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A good time-travel story will absorb you without making you wonder about the complications. However, it's not a good sign if you simply don't care. Go ahead! Stay stuck in the past! Step on a butterfly! Anything if it will end my time with this film!

And so it is with Timeline, a muddled rush of action from Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie) from an okay book by Michael Crichton.

Like most of Crichton's work, Timeline details the consequences of technology run amok. Dumbed down by screenwriters Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi, the whys and wherefores of this time travel barely make sense, but for whatever reason, the big bad invention links modern day New Mexico with a specific village in 1357 France. Somehow there has to be a way to profit from this, but creepy Bill Gates stand-in Robert Doniger (David Thewlis) never quite makes it clear how.

Instead, he's been feeding information to an archaeological dig on the site, led by Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly). The specifics of Doniger's tips make Johnston suspicious, which means he, too, must make the trip back in time. Of course, something goes wrong, and his only means of asking for help involves a parchment that he prays his team will find in 2003.

And then the holodeck malfunctioned again...
Somehow this ends up being a weak stab at historical epic, too, involving a battle between the English and French that may be pivotal. Both the novel and the film also take the slightly intriguing tack that it's just possible that we really don't know enough about what really happened in the past for a time traveler to "alter" it. It could be fate. (But if one more character had an epiphany moment in which they gasped, "it was me! It was MEEEEE…")

Then again, maybe this intrepid team did change the past and Donner and company forgot to make any point of it.

For some reason, this movie seems more made from Cliff's Notes than a screenplay. Donner throws a series of expository scenes at us in the first two minutes that establish the hazards of time travel - other than you might get killed by a 14th Century knight before you can say hello properly - but it moves so fast that it plays like the trailer to some other movie. And then, really, it has little bearing on the main plot anyway (a flaw in the book, too).

As for main plot, well, it involves a lot of running. A lot.

No character can actually stay in one place for long before knights from one side or the other start pursuing them. It would be funny if it weren't so deadly dull. At least Donner does give some of the choice action to the lone female on the team, Kate Erickson (Frances O'Connor). Much of the escapes and physical derring-do come from her, a trait shared with Gerard Butler as Andrew Merrick, whose outrageous Scottish accent is as thick and dangerous as any sword he might wield.

It should be noted that the security force sent back in time, all ex-Marines, are pretty much helpless. The only one that lasts more than a minute, John Gordon (the usually really good Neal McDonough), spends most of his time yelling, screaming, running, and looking like he's wetting himself non-stop.

"Come on! Kill him! It won't affect history! I promise!"
The ostensible star, Paul Walker, gets to use every grimace in his repertoire, but really ends up being the least interesting character in the whole film. Which is kind of tough to do when you've got Ethan Embry, too. Walker is the Professor's son Chris, a character altered from the novel to somehow heighten the dramatic tension. When you cast someone that makes Keanu Reeves look like John Turturro, that gambit doesn't work.

And even though the script makes a labored effort to explain how a Scotsman like Connolly could sire this golden boy, Walker just isn't up to it. Supposedly the family spent a year in Kentucky, but that sure sounds like sullen California surfer instead.

On the plus side, by Walker's own admission Donner talked him out of taking the role of Superman, so this movie will forever have a soft spot in my heart.

But otherwise, Timeline made me really hope for time travel just so I could have my two hours back.



Derek McCaw

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