Timeline (2003) Movie Review

For some reason people in “Timeline” are constantly talking over each other. I’m not sure if director Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon”) planned this, but the end result is irritating as hell. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the TV show “Southpark”, where whenever characters are talking at once they are actually only saying “Rabble rabble rabble” over and over to simulate “overlapping dialogue”. Also, everyone in “Timeline” seems to be constantly agitated or hyper, resulting in actors spitting out their lines with some insane urgency.

Paul Walker (“2 Fast 2 Furious”) — aka The Worst Actor to Attain Stardom Since Keanu Reeves — plays Chris Johnston, some sort of slacker whose father is archaeologist Billy Connolly. Although why Connolly’s Scottish accent is so thick as to be almost impossible to understand and Chris has no accent at all is a bit of a mystery. Almost as big a mystery as why Walker is a viable movie star, but that’s neither here nor there. In any case, after Connolly gets “faxed” 600 years into the past by a Shady Corporation, Chris and a group of his dad’s students must go back in time to get him.

The retrieval team includes easily excitable Kate (Frances O’Connor, “Windtalkers”), hopeless romantic Marek (Gerard Butler, “Reign of Fire”), and the Shady Corporation’s gunman, Gordon (Neal McDonough). Our heroes end up in the middle of the 100 Year War between the English and the French, still fighting and will be, as the name implies, for 100 years. (Remember, this was back when the French Army still fought wars to win.) Soon everything goes wrong, including the destruction of the time machine in the present. If that wasn’t bad enough, time is running out, and soon the wormhole that sent our heroes into the past will disappear forever.

This is where I, as your humble movie reviewer, must inject the caveat: “It all sounds a lot better than it is.” Which is the case with “Timeline”, a disaster of a film. Not only is the whole time travel premise nothing more than a gimmick — the film explains it in a matter of minutes by way of a Shady CEO who literally rushes the characters through the “explanations”. I can only imagine that the novel by Michael Crichton explains the Shady Corporation’s explorations in time travel a lot better than just “putting FedEx out of business”. And I can only imagine that just about any other writers could have fashioned a more coherent sense of technology besides throwing out nonsensical scientific-y words like “coils” and “wormholes”.

A miscalculation with “Timeline” is stuffing the movie with too many front-and-center characters — i.e. there isn’t just two or three main characters, there seems to be four or six, each with their own reasons for existing. Obviously the problem with this is that screentime needs to be shared, meaning the movie is constantly being diverted to follow one main character’s “arc” while the rest gets to play with their thumbs. The smarter choice would have been to roll Marek and Chris into one, and perform the same operation with Lady Claire and Kate. This may also explain why the movie is almost two hours long, although you wouldn’t know it by the lack of story present.

For most of its running time, “Timeline” doesn’t really put its own premise to very good use. You have college-educated people from the 21st century running around in Medieval Europe, but these guys mind as well be local peasants. At the most, their modernity results in Kate being very assertive, although considering that Lady Claire (Anna Friel) is also pretty spunky, it sort of negates Kate’s supposedly anachronistic “girl power”. In one scene, Chris mentions that the time travelers have 600 years of knowledge on the locals, but you wouldn’t know it from their actions. In fact, the only point in making the characters time travelers is that they sort of know the layout of the fighting area because they were unearthing it at the beginning of the movie.

The film’s only real entertainment value comes toward the end, when the French and English engage in a nighttime battle around a castle. It’s the movie’s only set piece and it’s quite a doozy, and might just be the only reason to watch this terrible bore of a movie. It’s also quite telling that during all this, the “modern” characters either show up only for brief cameos or have nothing to do with the sequence entirely. That means no more listening to Kate acting like a speed freak with ants in her pants or watching poor surfer boy Paul Walker trying mightily to exert more charisma than a tree branch.

All of the above makes one wonder if “Timeline” wouldn’t have been a pretty good movie if only there wasn’t that whole time travel gag thrown in. It was much more interesting to watch the French and English battle it out, and the interplay between English bad guy Michael Sheen (“Underworld”) and his French rival is quite spirited, mostly thanks to Sheen’s charisma. Too bad all those other people from the 21st century had to show up and ruin everything.

Richard Donner (director) / Michael Crichton (novel), Jeff Maguire, George Nolfi (screenplay)
CAST: Paul Walker …. Chris Johnston
Frances O’Connor …. Kate Ericson
Gerard Butler …. Andr’ Marek
Billy Connolly …. Professor Johnston
David Thewlis …. Robert Doniger
Anna Friel …. Lady Claire

Buy Timeline on DVD