Hollywood sometimes seems to operate under some unnamed Law of Plots, where certain themes and stories must be recycled on a schedule so predictable that it makes the daily orbit of the Earth around the Sun look as ungoverned as kindergartners playing dodge ball in the dark. Heeding our charts, we find that we are due for another time travel movie, but since the movie on hand is unspectacular we can relax, letting this one pass unobserved while knowing that another one will not be far off in the future. For the dedicated genre fans, “Timeline” is barely entertaining enough to stay well above the nadir of truly bad movies but it lacks any force or energy to release it from the pull of total mediocrity.
Based on Michael Crichton’s uneven but entertaining book of the same name, Timeline launches with a secretive company in the midst of a cover-up after one of its employees dies of sword-inflicted injuries. Apparently, International Technology Corporation (ITC) has discovered a wormhole through time and space, which allows its employees to “fax” themselves back in time to 1357 onto a battlefield between the English (bad) and the French (good) for control of an impenetrable fortress on a hill.
To better understand the era, ITC sends back Professor Johnson (Billy Connolly, bleary-eyed and numb), the top historian specializing in that particular battle, who sports a Scots brogue as thick as Dundee marmalade. Fellow Scot and assistant professor Andre Marek (Gerard Butler), Johnson’s supremely American son Chris (Paul Walker of The Fast and the Furious), his love-interest, Kate (Frances O’Connor in cute and feisty mode), and a few other don’t-get-too-attached-to-me characters soon follow Johnson back in time. Once there they are swept up in the intrigue and battle, not realizing that they may never make it back to the future.
The six hours that the team is supposed to spend in 1357 is filled with pre-battle maneuverings and hustling in and out of captivity since the English take them as spies for the French and the Scots side with anyone against the English. Despite much scurrying about the ramparts and the frequent use of the mellifluous word “trebuchet” (a super-powerful medieval catapult), the battle scenes are a pale repetition of any movie where a castle is stormed. In fact the one distinguishing feature about “Timeline” is a generally hurried feel as if all those involved wanted to wrap up the flick and head home. For those seeking familiar themes in an ever-popular genre, “Timeline” is weakly entertaining enough to fill the space, but those seeking something new under the sun should peek down another wormhole.
Parents should know that “Timeline” is exactly what they would expect of a Hollywood medieval movie, featuring swordfights and siege warfare, including burning arrows and those aforementioned trebuchets. Several unarmed characters are killed with swords, bow and arrow, and other weapons of the time. What is especially alarming is the casual ease with which the students take the lives of the 14th century soldiers, showing -– with one exception -— no remorse. Although this war is shown to take place at a time when violent death is all but the norm, there is little explanation of why these modern young historians embrace their role as soldiers or their side of the battlefield so easily.
Families might wish to discuss the theme of making one’s own history and how they would want their own lives remembered. Also, if you found a wormhole to another time, which time would you most want it to be and why? Andre calls the 14th century a time of honor. Would existing in that time make you a different person with a different code of ethics? How might your priorities and behavior change?
Families in the mood for more medieval movies might wish to watch A Knight’s Tale, Black Knight, or First Knight (which has mature themes and also takes itself much more seriously than the other “Knights”). For those inclined to peruse the Classics section of the video store, The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye is a fabulously fun take on the times or the more serious Ivanhoe with Elizabeth Taylor.
Families in search of more time travel movies might wish to see the brilliant Time Bandits or even the silly Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Those who like to read entertaining tales of inept time travel might wish to read Michael Creighton’s Timeline or the very entertaining books by Connie Wills (especially To Say Nothing of the Dog or the more serious Doomsday Book). Of course, one of the best books of the genre is the original, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.