Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

Boondoggle Madness

If only I could time travel and tell myself not to see <i>A Sound of Thunder</i>

I got married on July 30 and met my father-in-law only the day before. I was scared. Bob is a conservative military man. He carries a gun and he voted for Bush. I am his son’s homosexual lover, an egghead from the East Coast, the child of pinko Democrats who met in the Johnson Administration.

My fears were unfounded. He embraced me as part of the family, got tipsy at a gay bar after the rehearsal dinner and was captured on film taking a picture of my marriage kiss. And it turns out, we have something in common besides his son—he’s a movie buff. He’s not a savour-the-stab-wounds-in-slasher-films, memorize-the-choreography-from-The-Harvey-Girls, rattle-off-career-highlights-of-minor-starlets film buff like his son Rob. Nor is he an obsessed fan of quirkfests like Rushmore and Magnolia, epic musicals like West Side Story and Evita or early Faye Dunaway movies, like me. No, he’s retired and bored and sees every movie at the multiplex near his house in Henderson, Nevada. If it’s out and it isn’t animated, he’s there—usually at 1:45 in the afternoon.

My husband and I moved from New York to San Diego at the beginning of September, and on the way we stopped for a few days in Henderson, a big suburb of Las Vegas, to visit the in-laws. Bob told great war stories, chatted us up while we floated in the pool and went to the movies with us. Even though my mother-in-law told us to see what we wanted, not what her husband hadn’t seen, Rob and I agreed to go to a movie that’d be new to everyone. We looked through the paper and read off the names of movies. The only one he hadn’t seen, which was also the only one I hadn’t heard of, was A Sound of Thunder. The ads were suspiciously devoid of information like the names of the actors or director. I was worried that it might be some Christian film, like Left Behind, that had snuck into the multiplex without the benefit of mainstream marketing. But after a little bit of research, I found out that it was just a big-budget, big-studio time-travel action film.

Ah, the end of the summer, when studios dump their mistakes on us and hope no one notices. August used to be all bombs, all the time. But after The Sixth Sense made $200 million in August seven years ago, it’s been a good place for potential sleepers (which otherwise might be lost among June’s blockbusters) to dominate in a less-crowded field. This can be confusing: you never know which movies have been dumped and which are being carefully marketed. From the vague ads and the lack of stars, I thought The 40-Year-Old Virgin had been tossed out by the same studio executives in charge of Stealth. Nope—it’s been the movie of the year (so far)! When a US$80 million movie arrives without advertising or publicity, however, it’s a little more obvious. In fact, I would say that A Sound of Thunder was probably only released because there was a contract that mandated it. (I’m sure Warner Bros. would have been happy to save the cost of FedExing the prints, paying the listing fees, not to mention all the embarrassment.) I had figured this out about fifteen minutes before we left for the theatre, but I kept my mouth shut.

Bob was a bit worried too. He had paid for the tickets. When we attempted to protest his purchase of the tickets, he said, “It’s the least I can do for dragging you to this movie.”

Well. At least I didn’t pay.

A Sound of Thunder is probably not Golden Raspberry Award material, because usually the Razzies go to movies with shockingly bad acting by big stars (like Madonna, Sylvester Stallone or Britney Spears). Nevertheless, Thunder is the worst movie I have ever seen in terms of the budget-to-quality ratio. Its closest competitor is John Travolta’s Scientology recruitment film Battlefield Earth, but that was so awful that it was funny, which made it entertaining. Thunder was just boring. I wish I could blame one person—the director, a writer, an actor—for this boondoggle, but it seems to have been a perfect storm of incompetence.

Based on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, A Sound of Thunder is a cautionary tale about what happens when you screw around with time travel. In the future, rich people go on “time safaris” to kill dinosaurs for sport. The dinosaur is about to die anyway, so nothing gets affected down the road. But on one trip, one of the rich guys accidentally kills a butterfly, and the world ends, more or less. Over a few days, “time waves” (which appear to be a cross between earthquakes and epileptic fits) start making evolution go hooey. They sound like … thunder (duh). Plants grow uncontrollably, baboons and lions merge into furry velociraptors, and so on. Humans were the last to evolve, supposedly, and so therefore are the last to screwed by a time wave.

Basically, a butterfly gets squished, and everything evolves into something evil. The conflicted scientist (Ed Burns) who leads the safaris, the inventor of the time machine (Catherine McCormack), and some furry velociraptor bait try to save the day, while the owner of the safari business (Ben Kingsley) makes their job somewhat difficult.

It’s a great idea for a movie, but the director, Peter Hyams, wimped out. Being tracked and disembowelled by furry velociraptors (or subway tunnel sea monsters, giant bats, carnivorous rose bushes, etc.) should be horrible and terrifying, but the film is only barely exciting. The world crumbling, nature rising up and destroying everything should turn the extras into Katrina victims, but I didn’t even feel nervous watching it unravel. Hyams has no feel for tension or terror, nor any idea how to use special effects. The monsters looked like claymation, and when the actors are shot in futuristic locales or ancient jungles, the backdrops are as silly-looking as rear-projection screens behind actors driving in old movies. I was surprised, because Hyams also directed Timecop, which is a fun, silly and exciting movie full of effective special-effects shots amid scowls from Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I was not surprised by the deadening presence of Ed Burns, who ranks just above Matthew McConaughey in terms of shitty actors who always inexplicably find work. Burns shows the same emotions whether he’s scared, angry, happy or confused. Watching Burns act alongside Ben Kingsley, who creates a surprisingly complex and funny character out of what could have been a one-note bad guy, reminded me of those old Lucky Dog commercials, where the big, dumb bulldog lumbers down the street and the little chihuahua bounces around him trying to get his attention. Burns has less charisma and depth than Van Damme, and casting him as the saviour of the world and the romantic lead was, to say the least, a fatal mistake.

Sadly, the only parts of the film I considered non-errors were Burns’s two scenes in which he goes shirtless, showing off his lovely, nicely trimmed chest hair and bulging pectorals. I didn’t press my luck with my father-in-law, and I didn’t tell him it was my favourite part of the movie.

Ted Gideonse lives in San Diego and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Read more columns by Ted Gideonse.