Director Richard Donner is a man of action. But his previous franchises Superman and Lethal Weapon have nothing on his new film Timeline, based on the Michael Crichton bestseller. Timeline is the very definition of action-packed. But Donner has made the fatal mistake of equating action with interest and chaos with excitement. And when the film slows down enough for the characters to talk to each other, I quickly found myself rooting for a sudden, random beheading.
In Donner's defense he is saddled with a premise that can't easily be explained or believed. I didn't read Crichton's book, so I can only go with what the movie offers in a breakneck rush of exposition. A team of archeologists is excavating the ruins of a 14th Century French town when they discover a plea for help written on a 600 year old parchment that had been sealed in a tunnel for centuries. This is troubling since it appears to have been written by their beloved professor, who somehow traveled back in time and left it there for them to discover. Before you know it, the archeologists have been rounded up by a steely-eyed agent of a high tech company that has accidentally invented a time machine. They need the band of young archeologists to go back in time to rescue the professor. The clock is ticking. The professor has already been missing for 72 hours and the rescue team will only have eight hours to complete the mission or they'll be trapped in the 14th century forever. There's no time to think. If there was more time to think you might cut your losses and see what’s playing in the theater next door.
But the real pain is yet to be inflicted. Once dumped in the Middle Ages, our characters do little but scurry from hiding place to hiding place, stealing a couple lines of turgid dialogue before angry knights roust them out with swords, axes and maces. Our time travelers respond with the kind of fearless heroics and physical acumen for which archeology grad student are famous. At least Indiana Jones was able to wink at all this derring-do. Timeline relies on a constant stream of foreboding cellos to remind us of the urgent stakes, interrupted only by the occasional flute to indicate when love is in the air. Even then I found myself waiting for the Monty Python skit that must surely be lurking behind this incredibly earnest set-up.
Then suddenly, nearly two-thirds through the movie, a new character appears and reveals himself as a fellow time traveler who has cast his lot with the past, and interest is immediately piqued. Moments later we are treated to a pretty darned good castle siege featuring flaming boulders hurled by wooden catapults. This proves to be merely a tiny window of time, in which we glimpse the intriguing historical thriller that might have been.
In the spirit of full disclosure, the film stars Paul Walker, who if the whispers of the young women around me are correct, is a "hottie." If this is enough to lure you to Timeline, you may not be disappointed. But I was left thinking about the two hours of my life spent watching this film. Two hours that tragically I will never get back.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/26/03
USA - 2003