Oof. I’d studiously avoided this later Michael Crichton adaptation, also Richard Donner’s penultimate movie, based on its crippling reviews. In contrast to another time-travel box-office bomb of the period, A Sound of Thunder, there’s virtually nothing to recommend in this dodo (A Sound of Thunder’s greatest shame is its shonky/unfinished effects). A creaky, moribund premise, a mostly ghastly selection of mismatched actors, a director with no feel for the sci-fi (less still, medieval epics) and worst of all, zero sense of fun, energy or zest leave Timeline flailing in the 14th-century mud. Of which there’s very little, this being a high-gloss Hollywood production (one shot in Canada rather than France; the producers doubtless though Quebec would provide that authentic gallic flavour they were after. And be cheap).
Josh Stern: What you’re saying is that you accidentally discovered time travel.
Kramer: No, Mr Stern what we accidentally discovered is a wormhole.
Indeed, Crichton – who was eager for the movie to enter production swiftly, such that he put up the rights for free, with a backend deal obviously – was so disenchanted with the results that he nixed any further novel adaptations (until his death). Although, it wasn’t as if the rash of post-Jurassic Park adaptations were exactly raved over or commercial slam dunks (Rising Sun, Disclosure, Congo, Sphere, The 13th Warrior all had Crichton-brand appeal but at-best decent rather than titanic box office. Indeed, The 13th Warrior, the last such before Timeline, was a financial disaster, one for which Crichton, as producer and director of hasty reshoots, merited some of the blame).
His 1999 novel finds some history students attempting to retrieve their history professor (Billy Connolly) from 14th-century France. Evidence of the professor’s visit to the past – the likes of his bifocals and a note saying “Help Me!” written 600 years earlier – are discovered at an archaeological site after he has visited the ITC Corporation in a quest for answers concerning their very convenient knowledge of how to locate historically significant finds. It turns out ITC’s quantum technology packed him off to Castlegard in 1357; the students are dispatched to fetch him, but a mishap with a grenade destroys their transit pad, making the prospect of returning a bit tricky. Added to which, ITC president Doniger (David Thewlis) isn’t exactly straight up.
Jeff Maguire (In the Line of Fire) and George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) are credited with the adaption, which largely follows the novel. Billy Connolly plays Billy Connolly (as is his custom) as Johnston, while Paul Walker’s Chris is now his son, a baffling choice as no one is buying that for a moment, least of all the actors. Frances O’Connor is fellow student Kate, Gerard Butler – back before he became a B-movie fattypuss – is actually more of the hero than the entirely colourless, vacant Walker. He gets to romance French not-peasant Anna Friel (she’s Lady Claire, whose “death rallies the French to battle”). O’Connor’s so forgettable, I’d forgotten she ever acted (she’s recently turned her hand to directing).
Lord Arnaud: You’re Scottish, eh?
David Thewlis tries an American accent on for size and cashes a compensatory cheque. Neal McDonagh actually takes things seriously and offers a glimpse of quality as company man Gordon, familiar with the historical terrain from earlier visits. Michael Sheen is expectedly hammy as evil, thoroughly rotten Englishman Lord Oliver; all the English are rotten, such that a running gag is telling anyone Scottish they’re okay, actually. Lambert Wilson offers some genuine Frenchiness as Lord Arnaud de Cervole. Ethan Embry is astonishingly irritating as chinbeardy, blonde-rinse student Josh, who has the sense to demur from going time travelling (“For a moment, you actually cease to exist” he warns of the array).
Lord Olivier: My God, it’s a miracle, a quiet Frenchman.
And then there’s Marton Csokas, the ITC man stranded in time who has changed his name from William Decker to Sir William de Kere (why, that’s genius!) and is set on impaling all 20th-century visitors, or at very least stealing their markers (which ensure, in theory, they can return to the present). There are occasional interesting ideas here, like the time-travel tech causing physical degradation (it damages DNA). And the technology not being to facilitate time travel, per se; it’s teleportation research that happened upon a wormhole (portal?) But for all Crichton’s top-boffin status, time travel doesn’t really seem to be his bag, unless there was much more consideration and rumination on temporal theory in his novel.
For instance, the French knight with the lopped-off ear in a sarcophagus found at the start turns out to be Andre (who has his earlobe slashed off by de Kere). This suggests a closed loop in terms of their activities in the past (the time travellers’ involvement is ingrained and fixed and “has always been”). Yet we are clearly told history has been changed through the saving of Lady Claire, whose martyrdom (hanging) ensured the aforementioned rallying. So which is it? If it weren’t for that, I’d have suggested the movie could pretty much operate as a linear, single, closed-loop timeline, as nothing would be changed – necessarily – that would require the main characters to have different knowledge, memories or experiences (Johnston and his Greek fire is by the by). As it is, though, recollection of Claire’s original fate should be overwritten when she is saved.
Crichton quite evidently had multiple timelines involved, hence the title (such that, as this reddit post points out, the professor leaving a message to those in Universe A couldn’t be the one who went back in time and ended up in Universe B; he’d have to be from another timeline, such as Universe C). As for the whole idea of teleportation and matter transmission, you get into the territory of whether the person that arrives is even you anymore (Captain Mark Richards has it that, with initial such tech, it wouldn’t be, and you’d be soulless as a result: ie effectively dead). There’ll be more of Timeline’s strain of problematic attempts to deal with, yet not deal with, multiple timelines in Déjà vu. The movie, though, doesn’t even address the theory involved, which may be down to streamlining, or it may be down to Sherry Lansing.
Because Lansing forced Donner to recut the movie, to no avail since it was a huge bomb (along with other Paramount SF offerings that year Paycheck and The Core). This was Donner’s first movie in five years (so, into his 70s, he perhaps wasn’t inspiring the traction he once was when he wasn’t making Lethal Weapon sequels). He noted “After all the movies I had made and all the money I had made the studios, I made one little unsuccessful picture called Timeline and all of a sudden they wanted to buy 16 Blocks, but they didn’t want me. I said, “Screw them.” It was my project, I loved it and I knew what to do with it”. 16 Blocks would be his last picture (and it isn’t at all bad, even if it wasn’t much of a hit either).
Quirks of the novel that don’t make it on screen include the idea that Chris could be mistaken for nobility (not as Paul Walker, he couldn’t) and rather ruthlessly sending Doniger back to a Black Death-riddled 1348 (per Pasteurian virus theory, natch); here, he simply loses his head. Curiously, given the whole deal of Stolen History – don’t for a moment assume any official account of pre-1700 history can be taken as read – “Crichton’s narrative seems to support Cantor’s notion that the work of academic medievalists amounts to little more than subjective reinventions of the medieval era”, with regard to Norman Cantor’s Inventing the Middle Ages (1989).
Kate: There’s one thing worse than dying here, and that’s living here.
The movie pays lip service to the standards of a different age: “This isn’t a game. Are you prepared to take a life?” an eager Kate is asked. Andre registers genuine shock when he first kills someone (he’s soon getting enthusiastically stuck in, however). Indeed, like time-travel theory, it might have been better to make this more Boy’s Own and avoid such considerations, rather than half-measuring them. Timeline’s a stiff, either way, joyless stodge that seems to go on interminably. It’s a serious problem when the present-day cutaways are more dramatic than the main narrative, but that’s what you get here.