Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
Time travel doesn’t come cheap in A Sound of Thunder. Not only does it cost an arm and a leg to visit the dinosaurs, there’s also the risk of mankind going extinct. By that, the lucrative business at the heart of the film flirts with danger every day. In regard to the butterfly effect, all it takes is one mistake in the past to jeopardize the present. As part of Nightmare on Film Street‘s Leap Fear series, we journey to the year 2055.
The Chicago-based Time Safari offers a new form of trophy hunting. Their prices are steep, but who wouldn’t want to watch a dinosaur up close and personal? For most people, just seeing these ancient creatures, alive and in their natural habitat, is satisfying enough. Time Safari’s clientele, on the other hand, is less virtuous. They’ll spend whatever it takes to escape their routine existence.
The film’s setting — wildlife is as good as passé thanks to poaching and a mysterious virus, and global warming is undeniable — doesn’t sound so implausible nowadays. In A Sound of Thunder, these realities hardly raise an eyebrow. The film’s main character, Travis Ryer (Edward Burns), is both relatable and culpable—he recognizes the planet is in trouble, yet he’s part of the problem. More so than he believes. Although Travis consciously participates, he’s not entirely soulless either. He’s determined that he “can bring [animals] back” through his secret research.
Complementing our hero’s covert goodwill is Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack), the de facto creator of time travel. She’s become an activist since she was canned by Time Safari’s CEO, Charles Hatton (Ben Kingsley). As soon as she developed the key software now known as “TAMI”, Sonia was let go with no claim to her invention. Nevertheless, she provides the moral sense of the story. Sonia denounces Time Safari’s practices as well as foreshadows things to come.
“Keeping in mind what A Sound of Thunder endured behind the scenes, it’s amazing the movie ever saw the light of day.”
The one who incidentally undoes life as they know it is a businessman who, in his own words, is “sleepwalking through life.” His ilk has little regard for rules. And, as with all Time Safari patrons, he’s told explicitly not to toy with the past or bring anything back from it. Self-interest prevails and the future is fitly doomed. Again, a bit on the nose. What then follows is a series of devastating “time waves”—that single misstep is now gradually reshaping the world.
On the bright side, animals are making a comeback. In this brand new dystopia consumed by soupy vegetation, megafauna roam free and everywhere along with prehensile, killer vines. Eels as big as dragons lurk in the flooded subways while reptilian mandrills prowl the grounds. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a scientific standpoint, but, hey, the creature designs are kinda ace. Had the film not run out of money, these monsters could have been incredible. Instead, the beasts and plant life in A Sound of Thunder remain unfinished. They’re comparable to low-grade video game graphics of yesteryear.
The movie’s last act has no choice but to diverge from its source material, namely the eponymous short story by Ray Bradbury. And, unlike its basis, Peter Hyams’ film needs a conclusion. This means adding to a growing pile of paradoxes. The resolution drummed up by the writers is familiar. Almost comforting in the sense that we can go back and fix all our mistakes no matter how big they are. Sure, the ending begs a lot of questions, but we can’t pretend the fault lies solely with A Sound of Thunder. After all, it’s part of a whole niche of sci-fi rife with contradictions and absurdity. Very few out there can balance sound logic and entertainment when dealing with time travel.
When the now-bankrupt Franchise Pictures announced A Sound of Thunder back in 2001, they couldn’t have foreseen the troubles that awaited them. Legal complications, the changing of directors and actors, and destroyed sets were just some of the issues this film faced. Deemed unwatchable, the movie was then shelved for three years. Warner Bros. eventually took one for the team and distributed the picture fully knowing it had a bomb on its hands. It’s almost baffling how a movie that cost between $52 and $80 million ended up looking so abysmally cheap. The studio swept the movie under the rug after a mere two-week-run and an embarrassing return of less than $12 million worldwide. It’s no wonder so many people have never even heard of the film.
“When the now-bankrupt Franchise Pictures announced A Sound of Thunder back in 2001, they couldn’t have foreseen the troubles that awaited them.”
Fully understanding A Sound of Thunder is a debacle beforehand helps soften the blow once you finally watch it. Would it have been a better movie had Renny Harlin stayed on as director, or Pierce Brosnan remained the lead? Probably not. Pushing past the movie’s visual shortcomings, the ho-hum script is more blameworthy than anything else. For a story that’s so ambitious and thought-provoking, the writing is too inert. Characters have no visible personalities or reactions even when they’re being stalked by saurian primates. The human aspect is less than enticing in a movie all about the fate of humanity.
It’s easy to beat up on a movie that never stood a chance. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. Nevertheless, anyone who favors “what if” scenarios can find something here to like. The creatures are imaginative and the world-building is eager. The central theme of hopefulness is also barefaced and one of the few elements not buried by limp execution. Hyams knows his way around batty exposition — Timecop and The Relic are proof of that — and his enthusiasm is felt if not realized. More than anything, A Sound of Thunder could have leaned harder into its potential as a spectacle.
Keeping in mind what A Sound of Thunder endured behind the scenes, it’s amazing the movie ever saw the light of day. The imperfections induce cringe, but in many ways, they add to the film’s charm. We likely won’t see another big-screen adaptation of Bradbury’s story anytime soon. However, the movie we did get is an acceptable seat-filler until one comes along and proves it can stand the test of time.