Based on yet another Michael Crichton bestselling sci-fi extravaganza,
Timeline presents the dilemma of a group of modern day archeologists trapped in 14th-century France. Millionaire industrialist Robert Doniger (David Thewlis), owner of the generically named International Technology Corporation, has discovered a way to time-travel, and after the leader of an archeological team, Professor Johnson (Billy Connolly), is lost in the past during one of Doniger’s experiments, the rest of the Professor’s group are sent back to find him. Helmed by famed action director Richard Donner and sprung from the marketable imagination of Crichton, one would expect that the film would at least prove entertaining, if only in a mechanical way, but what is most surprising about Timeline is just how boring it is. One is inclined to applaud the film’s decision not to portray the archeologists as typical action heroes but rather as confused, overwhelmed, ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. But instead of dramatizing this confusion and thereby locating a thoughtful insecurity within the usual blood-and-muscle framework of action films, the characters’ bewilderment comes across as unfocused and weak thanks to a narrative that meanders ferociously and performances which smack of community theater. On the one hand, the archeologists do little more than get bullied around by their 14th-century tormentors, occasionally escaping only to be captured again (the resulting seemingly endless cycle of imprisonment and flight would put one of the old Flash Gordon serials to shame). On the other hand, whatever is redeeming about the film’s more “realistic” action is scrambled by the ham-fisted performances of its leads, particularly Paul Walker as Professor Johnson’s son, and Frances O’Connor as Kate, dedicated researcher and love interest. The two form a kind of perverse double bill of frat boy disinterest and manic over-earnestness; Walker barely gets his lines out without sounding gruntingly smarmy while O’Connor is so bent on making her character believable that she winds up appearing distinctly amateurish. Combine these sloppy performances with a barely sketched and dishonestly sentimental love story concerning one of the archeologists (Gerard Butler) and a 14th-century maiden, and the result is a groaningly silly series of missteps. To be fair, amid all this mediocrity there are a few highlights: The time travel sequences are atypically inventive and the final battle is quite stirring in its use of flames, darkness, and masses of men charging across the countryside in waves of confusion. But the attempt to stay true to a historically minded adventure by maintaining a strangely subdued tone in terms of action just doesn’t work when your main premise is as wonderfully fantastic as the possibility of time travel. Crichton’s books often obsess over scientific plausibility, but when it comes to the cinematic translation of his pulpy adventures, a little dash of “unlikeliness” never hurts.