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A Mound of Blunder
by Lucius Shepard
September 13, 2005

There are some movies men are not meant to see. Movies so poorly mounted, so crudely edited, so ineptly acted, so devoid of entertainment value that even studio executives, men and women accustomed to grinning through the most hideous excrescences of the motion picture industry, turn pale and tremble on being exposed to them, and subsequently hide them away in some cobwebbed corner of a film vault, never again to be touched by human hands . . . unless, that is, they have made an output deal with the production company that obligates them to give said movie a release. Then they will release it, but just barely, just widely enough to satisfy the contractual minimum and with scarcely a whisper of publicity, slotting the picture into a handful of out-of-the-way theatres, many located in godforsaken suburbs surrounded by cornfields hung out in by one-eyed crows who quote Garner Ted Armstrong and landfills that can only be reached by taking the 666 bus, the one whose driver's eyes bleed continually, to the end of the line, to an ancient deserted multiplex in an ancient deserted mall, where the cashier speaks Latin backwards and the teenage ushers bear pentagrams sketched in acne blemishes on their foreheads. Only they who sport this mark can endure the evil power of such a movie . . . a movie like Peter Hyam's A Sound of Thunder, which is a grossly mutated take on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name.

Like most writers, Bradbury has not been well served by the Hollywood system. B-pictures like It Came from Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms; the clunky mini-series made from The Martian Chronicles, starring a never-more-stiff Rock Hudson; a declawed version of Something Wicked this Way Comes that, despite the presence of Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, Pam Grier as the Dust Witch, and the estimable director Jack Clayton (The Innocents), reduced Bradbury's poetic midsummer's nightmare to a mildly eccentric kiddie flick that should have been titled Something Spooky this Way Comes; the consummate mess made of The Illustrated Man by director Jack Smight, who, with the help of George Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent, subsequently went on to butcher Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley. Even the purported highlight of Bradbury's filmography, Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, renders his novel as a rather lifeless and overly intellectualized piece of work, a phrase that might also be used to describe the performance of the film's featured player, Oskar Werner. But never has a Bradbury property been more spectacularly mutilated than by the folks at Franchise Pictures.

The founder of Franchise Pictures was a dry cleaner, one of those self-made men who suddenly decide that they have missed their calling and—attracted by the glamour and the chance of losing millions of dollars in thrilling circumstances—have a go at the movie business, generally proving that as producers, they do pretty well at spot removal. Before the dry cleaner bailed, after signing an output deal with Warner Brothers, permitting them to handle his unreleased projects, FP had turned out approximately thirty-five movies, including one minor hit (The Whole Nine Yards), one quality film (Sean Penn's The Pledge), and a whole slew of artistic and commercial losers, including multiple pictures featuring Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren, and a picture starring the then-sizzling Kevin Spacey that had an eighty-one-thousand-dollar opening weekend. Though they won't do worse than that with A Sound of Thunder, the last of the dry cleaner's movies to be released, there is no doubt that the film sets a standard of a different sort.

Shot back in 2002, back when people still believed that Edward Burns, the movie's star, was not merely Ben Affleck Lite, ASOT takes a Bradbury story written a half-century ago—a stripped-down classic that meditates on dictators and ecology—and rips the spine out of it, transforming it into something . . . well, something you might find stuck to the bottom of your shoe. And I'm not talking about a butterfly. ASOT may be the worst dinosaur movie I've ever seen, though even if you limit your consideration to domestic productions, that's a category with a nearly endless list of contenders, from 50s films featuring iguanas with pasted-on headpieces to Jurassic Park 3, in which raptors show the human race (in the person of William Macy and Tea Leoni) some lizardly love. My personal nominee for reigning champ is The Last Dinosaur (a picture deemed too horrid for theatrical release, but shown on American TV), in which the late Richard Boone, playing chauvinistic industrialist and big-game hunter Masten Thrust (uh-huh), sort of a Papa Hemingway-Malcolm Forbes-ish figure, searches for the last dinosaur, a T-Rex, in a land hidden beneath the polar ice, its skies full of wheeling pterodactyls—the creators of the movie don't appear to realize that pterodactyls are dinosaurs, too. Accompanying Thrust are a journalist/love interest (Joan Van Ark) and Bunta, a Masai master tracker (you can't find a forty-foot-high lizard without one) armed with a spear, which—unfortunately—proves less than an effective defense against dinosaurs. While tarrying in the forest one day, obviously deserted by his master-tracking skills, Bunta allows the dinosaur to sneak up on him, makes an errant toss with the spear, and becomes T-Rex Chow. There are models of Antarctic scientific stations and etc. that make the models used on Thunderbirds Are Go look like the work of master craftsmen; there are pithy double-meanings to ponder—Thrust, you see, is sort of a self-proclaimed dinosaur himself, the last machosaurus; there are hilarious goofs—for instance, the T-Rex's skull indents when struck by a boulder, then the dent pops right out; there are feminist issues offered for consideration, given cartoonish 70s-style expression by Ms. Van Ark; and there's a song with crooned lyrics and wah-wah effects guitar that is played at varying tempos throughout, on one occasion serving as a love theme:

Few men have ever lived
as he has lived.
Or even walked, where he has walked.
His time has passed. There are no more.

He is the Last . . . Di-no-saur!
He is the Last . . . Di-no-saur!

Come to think of it, The Last Dinosaur is pretty darned entertaining in that sublimely camp, bad-movie way, something ASOT is not.

The year is 2055 and Dr. Travis Ryer (Burns) guides nouveau riche clients from the headquarters of Time Safari Inc. in Chicago back into the Cretaceous, always to the same exact second and place, where they are allowed to kill the same exact dinosaur, one fated to die in a tar pit moments later. They are admonished not to stray from the shimmering pathway extending from the wormhole that's been opened into the past, and are told not to bring anything back. Time Safari is owned by Charles Hatton, an evil capitalist played with thoroughly inappropriate impishness by Ben Kingsley, sporting a soul patch and a blazingly white acrylic wig that must have been modeled after an Oral B toothbrush—he seems to be sending a thespian signal that he, too, is trapped in a tar pit, albeit a celluloid one. Hatton is operating under the scrutiny of federal regulators and is being harassed by Dr. Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack), the scientist from whom he stole the time-travel patent; she disrupts one of his après-hunt soirees by spraying his guests with a champagne bottle full of blood (carbonated blood, judging by the effect) as part of her campaign to warn of the dangers attendant upon time travel. "A hundred years ago, she'd have been protesting biotech or the Internet," Hatton says of her.

Ah, yes.

Those Kennedy-era anti-spam protests. I remember them well.

Turns out Dr. Sonia is bang-on. On Ryer's very next trip, wouldn't you know, a terrified huntsman stumbles off the path, plastering a butterfly to the sole of his boot (the butterfly has been begging for it, fluttering under bootheels, tempting fate, probably offering taunts in butterfly-speak, high-pitched "Who's-your-daddy?"), and soon thereafter the first of a series of "timewaves," like transparent tsunami, strike Chicago (and presumably the entire earth), gradually turning that toddlin' town into a prehistoric jungle, and threatening to change the course of human evolution, at one point transforming (temporarily) the blonde and beauteous Dr. Rand into a bipedal guppy. "Massive roots from newly sprouted vegetation burst upwards, splitting the pavement and cracking open chasms into which drivers plunge to their deaths in vehicles suddenly puny as toys. Vines engulf buildings . . . armies of carnivorous insects ravage everything in their path . . ." So claims an ASOT press release, but in the hands of director Peter Hyams (Timecop), it somehow doesn't seem all that kinetic. Certainly Travis Ryer doesn't appear alarmed. He checks out his once-moribund houseplant, grown luxuriant and overflowing its pot overnight, and registers not the least change in expression.

In the grip of this dimwitted stoicism, Burns' signature as an actor, Ryer leads a party of half-a-dozen out into the wilds of Chicago to find his most recent clients and discover what has been brought back; after that, he intends to return to the Cretaceous and set things straight. Why such a dangerous enterprise is necessary eludes me. The simplest, safest, and most effective thing to do would be to zip back in time to Time Safari headquarters and stop the hunters before they can leave; but the script—penned by the writer of Tomcats, rewritten by the writers of Sahara (Who'd have thunk it took two of them?)—consists of one plot hole after another, and if you plugged any of them, you'd have no movie and thus be deprived of the wonder that is ASOT . . . Anyway, back to the search party. The Afro-American guy, apparently the only brother left in 2055 Chicago, dies first, savaged by a pack of the flying dino-baboon-bats that appear to be the world's new dominant species. His early exit comes as a shock to everyone except the audience. The cast virtually have numbers pinned to their backs announcing the order of their death. Credit for this utter lack of ingenuity must be ultimately ceded to Hyams, who, for reasons known only to the dry cleaner, has been given an 80-million-dollar budget with which to create his searing vision. And, boy, does he make good use of it! When you can tell that two actors (or something approximating) are walking on a treadmill in front of a short loop of CGI cars, you realize that big bucks are being spent.

ASOT throws around the concept of evolution a great deal, but as evidenced by the saurian baboon-bats, it doesn't have a clue as to what evolution is. It's the sort of film creationists, in their . . . What's the word I'm looking for? Naiveté? It's the sort of film they may point to, because it makes something of a case for the intelligent-design/Hey-we-don't-know-squat-so-maybe-it's-all-true school of idiocy. Hopefully they'll find it useful as a teaching aid. For my part, I'm just annoyed that one of my favorite childhood stories has been morphed into a big steaming pile of what Sam Neill plunged his hands into beside the dead Triceratops in Jurassic Park. I'm concerned that this is all 80 million buys anymore, and that it's a portent of things to come, that the beautiful, blonde art of storytelling will become overwhelmed by tsunamis of hackneyed imagination, without the regulatory effect of either discipline or competence, and thus devolve into a bipedal guppy. As one character in ASOT says while looking around a vine-shrouded lab, shortly before she is snatched to her death in a flooded subway tunnel by a CGI eel that resembles a silly rubberoid version of Cecil the Sea Serpent: "This can't be good."