(2003) Science Fiction (Paramount) Paul Walker, Billy Connolly, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Matt Craven, David Thewlis, Neal McDonough, Anna Friel, Ethan Embry, Michael Sheen, Lambert Wilson, Marton Csokas, Rossif Sutherland, Steve Kahan, David La Haye, Richard Zeman, Patrick Sabongui, Mike Chute, Lois Dellar. Directed by Richard Donner
The late Michael Crichton’s novel have always translated well to the silver screen; Timeline is one of his best novels and with director Richard Donner at the helm, it should be a recipe for success, no?
No. Young Chris Johnston (Walker), the son of a renowned archaeologist (Connolly) is visiting his dad on the site of a medieval French castle. Chris is not much for history; he’s watched it consume his father. Chris is more interested in Kate (O’Connor), one of his dad’s students. Although Chris finds a sympathetic ear in Andre Marek (Butler), one of his father’s colleagues, there is a gulf between father and son that neither man quite knows how to bridge.
That all has to wait however as Professor Johnston has been summoned back to ITC, the high-tech corporation that funded the digs that has helped in leading the researchers to different finds with almost uncanny precision. Professor Johnston intends to find out why.
Kate is seeking a rumored tunnel that led from the castle to the monastery below. Marek relates the story of the castle’s fall: How when the English lord who held the French castle hung the Lady Claire from the battlements; rather than demoralizing the French, this spurred the Gallic troops to greater fury and they overwhelmed the castle.
Meanwhile back at the monastery, a hidden room has been discovered. And in that hidden room, which has not been seen by human eyes since the 14th Century, an even more amazing find: an eyeglass spectacle, and a note, in the Professor’s handwriting, with a date and the words “Help me.”
This causes all sorts of consternation among the dig team. And when they are unable to contact the professor, they become considerably upset. Finally, they force a face-to-face meeting with Robert Doniger (Thewlis), the CEO of ITC, and his top scientist, Dr. Kramer (Craven).
It turns out that ITC’s big project is a teleportation device, something that will send physical objects from one location to another, which Kramer likens to “faxing.” Except that it doesn’t work exactly the way they intended. They inadvertently opened a wormhole to the past. However, they are only able to go to a specific time and place; you guessed it, 14th-century France — and the very castle which is doomed to be overrun by the French. It turns out that Professor Johnston was sent there and then, but is unable to return. A rescue team is needed, and who better than the experts on the area where the Professor is trapped?
Most of the group agrees to go, and Doniger insists on sending three security men with them, including head of security Gordon (McDonough). The team is warned not to bring any modern items with them, especially weapons; but they must keep electronic markers with them at all times, so they will be able to return to the 21st century.
Things go wrong immediately, when the team is attacked by English knights who mistake them for French spies. One of the security team panics and returns back to the future, with a loaded grenade he incomprehensibly smuggled. The grenade predictably goes off, destroying the time machine and stranding the rest of the team in the past. While ITC’s technicians frantically work to repair the time machine, Marek, Kate, Francois (Sutherland), Chris and Gordon work on finding the professor while staying alive.
They are aided by a plucky French girl (Friel), but eventually are captured by an evil English lord (Sheen) who immediately kills Francois, the only one of them who speaks French (fortunately, nearly everyone in the movie speaks English — modern English at that).
Soon after, they anti-climactically find the Professor, but are unable to return to the future (where is Christopher Lloyd when you really need him?) and spend most of the rest of the movie believing that one or another of them is dead, evading dastardly English knights and discovering Doniger’s real treachery. All this on the eve of the big blow-out battle. And, if you haven’t already seen it coming a mile away, the plucky French girl turns out to be the ill-fated Lady Claire — and Marek has fallen head over heels in love with her.
The novel Timeline is a taut, thrilling and well-researched book. Crichton paid special attention to the details of the time. How the characters in the book were able to handle things such as communicating with people who don’t speak any language we currently understand, for example, is part of the book’s charm. That’s all jettisoned in favor of dumbing down the plot to its lowest common denominator.
Therein lies the major flaw of Timeline. Crichton never talked down to his readers, but screenwriter Jeff Maguire finds it easier to just gloss over whatever obstacles you would think time travelers would face in favor of setting up nifty battle sequences. And nifty they are; flaming arrows rise into the night sky, balls of fire are launched by ballistae, exploding against the castle walls. The battle sequences are visually inspiring, and it’s amazing they were accomplished without CGI, which is rare even in 2003.
Butler and O’Connor are quite good in their roles, as is Wilson as a French knight. But there are plenty of big, big holes. For example, the time travelers in this film kill people with abandon, without thought as to how what they are doing might affect the future to which they hope to return. These are themes being explored in movies like A Sound of Thunder and The Butterfly Effect far more effectively and logically and when someone says that A Sound of Thunder is far more logical than your movie, you should cringe.
While there are some cool moments (such as when Marek realizes that the grave he discovered in the 21st century is his own), the time travel here is mainly the means to set up the big action sequences. And if that’s all that you’re going to use time-travel for, why not just set the movie in 14th century France?
WHY RENT THIS: Nifty battle scenes. Butler, O’Connor, Connolly and Wilson all perform admirably.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The screenwriters are talking down to you. Lapses in logic and consequence.
FAMILY MATTERS: Brief foul language and some fairly intense battle sequences that while not terribly gory still might give the more sensitive a bit of trouble.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the French knights carried shields emblazoned with the flag of Quebec; some of the film was shot in the Canadian province.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.9M on an $80M production budget.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Captain Phillips