Adapted From: Timeline by Michael Crichton
Starring: Paul Walker, Billy Connolly, Anna Friel, Gerard Butler, David Thewlis, Michael Sheen, Ethan Embry, Frances O'Connor, Neal McDonough
Screenplay: Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi
Directed by: Richard Donner
Author Michael Crichton is no stranger to having his works adapted, sometimes extremely well in case of films like Jurassic Park and sometimes not so well, as is the case of Timeline. It's based on the book of the same title which is a glorious page-turner, full of science fiction, historical intrigue and adventure-based thrills. The film is not really any of these things, but not for lack of trying.
Crichton's novel is definitely on the schlocky sci-fi end of the spectrum, but that doesn't stop it from being quite clever in its own way, eschewing the traditional time travel tropes for something a little more thoughtful. Although there are inevitably a couple of historical inaccuracies and dubious scientific processes along the way, it's a book that has clearly been well-researched, creating a medieval world that not only feels threatening, but also completely immersive. The characters don't fall into the Prometheus trap of having experts making extremely dumb decisions whilst also remaining recognisably human. There are also interesting nods to the dangers of scientific hubris and the inability of historians to create anywhere near an accurate picture of what the past was like. Experience counts for more than knowledge here.
The film, in contrast, immediately dispenses with anything even resembling consideration, ramping up the schlock without realising that it's the ideas in the book that make it work so well. Timeline is full of actors who should know better like David Thewlis, Neal McDonagh, Gerard Butler, Anna Friel, Michael Sheen and Billy Connolly, who is rather hilariously playing Paul Walker's father. In the books, Professor Johnston is a father figure to Book Chris who is actually an academic himself. However, we poor audience members need a cipher.
And so we get Paul Walker as Chris, a rugged American who is lusting after one of his father's archeological staff and is so brilliantly fish-out-of-water, you almost think his casting was a deliberate decision rather than simply because he was a Next Big Thing. Walker's role in this film is basically as the audience's way into this world of accidental time-travel and the vast majority of his lines consist of "What? When? Why? How? Where?" Not necessarily in that order. As a result, the screenplay is, by my extremely complicated calculations, approximately 73% exposition as everyone attempts to explain to both Chris and the film's poor audience what is actually going on.
The rest of the characters don't fare much better, with only really Gerard Butler's Marek getting something that nearly resembles a narrative arc. Connolly is saddled with so much exposition that you can see the light steadily drain out of his eyes whilst the movie progresses. Michael Sheen just decides to dial it up to eleven because that's what villains do. David Thewlis probably gets the worst deal; Book Robert Doniger is a Steve Jobs-esque tech genius whose accidental time travel discovery activates all the worst parts of his personality and becomes a study in the dangers of hubris as the novel progresses. Thewlis gets to act a little creepy at the beginning before becoming full corporate bad guy tool and going off the deep end spectacularly for what appears to be no real reason.
Crichton disliked the adaptation so much that he would never sell the rights to any of his novels again during his lifetime. It's not hard to see why. The novel takes its time to cleverly weave exposition into the ongoing narrative with an innate respect for the reader in assuming that they will follow what's going on, including wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey alternate universey explanations as to how this is all working. The film, on the other hand, assumes its audience is dumber than a bag of hammers and as a consequence, is thuddingly stupid itself, despite Ethan Embry's physicist explaining everything as they go along (and however unbelievable that piece of casting might be).
This lack of respect for both its source material and its audience bleeds into every aspect of the film. There's no real thought, as there is in the book, about what will happen once they get there; the American accents, the lack of medieval English or French language skills (the one French speaker lasts about fifteen minutes) or that the size of everyone might stick out just a tad. Crichton takes great care with his characters to ensure they actually know what they're doing; Marek speaks Occitan and Middle French, they acknowledge that the English would largely be speaking French too. Whilst I'm not expecting 100% historical accuracy in a film, at least the book takes the time to establish just how different the world was. The closest the film gets is using Scottish actors because the Scottish had strong links with the French and even that doesn't really get explained.
To end on a more positive note about the adaptation, the production design is particularly impressive, especially in the medieval scenes. Everything has a muckiness to it that gives it all a rough and ready edge, contrasting with the sheen of the present day. The battle sequence is the film's highlight, utilising siege towers, trebuchets and lots of willing extras to produce a tense and bloody fight that works well despite the confines of its guidance rating. The present day scenes are considerably blander, but I do really enjoy the fact that the time machine wormhole thing is essentially a leftover from a particularly gaudy Michael Jackson video.
If ever there was an exercise in how to make something aggressively stupid, Timeline is it. I'm not at all surprised that Crichton refused to sell rights to any of his novels again because this film is such a butchery of his cleverly constructed work. I'm not sure it is worth watching if you want a laugh. Even the so bad, it's comedy element gets worn down as the film goes on.