Directed by Richard Donner. Starring Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly, Anna Friel, Ethan Embry, Marton Csokas, David Thewlis. (2003, PG-13, 116 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 28, 2003
Based on a Michael Crichton novel that no one seems to remember (least of all me), Timeline is a film about time travel, but also feels as though it’s a vestige from the dark ages of coherent sci-fi, a leaden, dull, and generally forgettable piece of barely there filmmaking that might well have been a mid-Eighties movie of the week, or, more likely, a jettisoned ABC After School Special. Part time-traveling action film and part love story for the ages, the film begins with a riddle that, strangely, is never properly answered: A lone man, clad in rags and suffering from a sword wound to his midriff, appears out of nowhere in the middle of the New Mexico desert. How and why he got there is established as a huge plot point in the opening minutes, but is quickly forgotten as the action moves to Castlegard, France, where a team of collegiate archeologists led by professor Johnston (crusty Scottish comic Connolly) is fluttering around the site of an ancient village destroyed during the Hundred Years’ War. Johnston’s son Chris (Walker of The Fast and the Furious) loathes getting his hands dirty, but is so smitten with team leader Kate (O’Connor) that he’s tagged along in hopes of a little 100-years booty. No such luck. Instead, the group discovers a hidden passage below ground, where they find a message from professor Johnston written more than 600 years before! It’s a Scooby-Doo moment of the highest pedigree, and in short order this band of intrepid explorers is flown to the grounds of a mysterious corporation overseen by Robert Doniger (David Thewlis in full Bill Gates mode). There they learn that their professor has been speeding back and forth through time to 14th-century Castlegard at the behest of Doniger, whose scientists have managed to open a wormhole of some sort. To make matters annoying, he’s now trapped there. Soon they, too, are back in the time of bad teeth and angry Frenchmen. Along with Chris and Kate are the history buff André (Butler), who thankfully can ride a horse and knows his way around a broadsword, and various victims-to-be, who end up pincushioned by the English longbows or flattened by trebuchets. All of this must have read much, much better on the page than it plays on the screen, that being the only excuse that comes to mind as to why a fine action director like Donner (Lethal Weapon, Conspiracy Theory) would attach his name to such a flimsy project. From the Castlegard sets, which make the heroic village look like a Renaissance festival minus the fun, to the perpetually limp line readings courtesy of Paul Walker, an actor so wooden in his talent that his only conceivable use in further films might be as some sort of planking, Timeline is a snooze. Even the battle scenes between the French and British forces do little but call to mind the far more entertaining sequences in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Sadly, no farm animals are launched from the many trebuchets the film features.) So why bother? Clearly, the prospect of mining the fertile fields of Crichton one more time played a part, but then, as Timeline so adequately proves, not every bestseller will render a good film.