Dir: Richard Donner. US. 2003. 116 mins.
Packaged as a big budget Michael Crichton adaptation with veteran action director Richard Donner at the helm, Timeline is a breathless adventure romp that sometimes feels more like an educational TV special intended to make medieval history seem cool. Too silly for adults and too innocent for teens, the film, released in the US this Thanksgiving weekend by Paramount, won't do much to change the downward box office trend for non-Jurassic Park Crichton movies, though it might pick up a few fantasy aficionados waiting for the launch of the Lord Of The Rings finale. In the international market, where rights are split between UIP and two independents, distributors will have to make the most of the mid-level Anglo-American cast and the historical European setting.
Time travel is the hook of the story - which comes from Crichton's 1999 bestseller of the same name - but that trusty sci-fi theme actually only bookends the action. The gang of adventurers at the story's centre - shaggy professor Edward Johnston (Connolly), his son Chris (Walker), assistant professor Andre (Butler) and three students (O'Connor, Embry and Sutherland) - are working on an archaeological dig in France when they come across something odd in the ruins. The dig's corporate American backers, it turns out, have accidentally created a time machine and 20 minutes into the film the gang are back in the 14th century in the middle of the battle that once took place at the site of their excavations.
The bulk of the action follows the gang's attempt to rescue one of their number from the past and return to the present before the malfunctioning time machine leaves them stranded forever. The quest involves repeated tangles with the opposing French and English soldiers, some reasonably lively swordplay and horseback stunts and a lot of excited group strategizing (overlapping dialogue is one of the film's favourite devices for creating a sense of urgency). The script, by Oscar-nominated In The Line Of Fire writer Jeff Maguire and newcomer George Nolfi, also finds time for some lightweight romance and a touch of comedy courtesy of the dastardly but inept English commander (Michael Sheen).
Most of the reported $80m-$100m budget appears to have gone into the castle siege and battle that provide the film with its climax. The castle set is impressive enough and the battle includes some exciting shots by veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff) of giant military catapults hurling fireballs at the castle walls. Earlier scenes, however, are much less visually impressive. By shunning CG effects and opting instead for a real world location the film fails to create any sense of place or atmosphere. In fact, much of the action looks as if it is taking place in a rather non-descript field (though they apparently conducted a "transcontinental" search for a site, the filmmakers finally settled on a main location near Montreal).
Most of the performances are either weak or strained. Walker, who starred this summer in 2 Fast 2 Furious, lacks the screen personality to anchor the cast and British-born O'Connor (Mansfield Park) is all open-mouthed excitement as student Kate. Scottish actor Butler (from this summer's Lara Croft sequel) gets some decent action scenes but actor-comedian and fellow Scot Connolly (Mrs Brown) looks understandably weary with his flimsy part. UK TV, film and stage star Friel brightens up her scenes, though she's made to seem more like a tough modern teen than the French noble she's supposed to be portraying.
Prod cos: Paramount Pictures, Mutual Film Company, Cobalt Media Group
US dist: Paramount
Int'l dist: UIP (most terrs)
Exec prods: Michael Ovitz, Gary Levinsohn, Don Granger
Prods: Lauren Shuler Donner, Jim Van Wyck, Richard Donner
Scr: Jeff Maguire, George Nolfi, based on the novel by Michael Crichton
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Ed: Richard Marks
Costume des: Jenny Beavan
Music: Brian Tyler
Main cast: Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly, Anna Friel, Neal McDonough, Ethan Embry, Rossif Sutherland