As a fan of Richard Donner and an armchair archaeologist, I was hoping that the big budget adaptation of Michael Crichton’s time travel novel would, at the very least, provide some mindless entertainment for two hours. Adaptations of Crichton’s canon have ranged from good (Jurassic Park), to bad (Sphere), to unwatchable (The 13th Warrior). Sadly, most have been of the later two categories, and Timeline is no exception.
The plot itself is moderately promising. As the film opens, a team of young archaeologists is working on an excavation site in France under the tutelage of Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly). Along for the ride is the professor’s son (Paul Walker), who is more interested in romancing one of the diggers (Frances O’Conner) than actually finding anything. Growing suspicious of the source of the project’s funding, Johnston heads to New Mexico to meet with the financier (David Thewlis). No sooner is the professor gone than the students make a truly fascinating find–a chamber that has been sealed for 600 years.
Inside, they discover two items that shouldn’t be there: a bifocal lens and a scrawled plea, dated April 2, 1357, from Professor Johnston. At first, the team assumes the find is a joke, despite the fact that such a trick would be out of character for their teacher. But when carbon dating proves that the parchment is in fact 650 years old, the students head back to the states, where they find that ITC, the dig’s benefactor, has created a time machine.
Initially intended to move items from place to place (and, hence, put FedEx and UPS out of business), ITC’s machine actually moves items through time. In fact, can also move people through time and, in this case, has sent Professor Johnston back to 1357. Naturally, his students are sent to rescue him.
The film progresses through a continuingly more improbably series of events, culminating in a hackneyed ending that sorely disappoints. While Crichton’s original novel was not his best, screenwriters Jeff Maguire and George Nofli have done what they can to excise any character development or motivation from the film. The characters are so one-dimensional and unlikable that when they start to get picked off one by one, you can’t help but root for the 14th century English knights to finish off the lot of them.
Wooden dialogue gets no help from Paul Walker’s even more wooden acting. The only “star” in the film, he seems less like a leading man and more like comic relief, particularly in moments when he’s required to speak. The chemistry between him and O’Conner is absolutely nil, making the romantic undercurrent for naught. A subplot involving one of the other time travelers and a French noblewoman fares little better, even though the entire thematic crux of the movie rests upon the outcome of their relationship. Billy Connolly provides one of the few bright spots, though his screen time is minimal compared to that of the other, younger actors.
The battle sequences are uninspiring and the final set piece, a castle siege, is yawn inducing. While the producers may have been relying on explosions and sword fights rather than acting or ploy to sell the film, the effects team didn’t bring much to the table. Even the time travel effects, seen only twice, look as if they could have been done on a reasonably well equipped home PC.
As a director, Donner appears simply to be going through the motions with Timeline. What could have at least been a moderately engaging, if mindless, ride turns into a complete dud of a movie without even a bit of humor or intensity.
The print quality, presented in widescreen anamorphic, is decent, though not spectacular. Sounds is available in standard stereo, Dolby 2.0, and Dolby 5.1. The later option is almost obnoxiously loud, with frequent and excessive use of the rear channels likely to rattle some viewers.
The features are relatively sparse, consisting only of three brief documentaries that provide little to no insight into the film or its background. No doubt the filmmakers wanted nothing more than to wash their hands of the whole big mess once it was over and done with.
Film: ** Disc: *