REVIEW: Timeline (2003)

Timeline, a Richard Donner film adapted from the Michael Crichton novel, was a critical and commercial failure upon release. I have never been entirely certain as to why. Certainly the film is no masterpiece but it tells a reasonably smart science fiction story, has a fresh and appealing cast, and is efficiently directed by a well-regarded and commercially savvy filmmaker. As far as I can make out, the film’s greatest crime is that it is a perfect mid-1990s Hollywood blockbuster that had the misfortune of being released in 2003. Hot on the heels of Jurassic Park (1993) and it would have felt right at home. A decade later, and after a string of less successful Crichton adaptations including Congo (1995, $152m gross), Sphere (1998, $73m gross), and The Thirteenth Warrior (1999, $62m gross), and it simply missed its ideal window.

Add in the film’s comparative lack of star power – its biggest name was Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious) – and it is not difficult to see how Timeline failed to survive the onslaught of negative reviews that met its release. Why the harsh reviews, though? It was not the worst film of its year. It was not even the worst film released that week, unless you are particularly keen to defend Disney’s The Haunted Mansion.

Timeline sees a team of archaeologists become suspicious of the intelligence being fed to them about their Castlegard dig by a multinational tech company. It soon becomes clear that the company’s technicians have inadvertently created a time machine, and have been using the dig as a research outlet for their trips back to the 14th century. When disaster strikes, trapped the dig’s lead (Billy Connolly) in the past, his colleagues join a hurriedly assembled rescue mission to bring him home.

It is a classic sort of Michael Crichton plot, in which a straight-forward action narrative is spruced up by a science fiction framework and just enough technical detail to create the illusion of scientific rigour. In the novel it is a slightly more complex method of time travel than in the film – effectively “faxing” copies of people into the past – but in the film it is more conventional and immediate process. It also works well in focusing on a fictional historical event rather than a real one. It frees up the novel (and film) to tell its own story without being shoehorned around actual history. 

The cast, while lacking a marquee star, is a strong ensemble of rising talent. Gerard Butler shows off enormous charisma as the dashing Andre Marek, while Frances O’Connor is brightly optimistic as his colleague Kate Erikson. Supporting roles are well filled-out by the likes of Billy Connolly, Michael Sheen, and David Thewlis. Something that particularly appeals to me in Timeline is how utterly ordinary its lead characters are: they are archaeologists, not soldiers, and their experience in the 14th century is well presented as something extremely terrifying. Donner does an excellent job directing their misadventures: when their companions are murdered they panic, and when they are forced to kill to survive they are visibly traumatised. Even when the film does portray a more seasoned military figure, such as Neal McDonough’s excellent mercenary Frank Gordon, he is a jaded career veteran who simply treats his medieval experience as a job to complete.

The film is careful to set up its own rules for how time travel works, and rigorously sticks to them. Timeline operates to a “fixed history” model. Everything that happens to the characters in the past has already happened in the present, with the action of the film leading to an unknown but predestined conclusion.

It is pleasing to see how much of the film is achieved via practical sets and locations. While it likely damaged the film’s chances in cinema – by 2003 Hollywood was increasingly obsessed with computer-generated effects – it gives the climactic battle scenes a physicality they might otherwise have lacked. Combined with Richard Donner’s relatively old-fashioned treatment of the film’s visual aesthetic, and it really does make Timeline feel like a blockbuster many years out of synch with its release.

This feels like a film worthy of re-appraisal. It is not some hidden gem or classic, but it is a solidly made and effective science fiction thriller with a good cast and a well-paced three-act story. It continues to deserve a better reputation than it got.

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