Monday, August 3, 2009

A Sound of Thunder

I needed that time off. There was supposed to be another review in there, but after seeing that last movie I reviewed - a film which shall never again be named - I just needed to get away from movies altogether. I couldn't even watch the good stuff, like the pile of Ingmar Bergman movies I've had sitting on my shelf. When I can't even watch my favorite film maker's movies, I know I saw something really bad to kill my love of cinema that much. You know what, though? In the end, I think that time away from movies was a good thing. I feel kinda refreshed and it also gave me time to think a bit. Things need to change around here and I've known that for a while. The long-winded, MST3K-in-type style of reviews I've done was a lot of fun for me at first but recently it's become a chore. It takes four, sometimes five hours to get through a movie that way and then there's all that writing to go back and proof read and correct (and still I miss lots of errors). It's just gotten to the point where it's too much. As such, I'm changing the format. I'm still going to go into the details of exactly how bad these movies are, but instead of breaking them down scene-by-scene, I'm going to go for more of an overall "here's why this movie sucks" approach, as you'll see in this week's review. If you're a fan of the old format, you're largely screwed but at least keep this in mind: I reserve the right to use that old format for movies that actually need it, the major landmarks of bad moviedom that actually do have something fundamentally wrong in their every moment. There would be no other way to do such films justice. But for the most part, things are gonna be different around here and hopefully this will preserve my sanity a little bit longer. With that, let's move on to this week's movie: A Sound of Thunder.

Ah yes, A Sound of Thunder. You may be familiar with the short story by Ray Bradbury, in which a man time travels to the past and while there accidentally steps on a butterfly. This simple act sends shockwaves through the time line and when he returns to the present, the man finds his world suddenly changed to a dystopian, dictator-run future. Yes, you may remember it, but now you need to forget it. Aside from the crushed bug and the destination in time where it's death occurs, this big screen adaptation has nothing to do with Bradbury's short story. Frankly, I'm not a Bradbury fan myself, finding his writings a tedious chore to read thanks to uninteresting premises and verbiage, so I actually had hope when I heard his story had been radically altered. Hey, maybe they made some improvements, I thought.


Of course they didn't improve anything. This is Hollywood we're talking about. They make everything worse, even things that already pretty well sucked. But man did they really go to town on this one. I mean, WOW. The first time I saw A Sound of Thunder, I didn't know whether to laugh or balk at what I was witnessing. I want to say I found it polarizing but that's not really accurate because either way there's no denying that this movie is awful. What I can say is that it is unique among my experiences in cinema because it manages to be both so awful it's funny and so awful it's infuriating. I've seen plenty of movies that were one or the other, but both at once is rare indeed.

You know what's funny about A Sound of Thunder? The CGI. This movie is chock full of CGI to what simply must be a record-setting level. Everything is CGI. Not just the stuff you'd expect, like monsters and the time tunnel sequences, but stuff like, you know, the sets. A decent portion of this movie takes place outdoors and was filmed entirely indoors in a big green screen room. The exteriors are entirely computer generated and look like they were rendered using the graphics engine of Banjo Kazooie or Superman 64 or some other Nintendo 64-bit video game. You've never seen scenery so blocky, so pixelated, so low-rez, and so unconvincing. At some points I was actually reminded of that one WWF Smackdown video game on the Playstation that let you walk about the arena full of sharp, angular, blotchy scenery and people. There's one moment I'll never forget when our heroes walk past a jewelery store window and the gold necklaces inside are literally just big, yellow pixels. I cackled so hard I thought my sides would legitimately burst. And the actors never convincingly blend into the scene. If anything, they have big borders around and they look so flat that it's like watching cardboard cutouts being pushed around in front of matte paintings from Hell.

By some accounts this movie cost $52 million to produce, but you'd never guess by looking at the backdrops. But that's because most of that money went into something else that was gut-bustingly bad: Ben Kingsley's toupee. It's bad enough that a respected Oscar-winning thespian like Kingsley, who starred in classics such as Gandhi and The House of Sand and Fog, had recently found himself reduced to drek like Thunderbirds, Suspect Zero, and A Sound of Thunder, but what makes it even worse is that the people producing A Sound of Thunder decided the bald Kingsley needed to wear Bob Barker's scalp. I've never seen a more ridiculous hairpiece in all my life than Ben Kingsley's poofy, shock-white pompadour. I was reminded of Mr. Swirly the ice cream man from the Nickelodeon cartoon Doug. But at least that guy was supposed to look like an ice cream cone! Kingsley is supposed to be a serious businessman, a Mr. Charles Hatton who owns and operates the Time Safari company, which utilizes time traveling technology to take rich people with disposable income on prehistoric dinosaur hunting adventures. When you're dealing with the fabric of space and time, you should try to look professional. Hatton looks like an old Oompa Loompa!

And speaking of Time Safari, we now encounter the aspect of the film that pissed me right off. I should preface this by saying that at the time I originally saw A Sound of Thunder, I was taking a philosophy course that actually dealt with the implications of time travel, so I was way more in tune with the inevitable intricacies of this stuff than most people are. But you know what, anyone with a working brain would still get ticked off by this movie's sheer lack of consistency on the subject, never mind the complete lack of understanding of how it should work! The whole idea of Time Safari is that they take their clients to a moment many millions of years ago where they can shoot a dinosaur and kill it. The moment in time and the specific dino have been very carefully chosen: the animal is doomed to die a few moments later anyway, since a nearby volcano is going to erupt, so their shooting it doesn't change the future since the creature had no place in it to begin with. However, if they had chosen a dino that was meant to survive the eruption, that would have been a problem because altering the ultimate fate of anything in the past causes unrepairable changes to the future. Case in point (or so the movie thinks): on one particular trip, the guns lock up and the guests become frightened and run away. One of them strays off the designated “safe” path where nothing can change the time line, and unknowingly steps on a butterfly. When the party returns to the future, everything is rapidly changing to reflect the butterfly's disappearance from the time line One problem with that: it's not like a butterfly could outrun VOLCANIC ERUPTION. That bug was just as doomed as the dinosaur and any other living thing in the vicinity. There's no way it lived and therefore there's no way it's demise should alter a damned thing either, by the movie's dinosaur logic. Does the precise location of it's death matter? That's the only thing that really could have changed, but that should be inconsequential since, again, they can kill the dinosaur in a different spot than it presumably would have been in a minute later.

But things get even worse from there. Upon returning to the present, our hero Travis notices things changing in big TIME WAVES *WAVES waves waves*, which are literal waves caused, I guess, by the fabric of the universe folding on itself or something. Aside from being so poorly drawn they look like a cutscene straight out of MYST, these time waves are utter nonsense. If the past really was altered, than that's it: everything ever since has always been different that it originally was. The time line is either one way or the other, it can't rewrite itself in steps. Just imagine being in that time line: One minute everything's normal, the next apes were never around and you're still here to ponder that. That wouldn't work: you'd simply never have existed, because the existence of humans is predicated on the existence of the apes that no longer exist. The whole thing here is that that one butterfly getting squished has altered the whole process of evolution! Oh God, where do I begin? For one, evolution affects populations, not individuals, so therefore only populations and not individuals can change the course of evolution. If one member of a species dies, that doesn't remove the entire species from history and alter the course of nature! Imagine if every time a human died prematurely we all suddenly mutated at random, and new species of plants and animals sprung up! That's essentially what the movie is suggesting would happen! Secondly, I can't accept, or even comprehend, how these evolutionary changes come in a hierarchy. Lower beings (like plants and bugs) have their evolution change before higher beings (like us) do. I'm sorry, but if you change one you instantly change the other. You can't say say that the past has changed so that plants are the predominant living thing on Earth, but human beings are still the same way they were before. They wouldn't be! And why would they remember a time before plants overran the Earth if now history has been rewritten to say that plants have ALWAYS OVERRUN THE EARTH?! Trying to sort out this movie's time line is a fucking headache that I've been coping with for four years now. If you tried to map it out it would look like one of those twisty, turny dotted line trails little Jeffy leaves behind in Family Circus.


But it gets even worse yet! Travis, in his infinite wisdom, decides to fix everything by going back in time to prevent the bug from getting squashed. Now, up to this point every other time we've seen people go back to that moment in time, they have never run into any other time travelers, including their own past selves because that's just how time travel has to work in order for them to be able to keep sending people to that same moment to hunt the same animal. Could you imagine the pile-up if hundreds of hunt parties were all existing in the same moment? So, OK, I can accept that for the movie's sake. But how, then, does this suddenly change so Travis can warn himself to save the butterfly? And why didn't he see his future self giving the warning when he took the initial fateful voyage at film's beginning? Look, it's either one way or the other movie: he prevented that bug from getting crushed in the first place or he didn't. It can't be one way and then the other because if he stops the bug from getting squished, then it never did get squished, the future never changed and he never had to go back and save the bug. But if he didn't go back and save the bug, then it did get squished, the future did change and he did have to go back. But he would have to fail at saving it...AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The only way any of this can work the way the movie wants it to is either A) there are multiple, parallel time lines and he jumped back into another one and saved the butterfly over there, or B) Ed Burns (and all humanity, for that matter) must exist outside the constraints of time and space and ergo is never affected by changes to time or space. But in one, he's really still screwed because his home time line isn't saved and the other is impossible! Holy moly, how did they screw this up so badly? None of this, not a single lick, makes any sense. It's confusing, it's nonsensical, and it is insulting to the intelligence of everyone watching. I know a guy with Down's Syndrome who could point out this movie's plot holes as he rode his four-wheeled safety bicycle through them! That's how fundamentally screwed this movie is: even simpletons can defeat it in a battle of wits.

And speaking of simpletons: the cast. Ben Kingsley remains the biggest mystery of A Sound of Thunder, but I also want to know how Ed Burns got here. Good God man, you had a career going. Why'd you like this asinine script so much? Couldn't you see the stink lines emanating from it? Couldn't you see what it would do to your career? I guess not, because anybody who actually foresaw a starring role in One Missed Call would have done anything to avoid that fate. Except Ed Burns, I guess, although judging from the lack of life in his performance he had to have known he wasn't in anything good. Maybe he owed someone a favor. I feel a little bad for him as he slumps his way through his performance as Travis Ryer, the leader of Time Safari's hunt parties who's also a scientist who hopes to use time travel to collect DNA samples from past animals and repopulate the Earth with them now that some vague virus has wiped out every non-human mammal and reptile. I don't know why that particular plot point is thrown in there, since he never goes anywhere with it and certainly doesn't accomplish his goal. In fact, when newly-evolved animals start showing up in the time waves, he seems quite frightened of them and to want them gone again. I guess baboonasaurus monkey/dinosaur hybrids weren't one of the things he was looking to clone.

What could go wrong with these things running around?

Other than Kingsley and Burns, the cast is made up of a bunch of no-names (or at least they're no-names to me) who range from mediocre to Godawful. They're all utterly forgettable, though, even the rather crucial character of Sonja Rand, inventor of the time travel technology. She's one of those dystopian movie scientists who “always knew my discovery would ruin the world if used recklessly”. Travis has to rely on her to explain the time waves and how to change everything and she has to help him rebuild the time machine and send him back, blah blah blah. Catherine McCormack, who you may remember from absolutely nothing, does so unimpressive a job with the role that I can honestly say I don't remember if she was bad or merely average. She certainly mustn't have been any good, because every time I think of a scene she was in she's just a human blur in my mind. Yeah, that's some quality writing and acting right there.

All in all, if you want to know how stupid this movie is, I provide you with a plot point that serves as perfect metaphor: near film's end, Sonja sends Travis back in time but she must stay in the present to operate the time machine. Just after Travis poofs into the past, another time wave rolls over, this time one that affects human being evolution. What, exactly, does the movie posit we should evolve into? What could possibly be superior to humanity? Giant catfish. No joke. I'd be willing to bet that when it comes to the writers, producer, cast, and director of A Sound of Thunder, such a move truly would be an upgrade, at least in intelligence.

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