About a year ago, I learned that Michael Crichton’s superb novel Timeline was being given the celluloid treatment, to be released sometime in 2003. Considering the engrossing and thoughtful nature of the book—in a dead heat with Jurassic Park for my favorite Crichton—this was exciting news, and I was encouraged that Richard Donner would be helming the adaptation. Despite some recent turkeys, Donner had Superman and the Lethal Weapon series under his belt, making me cautiously optimistic that the cinematic version would be, at the least, an entertaining version. Regrettably, Donner performs an appendectomy on the story with a rusty butter knife, butchering it in every way imaginable. If I sound bitter, there’s a reason—I am bitter. With all the mainstream rubbish around these days, I’d hoped that such a terrific story would get the proper transfer it deserved and spice up the adventure genre a bit. Silly me. Everyone should buy the book instead of wasting greenbacks on this dreck, but I’ll indulge in a brief summary anyway.
Several archeology students (André Marek, Chris, and Kate) must go back to medieval times to rescue their professor. Unfortunately, this lands them smack in the middle of the war between France and England, on the very night when England will fall. Compounding things is that only Marek, who’s obsessed with the middle ages, is able to effortlessly blend into the times. This isn’t a typical time-travel plot, though; Crichton’s painstaking research and patience result in a multi-layered novel. Lots of clever details surface when the gang is back in the 14th century, many of them based on Marek’s extreme knowledge of the period. For instance, Marek lectures Chris about the remarkable physical condition that the knights are in, as they can ride for hours in heavy armor without getting winded. This knowledge becomes crucial later during a riveting joust, where Chris and Marek must ride to stay alive. Another example: near the conclusion, Chris is forced to fight an exiled knight underneath a waterfall. Earlier, he would’ve been overmatched but he’s able to stave off death until help comes, due to his natural progression throughout the book. Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s too bad the movie has almost none of it. Donner’s version has so many problems that it’s a shame to just pick a few, but here goes:
Problem #1: Timeline falls victim to the typical Hollywood curse. Condense, inject the love story with an unbearable amount of cloying sap, rinse, and repeat. Donner makes sure not to miss a step. Many of the best scenes from Crichton’s book are lopped off, including the aforementioned joust and loony knight. The love stories, in the book a backdrop to the minor matter of surviving war-ridden France, battle their way to the forefront with appalling self-importance. Included is an unintentionally hysterical scene where Marek and Lady Claire float downstream, alternating cheesy lines while death lingers around them. Oh yes…they’d met all of 30 minutes ago. That’s not even mentioning the romance between Chris and Kate, which doesn’t come to fruition until the aftermath in the novel. There are simply a few splashes of their developing feelings throughout. Here, of course, there’s an ample helping of sentimentality, leading to a complete reversal of Kate’s feelings. That Donner ‘brilliantly’ reduced the time that the crew was back in time from a few days to SIX HOURS didn’t help the absurdity.
Problem #2: Did they hire Kangaroo Jack to pen the script? If there’s a cliché that wasn’t used here, I couldn’t find it. The performances aren’t too bad save for Frances O’Connor embarrassing the character of Kate—even Paul Walker is okay—but they’re given nothing of merit to work with. When I’m hyping Paul Walker as a bright spot, you know we’re in trouble…
Problem #3: The entire scientific infrastructure that Timeline revolves around is completely skimmed over. Having read the book, I knew what was going on but I can’t imagine that those unfamiliar with the story will be clear about how the hell these guys wound up in the 14th century. Supposedly, this is a rough print of the film, but an entire reconstruction of the screenplay and narrative would be needed to make this crap even slightly redeemable. As I mentioned earlier, go buy the book. It’s great stuff, and not even Richard Donner can take that away from us. He sure gave his A+ effort, though. For a few minutes after leaving the theatre, I forgot how terrific the novel is, what with being in a state of extreme savage anger and all that jazz.