Most of Richard Donner’s Timeline (Paramount) takes place in 1357, but this isn’t a movie of hoary Sherwood Forest clichés. It manages, through sheer artistic force, to stoop below cliché—to seem both fresh and rotten at once. Take this scene: French invaders storm a British castle, leap over the burning moat, and arrive at the stronghold’s thick, wooden doors. Halt! At this point, a conventional swashbuckler would have unveiled a battering ram, the most durable of movie props. But in Donner’s telling, the French knights regroup, then begin to rap lightly on the doors like vacuum salesmen. Well, I thought, that’s different. At this rate, the Hundred Years’ War will be wrapping up sometime during the Mitterrand administration.
We are here, in France’s Dordogne Valley in the 14th century, because a group of archaeology students have stepped into a time machine and hit the “Send” button; they are here because their beloved professor (Billy Connolly) disappeared into the same machine the previous day. This bit of high concept is brought to you by Michael Crichton, whose novel the movie is based on. Crichton is often accused by his critics of shoving a film treatment between hard covers and calling it a novel. That seems a bit unfair, if only because the film versions of Crichton’s novels usually turn out to be such dreadful bores. Aside from Steven Spielberg’s slick, uneven Jurassic Park (1993), his books have inspired mostly dreck, including the ludicrous Congo(1995), in which human actors gamboled in ape suits. The Timeline novel seemed to hold promise, with Crichton’s blend of pseudoscience and swift sketching of character.
But in the movie version, it’s all too swift. Sifting through some monastery ruins in the present day, the students find a note in the professor’s handwriting inscribed, “Help Me, 4/2/1357.” Instead of mistaking it for the lyrics of a lost Beach Boys song, they immediately deduce that the professor has fallen into a wormhole; then it’s off to New Mexico to find the company that owns the world’s only time machine. There’s little time for introductions, but you gather hints here and there: One student is a Frenchman; one is a Scot; the rest are American lugs. They find their sex lives lacking—or, as one of them puts it, “It sucks. It sucks big time.”
That witty riposte is delivered by Paul Walker, the blond charmer who rose to fame in The Fast and the Furious (2001). Here he has been given the heart-rending role of, uh, Paul Walker, and I’m sad to report he’s not up to the task. He speaks with the odd, halting delivery of a marionette, and the other characters seem inclined to ignore him. When he dons his period togs, he looks a bit like Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), though without the depth or emotional range. Walker has a serious crush on Kate (Frances O’Connor), a bookwormy student who spends her afternoons unearthing medieval antechambers. “If it’s between archaeology and you, you’ll lose,” someone warns him. There’s a toughie: dating Paul Walker or sticking your head in the ground.
The students seem altogether bored by the Middle Ages, as if time travel is an inconvenience that’s keeping them away from study hall. So when David Thewlis showed up, my heart leapt; at last, I thought, an actor with the heart of a forest brigand. He plays Robert Doniger, a high-tech CEO who favors blue Oxford shirts, sweater vests, and glasses that dangle from his neck on a cord—the Bill Gates of time travel. It has the makings of a juicy part, but Thewlis spends only fleeting moments on screen, barking lines like, “Don’t jump to conclusions!” and “Yes, we have a backup plan!” Also wasted is Connolly, the Scottish comedian, who gets stuck in the 14th century and looks like he wants very badly to be somewhere—anywhere—else. As we limped past the one-hour mark, I thought, you and me both, man.
The picture builds to a climactic battle between the French and English forces, and Donner has a few slick effects up his sleeve: French catapults that rain fire on the English castle and flaming arrows that collide in midair. He even honors the venerable movie tradition of the time paradox, in which a character accidentally changes the future and then scrambles like mad to make things right again.
What gets Donner really excited, though, isn’t wormholes or clanking swords. It’s honoring the glory of the French. Every frame of Timeline drips with an earnest, almost defiant Francophilia. The students lovingly tend to their pal François, who tags along as a translator. When he’s run through by a sniggering English lord, Kate exclaims, “Oliver had him killed because he was French!”—this from a grad student who has devoted her life to studying the Hundred Years’ War. The film’s English noble is a nasty, dyspeptic brute; his French counterparts are noble, family-oriented folk, seemingly with no ambitions of empire whatsoever. Why would Donner, a veteran of Lethal Weapon (1987) and Superman (1978), take to such flag-waving? Maybe it’s a rebuke to the “Rule Britannia” ethos of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander. Or maybe he just wanted to inject his limp thriller with something—anything—to make us care a lick.