy that one hopes she’ll become an early victim. Even still, both are surpassed by Ben Kingsley as the money-grubbing entrepreneur of the whole shabby safari enterprise. His human-shark turn is so awful that it might make the queen want to reconsider whether knighthoods should be revocable. And his hideous bleached-blond toupee is certainly a lot more frightening than anything the special effects team has devised. To complete the unhappy list, Hyams, acting as his own DP, proves as inept a cinematographer as he is a director, and Nick Glennie-Smith’s score features every cliche known to the genre without making any appreciable impression.
So the sound of this “Thunder” isn’t so much a bang as a whimper. When Travis remarks toward the close about the effect of reversing the process that their mistake has caused, observing that if they succeed, “We won’t know any of this has happened,” one can only think: if only it were that easy to forget the experience of sitting through this miserable movie!