Michael Crichton’s books lend themselves to movie adaptations. From The Andromeda Strain, to Jurassic Park , his novels are among the most “filmable.” Some of the resulting movies have been good adventures, while others lost their sparkle somewhere between the page and screen.
While not completely successful, this sci-fi, medieval action/thriller is enjoyable enough.
Save the Professor!
PG-13 for battle sequences, language
Timeline opens on an archaeological dig near the presumably-fictitious Castelgard, France. The professor (Billy Connolly) and his daughter (Frances O’Connor) are uncovering the history of the area with the help of a team of archaeologists and grad students.
They have a benefactor who not only provides them with money, but with surprisingly useful tips on where to look for their next discovery. The professor flies to America for a meeting with this angel. But after a few days, when his camp still hasn’t heard from the professor, they begin to worry.
They follow his footsteps to New Mexico, where his benefactors confess that they have lost the professor. Their cutting-edge technology firm has built a teleporter. They’re keeping it secret, of course, until they work out the bugs. The most interesting bug is some sort of interference from a wormhole. Everything teleported to their lab in New York is being diverted not only to Castelgard, but to Castelgard in 1378.
The professor insisted on seeing Castelgard for himself, but he didn’t return during his window of opportunity. Now, in order to save the professor, his students and sponsors will have to travel through the machine, with the help of three ex-marines, find him, and bring him back, all within six hours.
Crichton’s book revels in barbaric descriptions of Medieval life. Times were ruthless and harsh. A noble would as soon behead a peasant as look at him. Life expectancy was what we now call middle age. Filthy conditions invited disease, the concept of “germs” still half a millennium in the future. Without the support net of modern society, Crichton posits, a person sent back to live in 1378 would have little hope of survival.
Some of that raw danger is captured in the movie. Armor and swords are heavy pieces of chain and steel. Arrows are tipped with cruel heads and weigh much more than their modern fiberglass counterparts — and they buzz like giant insects when they fly at you. The survival rate of the band of characters on their six-hour trip ranks alongside your average horror movie.
If that tone of danger and fear could be maintained, Timeline might be a good thriller. Instead, Donner goes for a more standard, formula approach. In choosing a broader brush, the elements of wonder and terror get diluted.
Castelgard feels like a movie set, not a dark-ages keep. The speech of the English army sounds like Tolkein and not Chaucer (same for the French dialogue, I would imagine). The movie plays like an action movie, and not like a tight little horror film, or a fantastic journey, and the end product is less interesting than its potential.
While Timeline is a good yarn, it falls into all the usual adventure movie traps. The threat of death looms overhead, but it’s fairly obvious who is expendable and who isn’t, so predictability is a problem. There are two love stories, and romance isn’t exactly Crichton’s strong suit. Also, some of the more involved fight scenes rely too much on closeups and editing and not enough on choreography and skill.
For a day at the movies, Timeline isn’t bad, particularly for fans of Crichton. His technically savvy cautionary tales usually make for good adventure. But Timeline could have been much better.
It would have been interesting to see a David Twohy (Pitch Black) or a Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) take the helm. A leaner production with more teeth might have turned Timeline into something for the ages.