Timeline (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

For a group of scientists, they are almost shockingly inattentive to details and to historical facts.


Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Billy Connolly, Gerard Butler, David Thewliss, Anna Friel, Ethan Embry, Lambert Wilson, Matt Craven
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2004-04-13
They really stand up for each other. It's like The Goonies: If you yell at one, they all cry. If you hug one, you gotta hug 'em all. It's the same thing here... It's an amazing ensemble, these kids.
-- Richard Donner, "Journey Through Timeline"

I'm feeling Peter Pan meets Robin Hood. That's what I got going right here. Everyone else is wearing stuff that's pretty rough and rugged looking. And me, they gave me the juvenile peasantry garb.
-- Paul Walker, "The Textures of Timeline"

Director Richard Donner had "mixed emotions" about leaving the set of Timeline. "This is a beautiful place," he says, his hand stretching toward the Canadian woods that stood in for 14th century France. "This last month has been really wonderful, and I feel strange about leaving." According to "Journey Through Timeline," a three-part, 45-minute making-of featurette on Paramount's new DVD of the film, the production was a terrific experience for cast and crew alike.

That's grand for them, but the film they've conjured is slightly less fun. While its zoiksy illogic gives Timeline a strange energy, it is also considerably dampened by its star, that most earnest of young wet blankets, Paul Walker. As Chris, rebellious American-twanged son of British archeologist Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly), Walker makes good use of his two facial expressions, while the film flies in 20 simultaneous directions all around him.

Based on Michael Crichton's novel, Donner's movie features a creaky father-son reconciliation story framed by a bizarre collision of Sci-Fi and Medieval Tymes. That is, when Johnston seeks answers regarding his pet project, a dig in France, he's whisked back by a time machine to 1357, during the Hundred Years War, precisely on the evening before British forces will decimate a French outpost at Castelgard. When it happens that Edward can't find his way back to present day, Chris is called in (though just why is unclear) by think-tanker Robert Doniger (David Thewlis), head of ITC (International Technology Corporation -- as bland a title as any scary conglomerate might hope to have). It appears that the gizmo Doniger calls a "3D fax machine" is causing trouble.

Specifically, there's just a six-hour window during which he must locate Edward and bring him back before this particular "wormhole" to this spot and moment is lost forever. (Or maybe not; as its discovery is accidental, there's really no telling what might be found or unfound next.) Chris and his dad's loyal diggers don 14th-century garb and grit their teeth for the molecular spaz through machinery. These intrepid few include Chris' reluctant romantic object Kate (Frances O'Connor in terrible bangs); Scottish action-heroic archeologist André Marek (Gerard Butler); and the exquisitely timid François (Rossif Sutherland), compelled to go just because he "speaks French" (the fact that the olde French might be different from the French he speaks is apparently not an issue).

Also along for the action part of the ride are a couple of red-shirts (Marines) and the spastically gung-ho Frank (Neal McDonough), who looks and acts suspiciously from jump. (The DVD's documentaries address the question of stunts in this crazy context, by showing how some are staged, and allowing an actual swordmaster/stuntman, one Thomas Dupont, to describe his own "mixed emotions" about the project and, perhaps more existentially, his chosen profession: "That's the kind of payoff for being the stuntman. You wanna be the unknown guy. Whenever someone starts knowing your name because you screwed up, is the time you wanna start thinking about getting another job.")

Not that this crew would notice anything suspicious. For a group of scientists, they are almost shockingly inattentive to details and to historical facts. Contrary to most time-travelers in movies, these people have no compunction about changing the past. Declaring his belief that "You make your own history," André promptly falls in love with the crucial historical figure Lady Claire (Anna Friel), a Frenchwoman who speaks English intermittently and conveniently, and whose noble brother, Lord Arnaut, is played by Lambert Wilson, looking for all the world like he wishes he was still a program married to Monica Belucci in one of the Matrix sequels. Though André knows her story backwards and forwards, as her demise and its political aftermath form his area of academic expertise, he just can't help himself -- he's got to change history to suit his own desires. That is, his desire for this spunky maiden who learns to speak English pretty darn quickly.

His fellow time-skippers show equal disinterest in maintaining chronological stability. Instead, Chris is conniving to get next to Kate, she's desperate to prove her own theory that a certain tunnel exists (to the point that she's willing to stake all her friends' lives on it), and poor François is left wondering just how not to translate a phrase that spells certain doom for him. And so, by the time a few nasty Brit soldiers start pointing swords and spears at them, well, killing them off one by one looks okay too. Who's going to miss a few smelly rubes anyway? And besides, the leader of that pack is as sniveling a villain as you'd ever meet, so he deserves whatever he gets. Right?

This question of deserving, as it relates to political order, social meaning, and time, drives the film, as if history is a matter of ensuring good victors, and making it fit personal visions. This is a funny idea, if you think about it. This despite the filmmakers' efforts, detailed in a featurette called "The Textures of Timeline," to make all the details appear "authentic." "The biggest thing," asserts Donner, "is making the time travel real." Seconds his wife and producer, Lauren Schuler Donner, "We needed to make everything as real as possible." And a third opinion is offered by costumer Jenny Beavan: "We've... made our own chain mail, because historically it's very heavy and I don't think any actor could wear it." Indeed.

Amid the characters' many blunders and desires, the film's time-related dialogue and inane timing seem rudimentarily humorous (intentionally or no). So, consider André's romantic, on-a-boat chitchat with Claire, who isn't following his 20th-century slang ("We're speaking the same language, but you don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?"), as this precedes a round of British arrows shot at them.

As André and Claire pursue their mutual interests, the others are left to devices Amid the excitement, Kate starts to rethink her policy about not dating her employer's son and Edward is compelled to deliver a devastating weapon to the bad guys (who in this case hey locate Edward being held prisoner, then learn they need 40 feet clear around them to start up the "markers" that will send them back, and then find out that a previous time-traveler, Robert de Kere (Marton Csokas), is siding with villains because he wants to be wealthy, or maybe just because.

All this while an accident and several arguments back (forward?) in the 20th century necessitate rebuilding the time machine -- with precious few minutes left on the wormhole's tick-tocking clock. Will they save Castelgard? Will they get back to the future? Will they figure out how time works or why men go to war? And will they come to learn how the French get to be heroes in this version of history?

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