Timeline (2003) / Adventure-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Paul Walker, Gerard Butler, Frances O'Conner, Billy Connolly, David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Neil McDonough, Matt Craven, Ethan Embry, Michael Sheen, Lambert Wilson, Martin Csokas, Rossif Sutherland
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Jeff Maguire, George Nolfi (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)
A popular Michael Crichton novel gets the big budget movie treatment yet again, and like many of the other adaptations of his work, the results are only so-so. Here, it's fairly easy to see what went wrong. With an $80 million budget reported, the biggest name attached to this ambitious sci-fi adventure is Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious, Joyride). Walker, while he may grace the occasional cover of teeny-bopper magazines, is no box office draw. In fact, his acting skills lie somewhere between Keanu Reeves and the average guy on the street, and giving him top billing not only does little to attract viewers, it also keeps those who might normally be interested away, thinking it's going to be another style-over-substance adaptation. To a certain degree, people who feel this way are right. The creators of the movie version of Timeline do seem to favor visuals over story and characters, which is quite sad, since Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon 4, The Goonies) has come to be known as a director that allows the personalities to come through beneath the action scenes. Perhaps Walker is nothing but a pretty boy with a cute smile, with no discernible personality to carry a movie. Still, Crichton's core intelligence is retained just enough to make this an interesting film for those who haven't read the original novel, and as long as you expect no great things, Timeline proves to be worthwhile for sci-fi junkies.
In a rural French valley known for its historical significance, a group of archaeologists are hard at work digging up the remains of a 14th century French castle and village known involved in the (fictitiously) famous battle of Castlegard. The leader of the project, professor Johnston (Connolly, White Oleander) suddenly disappears, and what's more puzzling, a note from the professor has been left behind asking for help -- except that his note is over 600 years old! Those sponsoring the dig, ITC (International Technology Corp.) call all of the remaining crew to their headquarters to reveal why they are backing them. it seems a wormhole has opened up between our time and that of Castlegard allowing people to be teleported back to those times and forward again, and that the professor is obviously stuck in the 14th century needing rescue. So, along with a military crew, the dig team is sent back to find the professor, but they only have a few hours to get the professor out of there before they are stuck in the 14th century forever.
Timeline plays a bit like Stargate in its approach, combining scientists with the military to a place where they can't speak the language well, and where they only have a small window to complete their mission or be stuck indefinitely. It's an intelligent premise, dumbed down quite a bit in order to be understood enough by populist audiences, and beefed up with lots of swordplay and dastardly confrontations. Although it tends to be quite predictable, one of the more refreshing aspects of the adaptation comes from the killing off of certain prominent characters, making the reality of their situation feel all the more perilous. There are some good actors in supporting roles, and some nice twists along the way to keep the action fresh.
For all of the good points, Timeline still manages to be quite a disappointment because the movie as a whole never matches up to the potential of the theories behind Crichton's original novel. Walker is supposed to be the everyman that we should all be able to understand, guiding us through the dense historical and scientific mumbo jumbo, but he looks and acts completely befuddled by it all. There are many things that should have been explained a bit better, or at least beefed up to feel more important, but that's not really where Donner chose to concentrate most of his time. Expository information is whisked by with only minimalist attention, while scenes of bravery and valor are explored to the utmost degree. The end result is a film that provides enough adventure to sate those looking for just that, but people looking for something more stimulating may find themselves seeking out Crichton's book for answers to the questions that inevitably come up.
Depending on your expectations, Timeline will either saisfy you enough or merely annoy you. If you can accept the comic book style presentation, you'll most likely find it an interesting diversion, giving just enough thrills, romance, intrigue, and adventure to justify spending your money on. However, anyone looking for a damn good science fiction worthy of attaching Crichton's name to it will see this as if this were a juvenile version of entertainment meant for intellectual adults. I'm going to give Timeline a mild recommendation for providing just enough good elements to make it work, but if it could have been more fleshed out in the set-up and climax, and had the Paul Walker character not look like he belonged in a different time travel flick, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Donner probably would have a very good movie worth bragging about.
©2005 Vince Leo