Okay, here's the setup: you've got a time travel adventure named "Timeline," in which a group of archaeology students find themselves being transported back to France, circa 1357. Do you (1) ignite the premise with imaginative thought into the possible realities of time travel and its repercussions on the world, or do you (2) create a purely generic "Hercules"/"Xena" knockoff where half the scenes claustrophobically take place within dilapidated buildings, and the rest feature instantly forgettable action setpieces and paint-by-numbers character development? Because "Timeline" is directed by Richard Donner, filmmaker of such classics as "Superman," "Lethal Weapon," and "The Goonies," one might understandably assume his latest feature would adopt traits more similar to the former than latter. In a nutshell, such assumptions would be dead wrong.
In the historical Dordogne Valley of France, a group of American archaeology students, including the ambitious Kate (Frances O'Connor), Stern (Ethan Embry) and Francois (Rossif Sutherland), have accompanied Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) to uncover the ruins of a legendary 14th-century castle. Their simple plans go awry, however, when Professor Johnston turns up missing and his glass lens and a cryptic note are found at a research site not walked upon in 650 years. It seems that the International Technology Corporation, run by scientist Robert Doniger (David Thewlis), have discovered a wormhole back to 14th-century France, and it is up to Johnston's studentsalong with wayward son Chris (Paul Walker) and assistant Marek (Gerard Butler)to travel back in time and rescue him.
Conveniently, the group has exactly six hours (complete with an honest-to-goodness electronic time clock) to find their teacher and zap back to the present day. While this could have been achieved in ten minutes flat, "Timeline" pushes one far-fetched complication after the next at its audience, both testing the viewers' patience and underestimating their intelligence. Amidst the death-defying craziness, Chris, Kate, and Marek find time to perform in a violent battle between the French and English, outwitting real-life knights in the process; Marek falls in love with soon-to-be-ill-fated native Lady Claire (Anna Friel), and makes a life-altering decision based on his undying feelings; and Chris and Kate work out their own romantic queries. The climactic fireball battle sequence, although workmanlike, seems positively quaint in today's age of "The Lord of the Rings." Meanwhile, both romantic subplots are implausibly written (by Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi), thin as a cucumber, and generate roughly as much heat as the glaciers of Antarctica.
The acting is decidedly weaker than the average studio film. Receiving top billing, Paul Walker (2003's "2 Fast 2 Furious
") is his usual self, which is to say that he constantly seems to be searching for his surfboard. There is no denying that Walker is aesthetically pleasing; but, save for his surprising turn in 2001's "Joy Ride
," he couldn't act his way out of a box. As love interest Kate, 36-year-old Frances O'Connor (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
") is fine, but glaringly miscast as an archaeology student and love interest to the much youngerand younger-lookingWalker. As present day villain Robert Doniger, David Thewlis snarls on command. And Ethan Embry (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama
") looks to simply be grateful he gets to stay in his modern clothes from beginning to end.
Based on the more scientifically provocative novel by Michael Crichton, "Timeline" is a potentially intriguing effort that is weighed down by a lack of ambition and originality. As far as time travel pictures go, the "Back to the Future" trilogy, 2002's "The Time Machine
," and even 1988's "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" had notably more to offer on the subject. When something was changed in the past, for example, it usually had an irrevocably enormous effect on the future. Not only that, but those movies had real fun with the boundless potential of traveling through time and space. In "Timeline," such matters are taken with a minimum of seriousness and logic, much more comfortable to be fleetingly brought up and completely dropped.
Flatly lensed by usually reliable cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (2003's "The Hunted
") in order to mirror every other aspect of the film, "Timeline" is a lazy, mostly dull, instantly forgettable affair more suited for a first-time filmmaker than a veteran one like Richard Donner. Has Donner lost his flair? Who knows? What is undoubted is that "Timeline" is an unforgivable, humdrum slog of a movie with so many missed opportunities and so little of appeal one wonders if anyone in Hollywood actually read the script before fast-tracking it into production. Trying to make sense of it and still stay involved through the duration of its 116 minutes is about as meaningless and unrewarding as...well, "Timeline" itself.