Time for a Different Movie
Time travel movies are always a tricky business. A definite suspension of disbelief is required when watching any of these films, but you can tell when that isn't working for you. How? By noticing you can't stop focusing on the logistics of the story instead of the fun you're having watching it. This happened to me throughout Timeline, a labor of love for director Richard Donner that, sadly, won't get much love from movie fans. While onscreen swordplay and medieval battles told me I should be having a blast, I kept pondering the film's plot holes and poking through its paradoxes.
Chris Johnston (Paul Walker), Kate Ericson (Frances O'Connor), and Andre Marek (Gerard Butler) are part of a team of archaeology students currently studying the ruins of an ancient French fortress. But for them, history is about to get up close and personal. As it turns out, the company funding the dig has discovered a wormhole in time and space, found after their attempts to create a machine that transports three-dimensional objects like a fax machine does messages. The wormhole seems to be locked to a specific time and place in 14th century France, and this is where a handful of the students come in. Chris's father and the group's professor (Billy Connolly) is currently trapped over 650 years in the past after being left behind in the last expedition. Chris, Kate, Andre, company man Gordon (Neal McDonough), and a few others are chosen to go back in time and rescue the
professor before he becomes a permanent part of history. Unfortunately, the group arrives smack dab in the middle of a pivotal battle between the French and invading British hordes, forcing the students to act quickly in finding the professor and somehow manage not to tamper with the past.
Sounds like one fun ride of a flick, doesn't it? A medieval adventure crossed with a sci-fi picture replete with technical jargon and head-spinning paradoxes? In a sense, it's kind of like Back to the Future set six centuries ago -- only not as funny and not that good. Timeline is like a can of diet soda left opened in the fridge for a couple days. On the surface, all of the elements look as if they're ready and raring to go. But in the two hours Timeline uses to establish its story, introduce its characters, and plunk them in the middle of an improbable situation, all the viewer sees is the shell of a film that could have been something special.
For a flick that introduces a number of cool and interesting ideas, Timeline rarely, if ever, follows up on them. Take, for instance, not the time travel portion of the story but rather how the characters discover it. I'm willing to leave my brain at the door when required, but I had to run back and get it when the corporate bigwigs revealed the incredible reason they built a revolutionary new device that transports objects through time and space itself. Putting Federal Express out of business? Yes, dear reader. The only way time travel can be discovered comes from finding the ultimate way for Aunt Sally to send out her fruitcakes more quickly and efficiently. And I haven't even covered the numerous holes in logic that pop up throughout the film, some of which can't be discussed without spoiling certain plot points but are nonetheless an obvious distraction taking away from the fun viewers should be having.
Still, Timeline isn't all messy story and flawed logic. Donner succeeds in staging some marginally entertaining battle sequences, culminating in a rousing climax where the French and British square off with swords, flaming arrows, and the whole shebang. Since there's not much for the characters in the present day to do other than race to fix the damage left by an explosion, Donner gives most of the screen time to the students in the 14th century, who discover that just being French or Scottish can get one killed in an instant. But once again, Donner misses an opportunity to do some great storytelling, opting to bypass the wonder and awe the kids might have at realizing they are in a place over six centuries before their own time and go straight for the fighting.
A little of the blame for this disappoining flick falls on some of the actors. Walker portrays the same cookie-cutter hero role assigned to him in those Fast and Furious movies. He's a few "whoa's" away from being the next Keanu Reeves. O'Connor, a pretty face who's not used much here, plays a character dedicated to archaeology. She's amazed at having traveled through time one second and acts like she's in a Cleveland suburb the next. Butler (Reign of Fire) does good work as Marek, the student who falls in love with a French peasant, and Billy Connolly (The Boondock Saints) makes a decent professor. Matt Craven and David Thewlis play company men trying to bring the students back, but their roles are even more one-note and dispensable than Walker's.
Although I haven't read Michael Crichton's book upon which this movie is based, I know his works well enough to suspect that what Timeline shows isn't the whole story. This is a cut-and-dried case of a film that leaves you with a feeling of not being told everything -- and, even worse, cheated because too little fun seeps out from the screen.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for intense battle sequences and brief language.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.