TIMELINE directed by Richard Donner, written by Jeff McGuire and George Nolfi from the novel by Michael Crichton, produced by Donner, Lauren Schuler Donner and Jim Van Wyck, with Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerald Butler and Billy Connolly. 116 minutes. A Paramount release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 104. Rating: N Rating: NNNNN
Thanks to some strange rip in the fabric of time, I began and ended Monday with screenings of movies set in the distant past. They both had American characters facing an alien culture, sword fights and Scottish comic and actor Billy Connolly in a featured role. One of them was a graceful and quite absorbing piece of epic filmmaking. The other was Timeline. You wouldn't think it would be possible to screw up a movie based on a Michael Crichton novel. Most of his later novels are one step beyond movie treatments, with clearly drawn characters who sometimes have two whole dimensions, fairly straightforward narratives and periodic big action set pieces.
In Timeline, a group of archaeologists are sent back to 14th-century France, to the very location they've been excavating in the modern world, to find and rescue one of their colleagues sent earlier by a giant evil corporation. They find themselves arriving on the day of a climactic battle and are instantly embroiled in the chaos of the Hundred Years War.
Paramount decided that the movie needed someone for the kids to identify with, so they cast Paul Walker in the lead as a character who's not in the book. I've read it, and there's no character identifiable as "the dumb guy." Have the filmmakers ever heard Paul Walker deliver dialogue? He plays Connolly's son, who has to help rescue his dad. Savour that concept for a second. Think about Connolly, the bluff Scottish comedian. Think about Walker, the vacant pretty-boy star of The Fast And The Furious. I think Mom was banging her tennis instructor.
At some level, a decision was made that the archaeologists, smart types with some knowledge of where they were going, would all play their parts in a full-blown panic, running around like hyper-caffeinated children.
Not that their captors are much smarter.
Things the filmmakers never resolved - and one expects a little more from Richard Donner, who actually made a good medieval fantasy movie, Ladyhawke, as well as Lethal Weapon - include the emotional geometry of the principal characters, an economical way to explain the time-travel process and why a group of people who have spent a great deal of time studying medieval France don't speak any French. And they've not quite figured out how to differentiate between the French and English soldiers, who all seem to speak modern English except when it's inconvenient for the plot.
So, if you want to see a movie about an American in an alien culture with sword fights and Billy Connolly, do not see Timeline. Wait a week and catch The Last Samurai. It's opening December 5 and it's pretty good.
And its battle scenes make sense.