In Timeline, based on Michael Crichton's 1999 bestseller, a group of archeologists travel to and get trapped in 14th century feudal France. While entrancing on paper, this storyline quickly turns into a messy big-screen adaptation that isn't half as scrupulous and riveting as the novel.
Esteemed professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) and a team of students are working around the clock to uncover the ruins of a 14th-century castle in France. Shortly after Johnston leaves the excavation site for New Mexico to speak with the dig's sponsor, multibillionaire-gone-mad Robert Doniger (David Thewlis) and his International Technology Corporation, the students unearth a chamber that has been sealed for more than 600 years. But what's even more startling is what they find inside: a modern bifocal lens and a handwritten distress letter from Johnston himself--dated April 2, 1357. Their investigation leads them back to ITC headquarters, where Doniger reveals he has inadvertently discovered a wormhole locked on the 14th-century feudal France village of Castlegard and has devised a prototype ''3-D fax'' machine to send people back in time. Johnston had insisted on being one of the first subjects to experience time travel, but was taken prisoner in Castlegard and found himself trapped, unable to get back. Led by Johnston's hotheaded son Chris (Paul Walker), the students agree to travel back in time in order to save their mentor. But Doniger neglects to tell the group the risks they will face trying to bring Johnston back--including being stuck in civil war France for good.
The casting of California native and all-around teen heartthrob Walker comes across as a clever marketing strategy rather than a fitting choice. While Walker was suitably at ease in the summer blockbuster 2 Fast 2 Furious, he seems out of place here as the son of a hoity-toity British archeologist working in the heart of the Dordogne Valley of France--especially since the actor can't seem to shake his L.A. Valley Boy accent, although the film does make some excuse about Chris being raised Stateside by his mother. His character's disparities are made even more apparent in the stilted connection Chris has with his father, which lacks that loving, parental feel. Connolly, however, churns out a believable and likable performance as the brilliant and eccentric professor. While Walker's character Chris is busy time traveling to save Dad, he also takes the time to woo student archeologist Kate (Frances O'Connor) in a love relationship that feels as platonic as the one he has with his father. Timeline isn't marred with bad performances, it's just that they don't mesh well.
Richard Donner, whose 40-year career in the entertainment industry has included directing features such as The Omen, Superman and the Lethal Weapon series, has adapted an otherwise exhilarating novel by best-selling author Michael Crichton and turned it into an unspectacular, somewhat clumsy affair. The film's sci-fi touches and contemporary elements, including the film's ITC set and Doniger's time machine, lack imagination. Boasting 90 full-sized mirrored panels and 20 tons of steel, this ''3-D fax machine'' looks like just that--lots of mirrors and steel. Things don't improve once the characters arrive in 14th century France, either. In order to demonstrate the violence associated with the English-occupied Castlegard during the Hundred Years' War, Donner shows a lot of ham-fisted sword fights with innocent bystanders getting their heads lopped off, but the effects never really work and such scenes feel more like Middle Age war reenactments. Although the film has a crazy-quilt quality, it moves along quickly--but that's probably because the central characters only have a 6-hour window to retrieve the professor. Moviegoers may feel mechanically worked over by this false, hurried element.
Director Richard Donner's Timeline never lives up to what it could have been. The story, acting and visual effects fail to effectively blend together into a coherent sci-fi adventure.