by Ray Pride

Let's have a quick survey of novels by Michael Crichton that have been adapted to film. First there are the ones that have been turned into good movies: The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Then there are the ones that have gone bad: Rising Sun, Disclosure, Congo, Sphere and The 13th Warrior (from Eaters of the Dead). That leaves The Carey Treatment and The Great Train Robbery, neither of which I've seen, and The Terminal Man, about which I can't make up my mind.

It's easy, however, to pick a category for Timeline: stinker.

It's a story with a fresh plot: A contemporary archeology prof gets sent back in time and is stuck there, so his students go back, too, in order to rescue him.

Unfortunately, that 24-word synopsis is one of the few good things about it. Timeline has been turned into an example of how not to adapt a book to film, from the messy, plot hole-ridden storyline to the mundane direction to the bad casting and resultant overacting.

But worse than any of that, the premise of the film -- how Professor Johnston (Billy Connolly, who really needs to do something funny on the screen one of these days before people forget that he's a brilliant comic actor) got sent back in time in the first place -- is never explained properly. Oh, there's some sort of scientific gobbledygook blathered out so rapidly that it's impossible to understand, and then, before you can say, "Sherman, set the Way-Back," the prof's students, pals and son Chris (Paul Walker who, at least in the early going has a relaxed screen presence) are whisked off to the glass-filled time-travel lab, dressed in old-style clothing, told to get inside a flashy gizmo, and then sent back to 14th century France. It's explained only that they're being "faxed" to another place.

What's supposed to be hip about all of this is that they land in the exact same spot where they've been digging in the present, so the now-dilapidated old buildings are still solidly built. But that whole idea is pretty much forgotten until it's needed again near the end. Being a clich & eacute;-ridden film filled to the brim with danger and adventure, one of the students sent back is the feisty Kate (Frances O'Connor, going the tomboy route), who, of course was admired by Chris in the present, and will be wooed and protected by him in the past.

One of the film's major errors is that it never allows viewers to get really wrapped up in the long-ago setting. Too much of the plot concentrates on the fact that the time travelers only have a few hours to find their man and return. We're constantly reminded of that by the little computer gadgets they wear that will eventually bring them back.

And so they slog onward -- or is it backward? They easily find Professor Johnston, but then -- remember those cliches!! -- they start making mistakes, such as behaving like archeologists instead of time travelers with a strict deadline -- such as, in the case of the handsome Andre (Gerard Butler), falling for the beautiful peasant woman Claire (Anna Friel). Then come the soldiers with swords and arrows and fast horses. Then comes the revelation that they've coincidentally arrived in the past on the day that the English are going to attack the French -- right in the little village where they've rescued the professor, naturally. Then comes the realization -- by the poor audience, but not by the brave archeologists -- that it's pretty near impossible to tell the difference between the French and the English.

A question soon arises: Can people from the present, simply because they know so much more than people of the past, put that knowledge to good use? Well, not if they're idiots. They keep getting caught, then escaping, then getting caught, then escaping again.

There are a couple of strong visual sequences involving a nighttime attack on a castle with flame-tossing catapults and fiery arrows, and there's some good set design in the village. But the structure of the film -- that wholly unnecessary business about the race against time to return -- keeps it jumping back and forth from the village to the lab, destroying any chance of the past coming alive.

And it's all presented so damn seriously -- a fault which is only exacerbated by an overly dramatic musical score.

What's really needed to improve Timeline is an appearance by a member o r two from Monty Python, yelling at whoever would listen "Bring out your dead!"

Publication date: 11/27/03

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