I Watched “A Sound of Thunder” So You Don’t Have to

So, making the transition from “active cancer treatment” to “normal life” is much more challenging than I’d anticipated. For one thing, even though I’m still taking far too many pills and coordinating various check-ups and exams still takes up an awful lot of time. However, having sailed (sort of) through chemo, I’m trying to keep up the healthy activities that allowed me to survive regular baths in napalm.

Unfortunately, that means trying to keep up my chemo diet, which was, essentially, an all-fiber/all-protein diet (I didn’t worry about sugar, I just avoided it when necessary). I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to eat 8–10 servings of fruits and vegetables in a day, but you spend a solid hour or two just chewing.

What better way than to get through an annoying physical task than with a distraction? While I was in chemo, I read a lot, which helps, but when you’re chewing through your fourth round of jicama and peppers (if you don’t have something caught in your teeth at all times, you’re probably doing it wrong)(I am still single, ladies), and start dreaming of bacon cheeseburgers, you’ll need more than stoicism and Steinbeck. You might need to develop an appreciation for bad movies. Stick with me on this one.

I’ve been a bad film conneaussoir for most of my life. I’m a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career prior to his entry into politics, which should tell you a lot. I knew about Mystery Science Theater in 1993, at age 8. I loved the Tremor movies (yes, there was more than one, if you had access to a low-budget film rental store)(Gods, I’m old). I’d argue that, to a receptive mind, you can take just as much from “bad art” as you can from good art, even if it’s simply, “Oh, I would not do that.” The other part is, from a hipster point of view, it’s much, much harder to find terrible art than good art. You know — and, statistically, have probably already seen — this year’s Oscar-nominated films and Grammy-nominated albums. It’s harder to find someone who actually knew about Captain Beefheart prior to the Internet (and harder still to find anyone who’ll admit that they’re a fan, but it’s still sub-par music). The same goes for films — in order to find truly awful stuff, you have to look a little harder, and know a guy who knows a guy. Or if you just lived through the 90’s (the height of Ralph Bakshi’s career), use your childhood memories.

So, I thought I’d go back and watch something I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, A Sound of Thunder. I suppose it tells you everything you need to know about me that I survived a malignant brain tumor (so far), and one of the first things I did was find a film that was soundly thrashed by critics, and watch it as a means of distracting myself from all the celery.

To begin with, a bit of background: the film is based on the classic Ray Bradbury short story of the same name. Bradbury wrote the story in 1952, and, according to Wikipedia, is credited with pioneering the idea of the Butterfly Effect, which is central to most time travel stories. In the original story, a private company develops time travel, which it uses to take rich dentists back in time to shoot dinosaurs. However, there are a lot of rules in place to protect the purity of time (the hunters all have to wear HVAC suits to prevent them from introducing foreign microbes into the past; they walk on a specially-laid-out path to prevent them from trodding on prehistoric shrubbery; they kill animals that are going to be killed shortly by a natural disaster, etc.). In the story, one hunter gets frightened and ducks off the path, accidentally trodding on a butterfly, and changing the future. It’s basically The Hero’s Journey for all time-travel-based franchises.

Any film based on that has to be decent, right? Or at least, not terrible? Or, at least, entertainingly-terrible, like Tremors or The Thirteenth Warrior?

Oh, abandon all hope, ye who enter here. First warning; almost all of my research on this is done via Wikipedia, since I’m lazy, and everyone connected with this film is either vanished into the ether or being very quiet about it. Second warning: I haven’t included any pictures in this, because I have no idea who owns which IP rights for what (that was, apparently, an issue that tripped up production), and the company that produced it went bankrupt during filming (another mark of quality entertainment).

I will admit that I watched this in 10–20-minute-long segments, so I might’ve missed something (I’m still suffering from chemo brain, although that gets better as time goes by). Also, I’ll admit that I only watched this as writing fodder, because, like everyone else, I’m apparently only motivated to create when I’m miserable, even if that misery is artificial and entirely self-inflicted (come to it, that describes how chemo feels, and I got a year of decent writing in with that).

The interesting aspect to this film is that it is a window into the past. I don’t just mean the time-travel plot gimmick, I mean that it could not be recreated today in laboratory conditions, and it serves as a weird, modern archaeological fragment of the way films and stories were made in the past. I don’t know how IP got swapped, traded, and sold in decades past, but most of my savvier writing friends say that the days of Stan Lee selling all the exclusive rights to Spider-Man in perpetuity for a house payment and broken promises are long gone (one of the reasons we didn’t get a Lord of the Rings series until 2000 was that it took several years to unravel and acquire the rights to it). George Martin and Neil Gaiman are the modern advocates of being smarter with your IP rights and retaining certain controls over it. I don’t know how much control R. Bradbury had over the final product in this case, but, since one director left over creative disputes with him, I guess he wasn’t powerless (or easy to work with apparently)(weird side-note; I actually met Bradbury twice, which isn’t enough time to really know someone, but he certainly played up the gruff, hyper-anti-social writer persona).

The second aspect to consider is science fiction. There are fewer genres that don’t age as well — either because they eventually become science fact, or, since fiction is speculative, get disproven by the system they write about (in 2012, M. Allentoft confirmed that DNA has a half-life, which kind of destroys “Jurassic Park”)(Allentoft et al, 2012). The chief problem with science journalism and scientific outreach is that science moves far faster than the mind can easily keep up with; in almost all areas of science. I have no idea if there’s been any new developments in the field of time travel since Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I’d imagine there are a few new twists. The chief method of sci-fi writing of yesteryear was to develop an idea, and then explain it. Which is both great and awful — for all the scenes of dinosaurs eating people in Jurassic Park, there were twice as many pages devoted to explaining the science or mathematics behind it (this, obviously, got condensed and cut for the film). A Sound of Thunder is ten pages long, much less if you cut out the expository dialogue. If that seems like a rather thin amount of original material to work with, you’d be right. This might seem like a minor point, but I literally sat there counting the biological inaccuracies and stopped in teh first 30 seconds. So, suspension of disbelief will be a problem if you have more than a sixth-grade science education (sorry, Mr. President).

Another thing to consider when watching this glorious mess of a film is that, when the production company making it sunk like the Titanic, the film crew and investors were working on a $30 million budget. Out of a promised $80 million. You’d imagine a film could be made for that amount, but the Mummy movies (the ones with Brenden Fraser) were almost twice that. And imagine what your lifestyle would look like if you suddenly had 38% of your promised salary. It would look like this film — cheap, tacky, and rich in dialogue.

So, the film opens with a dinosaur attacking the cast from Outbreak, except the dinosaur looks less menacing and realistic than “Rex” from Toy Story. However, it turns out well, except for the fact that these neo-future big-game hunters are all employed and funded by an evil, for-profit company owned by Sir Ben Kingsley. Go ahead and read that sentence again, it’s totally accurate — Ben Kingsley, well-known for his roles in Schindler’s List and Ghandi is in this film. This was the first moment I felt the need to pause the film and double-check that the space-time continuum wasn’t being unraveled. That would not, sadly, be the last time I had to double-check that I wasn’t having some sort of aneurysm. Cut to: Handsome Scientist Man (played by Edward Burns) double-checking his research (I’m guessing this is a retroactive performance piece in which Burns portrays the character he wishes he was when signing the contract for this film). He’s using some sort of hyper-advanced AI, in a weird, banter-y fashion that no one has ever had with Alexa. At one point the following lines are exchanged, I am not kidding:

COMPUTER: I was extremely expensive.

BURNS: That’s not always a good quality.

This was the second point — in less than 20 minutes, mind — that I had to double-check that the film hadn’t become sentient or intentionally broken the fourth wall. Thankfully, the film moves too fast for you to get weighed down with introspection, and the audience is off to a boardroom celebration scene as Ben Kingsley pours champagne and talks about cutting edge research that is hyper-cutting edge (and in no way reminded me of the numerous biotech PR releases I’ve read lately about how very close we are to curing cancer); this is interrupted by an English woman who throws blood at the attendees and decries them using this brand new technology to hunt animals… that are already extinct? I get that anti-game hunting is — and has been — the en vogue environmental sentiment for over a half-century, but it seems like a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees when a private company has reality-changing technology at its fingertips, and going after them for using it to hunt dinosaurs. That’s a weird common thread throughout the movie — everyone moans that the government is involved in regulating this new, potentially-reality-erasing technology. You don’t see the same people whinging about how you can’t own smallpox or stockpile nuclear weapons. But I digress, back to the action, in which two schlubby businessmen sign up to kill dinosaurs. The second businessman — Eckles, I’m guessing — is clearly terrified beyond belief, at all moments. I have no idea who the actor is, but he gets my vote for “Most Woody Allen-esque Peformance Outside of a Woody Allen Film.” You wouldn’t let this guy near your dog, let alone arm him and trust him to go on a big game expedition.

If all of this seems like an expensive, lenghy reenactment of the whole Cecil the Lion incident, well, it is. The film was almost prescient in that way, just as Bradbury’s prediction that humans could dramatically screw up the planet accidentally was. Which brings me to the core of my complaints about this whole thing: it’s hyper-focused on a single, rather minute, ecological issue that the audience is already primed to receive: game hunting bad. Growing up around hunters in an area overflowing with wildlife (deer and bears are all majestic and charismatic, until there are so many they wander into the roads and become a hazard), even though I never hunted, I could see the point — we’ve screwed up the ecosystem beyond recognition, and humans intervention is required. Of course, the entire problem would be solved if the area were uninhabited by humans, but that sort of complex ecological problem isn’t readily-digested by Americans, who have been programmed to view complex economic problems (almost all environmental issues are economic at their heart) that have ecological symptoms, as simple, black-or-white issues. Cecil’s death was tragic and unfortunate, but, at the same time, if he (or his death) preserves an entire ecosystem, it’s a necessary evil. Props to the movie for weirdly predicting that, though.

Also, if it seems like I’m going off on lengthy digressions or tangents, well, yeah. I am. Because any minute spent not watching this turd of a film is a good minute. It literally took me several hours to make it through the half hour. Anyway, back to the action.

After a scene involving numerous lengthy liability releases (never let it be said that faithful adaptations are a good thing; that was a hefty part of the original story) in which the company most certainly is being negligent by not asking Pants-Wetting Man if he’s being coerced or feels comfortable (I guess the film was oddly prophetic in guessing that consent issues would be a major social problem in the 21st century), we finally get the big scene from the book: the hunters go back in time and shoot a prehistoric monster that looks less real than the Jurassic Park action figures I used to play with (I don’t know why I used past tense in that sentence). In the story, Bradbury just mentions a protective path that stops the time travelers from unintentionally stomping on anything; in the film, they show it, in a scene that makes anything from Terra Nova look positively slick and polished. The film makers do get points for realizing that facing a giant, scaly monster with only the maneuverability of a small footpath is, perhaps, a problem, but the dinosaur is still shot and killed. Pany back to show that Woody Allan hunter stepped off the path (in the story, we’re brought to dislike the character’s cowardice because the guide, Travis, is clearly in control at all moments, and Eckels clearly panics about nothing — in this incarnation, my sympathies are with Eckels, because, if you’re attacked by a multi-ton monster and only have the same amount of maneuvering room afforded by a barcalounger, of course you’re going to stumble). They make it back to the future, and Sir Ben Kingsley gives them the same “Welcome back, oh mighty hunters” speech he made earlier, making me wonder if there wasn’t an odd “Groundhog Day” element to the film, or if it’s just a really strange commentary on the repetitive nature of corporate salesmanship (my guess is that they only had $30 million, netting Kingsley cost most of that, and the film makers wanted to get their money’s worth). It also made me realize it’s been a while since I degrouted my toenails, and suddenly, I had another thing to do before I could continue this rotten film. Keep in mind, we haven’t even hit the 45-minute mark.

Toenails cleaned (an experience far more involving and thrilling than any part of this film, I assure you), I got back to it. As Ben Kingsley soothes the ruffled feathers of Woody Allen/Eckles and convinces them not to take legal action (this film is also weirdly prophetic in the idea that threatening legal action would be the greatest threat Americans could make against one another), thre is an oddy, cheap-looking ripple through the future-Chicago skyline. We then get a scene explaining what went wrong with the future guns, in which a character invokes the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to explain that things will go wrong. Again, this is where an above-sixth-grade education is a problem, because I remember my undergrad physics professor lecturing about how a lot of physics theories and principles that are used to explain the way atomic particles behave, and that using those to explain macroscopic (ie, things that we can see and interact with on a daily basis) is inconsistent with both the phenomena they (physics theories) explain, and a lazy metaphor on behalf of whoever’s using it. On the other hand, next time your significant other calls you out for some bad habit or behavior, your go-to excuse is, “Physics.”

Anyway, back in the film, the characters reveal that the climate is/has changed (again, this is portrayed as an oddity in the film, whereas watching it in 2019, all I could do is shrug and say, “That’s how climate change works”), and, in the next time-jump, the allosaurus is dead before the hunters arrive. Which raises more questions than just the “What’s with that?” the film makers wanted us to ask. If the time travelers are killing this one, particular animal just a few minutes before it was supposed to die (via volcano), wouldn’t they bump into each other? If they don’t and/or the allosaur keeps getting resurrected, isn’t that a tacit endorsement that nothing matters, time can’t be changed, and why bother? Is this a weird, crypto-Calvinist tract masquerading as a time travel disaster movie? It was at this point I realized that this film had the same problem as “Twilight.” Stick with me.

Vampires — like time travel — are not real. However, vampire mythology and tropes have been around for a long time, so there are a lot of established story-telling rules and conventions that go along with them, chief amongst them, that vampires do not go out in sunlight. Again, because they are fictional, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be out in sunlight, as Stephenie Meyer and Francis Ford Coppola wanted in their vampire-based works. However, they are going against decades of vampire-story-convention, which is just another tough, unnecessary issue that would be easier solved simply by just keeping them nocturnal and working the story around that. Same here; when the short story came out, time travel, as a trope, was probably relatively novel, and having an entire story dedicated to that trope was cool and original. Not any more. We’ve had decades of science fiction building on that idea, laying down various conventions and rules, and defying those conventions is just another reminder we’re watching something far-removed from reality (or sanity, as the case may be). And it’s an unfortunate reminder that, if you want time travel films, Back to the Future and the Terminator franchise are still out ther, and still better than this film. But I digress.

Back to the film! Remember that ripple? That’s the less-than-subtle indicator that there’s some sort of timeline damage that causes this film to become one of the Brendan Fraser “Mummy” movies. I wish I was joking — there’s plants that come alive and attack, a beetle attack, and all sorts of cheap CGI attacks. Edward Burns — who, to give him credit, is fully trained in the Bill Pullman school of whisper-acting — tracks down the animal rights protester from the beginning of the film (she’s actually one of the engineers who designed the super-expensive AI), and she knows what’s going on. Again, I realize that a film as weird and convoluted as this one needs a lot of exposition to connect the weird CGI monster attack scenes, but, surely, the company that actually invented time travel would know more about time travel — and its consequences — than a random character created just to explain the plot. She explains that the ripple effects are just that — the effects of altering the past catching up to everyone, until the “last species to evolve” — us — are caught in the effect. Hang on. Didn’t domesticated animals evolve after we did? Or Hawaiian wallabies? Or those tree moths in Britain that were deselected when coal plants in the Industrial Revolution dyed the trees a darker shade? What about goldendoodles? Again, you’ll be unable to suspend disbelief if you payed attention in school.

Fortunately, the computer programmer who knows a suspicious amount about how time travel works (could she be a Time Lord?), has a solution: more time travel. Again, I realize that this is a work of fiction about an impossible technology, but the whole “double down on the madness” logic is what brought the phrase “clean coal” into the language. And, in this case, they’re proposing that they go back in time and stop themselves from stepping on the butterfly. Which begs the question, “What are the rules to this technology?” Fortunately, it was at this moment that I realized I’d reached the half-way mark, and it was time to give myself a break from this awful film. Maybe “break” isn’t the word I’m looking for, maybe “vacation” is. Anyway, I’ll try to finish this wretched film at some point this weekend without gnawing a limb off.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store