“It’s history, Marek.”
Paul Walker, Gerard Butler,
Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi,
Although the advanced word on Timeline was less than encouraging, I went into the film hoping two things: that it might have science that, whether good or bad, I could get my teeth into; and that it might use the time travel paradox well enough to stay interesting. As it turned out, I had been wildly over-optimistic. While it was disappointing, although not particularly surprising, to discover that Timeline is yet another action movie masquerading as science fiction, I was more than a little aghast at realising that an action movie was, in the end, all it was. It’s true that I have not read the novel on which the film was based, but regardless, I have trouble believing that this could be a good adaptation of it. I may have had my problems with Michael Crichton’s work in recent times, but nevertheless I find it difficult to believe that he could have been responsible either for “science” simultaneously so skimpy and so fatuous, or for “history” so colour-by-numbers. As for the time travel aspects of the story, well…. While most time travel stories tend to fall into one of two camps – the “every little thing makes a difference” camp, and the “can’t change it no matter how you try” camp – Timeline invents a third alternative: “near enough is good enough”. That this careless approach to the permutations of history is perpetrated by, of all people, a group of archaeologists is simply horrifying.
When Timeline opens, the group of archaeologists in question is engaged upon a dig in France, attempting to excavate ruins that became ruins during a battle in 1357, during the Hundred Years War, when, enraged by the invaders’ public execution of a French noblewoman, Lady Claire de Cervole, the French won a crucial victory over the English and began to drive them back. (So says the film: history isn’t my strong suit, but I’m reasonably sure that the French did not regain any sort of ascendancy until much later that century, when the English began to run out of resources, before losing it again in the early 1400s, after Agincourt. All of which rather invalidates the crux of Timeline’s story, which turns upon whether the archaeologists’ interference in history will result in the English emerging victorious rather than the French. Oh, well.) The team is led by Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly), assisted by his star graduate student Kate Ericson (Frances O’Connor), history fanatic André Marek (Gerard Butler), fellow archaeologist François Dontelle (Rossif Sutherland) and physicist Josh Stern (Ethan Embry). Also hanging around is Johnston’s son, Chris (Paul Walker), who has a thing for Kate. (None of the acting in Timeline is exactly inspired, but Paul Walker can’t act at all. However, I gather he’s not there to act, but rather – so I’m told – because he’s “hot”, and thus can “bring in the female viewers”. You’ll excuse me a moment while I throw up, won’t you?) Sadly enough, Chris seems to have been intended as the film’s audience identification figure: far from embracing science, he despises archaeology and history and the past and all that. (This is supposedly because his father’s dedication to his career and peripatetic existence broke up his parents’ marriage, but really, we suspect, it’s because thinking hurts his brain.) Wherefore, then, Chris’s infatuation with the dedicated Kate? Who knows? But at least that isn’t as inexplicable as Kate’s own infatuation with Chris, against which she struggles gamely (so you’d hope) because, you know, he isn’t serious. (There is a marvellous moment when Kate asks Chris, if he isn’t interested in history, what he is interested in? The brief look of blank panic that this question provokes – as much Paul Walker as Chris Johnston, we feel – is almost worth the price of admission.)
The archaeologists’ work is funded by the International Technology Corporation (presumably a subsidiary of Generico, Inc.), which has not only been supplying money, but information – information that is just a little too accurate, a little too detailed. Or so thinks the Professor, who heads back to the US to confront his bankrollers. In his absence, a cave-in at the dig reveals the underground cell of a monastery. Kate and Marek investigate, and make some startling discoveries – not the least of which is an anachronistic bifocal glasses lens, which is subsequently proved to be the Professor’s. Moreover, the manuscript that Marek finds in the chamber has upon it a hand-written message from the Professor dated “April 2, 1357”. When the manuscript is demonstrated to be 14th century, but the ink modern, the team, unable to believe that the Professor could have done such a thing as a joke, gets in touch with ITC, hoping to speak to him.
At first evasive, the company heads then invite the researchers to ITC headquarters. There, the team is understandably stunned to learn from project head Robert Doniger (David Thewlis) that the message from the Professor is genuine – and that he himself is trapped in the distant past. ITC, it turns out, was trying to develop a method for sending solid objects through space – “faxing” them, as it’s put – by reducing them to their component molecules, then reassembling them at a distant site. (In other words – to do exactly what was done in The Fly. And if André Delambre hadn’t so stupidly destroyed his work at the end of that film, we wouldn’t have to suffer through this one!) Inadvertently, however, ITC managed to [*cough*] open up a wormhole to one specific spot in France, in the year 1357. Since then, the company has managed to develop a method for successfully sending people back and forth in time – although at length, doing so damages their DNA. And that’s as much explanation as we’re ever offered. (Something tells me that the technophobe Crichton wasn’t quite so reticent.) Trying to determine how and why these things could be happening, the company decided to fund the Professor and his team, supplying them with historical clues as well as money. However, when the Professor’s suspicions were aroused, they told him the truth and asked him to travel through the wormhole, to try and discover just what it was about this particular point in time and space that made all of this possible. (A subplot which, by the way, is never resolved.) But – surprise! – something went wrong, and they were unable to bring the Professor back. Doniger then proposes that the archaeologists also travel back and try to find him. Physicist Josh Stern – not thrilled by the notion of being turned into “a stream of human atoms”, so to speak – refuses; Chris in turn insists upon going, more because of Kate than his father; and François Dontelle is talked into it, for his knowledge of the French language. The volunteers are given six hours, no more, to carry out their mission, and are provided with “markers” by which they may signal their readiness to return. Accompanied by ITC employee and ex-Marine, Frank Gordon (Neal McDonough), and two of his men, the team passes through the wormhole – and Timeline becomes thoroughly exasperating. I hardly know where to begin describing what’s wrong with it. It’s misguided on a script level, poorly directed, and worrying in its implications.
Well, first things first. The time travel elements are not the only thing that Timeline never bothers to explain. The travellers are forced to shed all modern accoutrements and don 14th century clothing before setting out; we are told that no “modern” items are permitted to pass through the wormhole, but not why. Do “modern” items interfere with the operation of the “time machine”, or is ITC afraid of changing history? We never learn. Anyway, one of Gordon’s men – who are both so faceless, you just know they’re going to die – disobeys this command and takes a grenade (!) through the wormhole anyway. He’s filled full of English arrows before he can use it, and gets himself transported back while it’s still clutched in his hand. Naturally, back in the year 2003, the thing goes off, damaging the time machine and setting up a tiresome “Can they fix it in time?” parallel plot. Meanwhile, with its travellers firmly ensconced in medieval France, Timeline settles down to become seriously annoying, as the next ninety minutes of screentime are spent in an attempt to get the cast in the same place at the same time for the thirty seconds it takes to get everyone transported back – and in failing to do so. Honestly, if I had to listen to the line, “I’ll be back in a minute!” one more time - ! I started by calling Timeline an action movie, and so it is – but only in the sense that its characters spend all of their time running from one place to another. But this running around is all for the best, since when the characters don’t run, they talk. We’ve already sat through clunky lines like Kate’s, “Do we look like quantum wormhole specialists?”, and heard the time travellers sent on their way with the assurance, “You all look great, by the way!”, but the early section of the historical scenes gives us a howler to end all howlers, as Chris insists that the party should have no trouble dealing with the natives, since, “We have 650 years’ knowledge on these guys!” (I defy you to listen to those words coming from Paul Walker’s mouth and not react with a bray of laughter.) When the characters are talking amongst themselves, it’s bad enough; but when they start talking to the people they meet, it’s unbearable. Timeline completely ignores the fact that there is no way that 21st century and 14th century people could understand one another – and that’s not even considering the language barrier! (Like I said, I haven’t read the novel, but I’d be prepared to bet that one of the travellers in the original story was a medieval language expert.) Instead, we’re confronted with 14th century people who have no difficulty communicating with the interlopers – and with 14th century Frenchmen who all speak passable modern English! Lucky, that. (Particularly considering that--- Well, let’s just say that when the travellers were choosing their 14th century garb, linguist François should have picked himself out a Red Shirt.) The only time that Timeline acknowledges a possible barrier comes in its most painful scene. Immediately after the team’s arrival, Marek is separated from the others, and ends up in the company of a young Frenchwoman, who subsequently proves to be that very Claire de Cervole whose execution is destined to lead to the victory of the French. Rapidly – very rapidly – falling in love with her, Marek tries to make his feelings known to her. It’s hard, really, to say which is the more embarrassing: that such a declared historical expert should be unable to recognise the necessity for adjusting his language to suit the situation (“Are you seeing anyone? Are you with anyone?”), or that the same “expert” fails to understand that a 14th century Frenchwoman would have no say whatsoever in who or when she married. The only thing that challenges these moments for wince-inducingness is the scene a few minutes later when the same 14th century Frenchwoman, in more than tolerable English, declares, “I can take care of myself!” Clearly, these two were made for each other.
Marek’s passion for the Lady Claire sets up the film’s final, and quite disturbing, section. The one thing I found interesting about Timeline – or would have, if I thought it was deliberate – is that is ultimately a story with no real heroes. When the travellers catch up with the Professor, they learn that he has temporarily bought his own life by agreeing to give the English a new weapon, “Greek fire”, with which they can win the critical battle. (Greek fire is an incendiary that burns the more strongly in contact with water.) Although shocked by this revelation, Marek himself is not exactly backwards in jerking history around. Realising who he has fallen for, he immediately sets about altering events so that Claire can survive the battle. For a while it seems that he has failed: Claire ends up standing on the battlements of the English stronghold, condemned, a rope around her neck, just as history dictates; but Marek is having none of it. For all his passion for the past, Marek, like the Professor before him, seems to have damn little respect for it; as long as everything works out for him, the hell with everyone else – past and present. Of course, given that Marek is motivated by La Grande Passion, I’m sure we’re supposed to find his actions inspiring and noble and suchlike, but personally I find them both incredible, and incredibly selfish. Is his love for Claire really supposed to override everything else? – the outcome of the decisive battle, the lives and deaths of those who fight? And what about that history he’s supposed to be so dedicated to? Timeline, as I said, offers up an amazingly sloppy version of the old “you can’t change history” trope, essentially arguing that as long as the big picture is unaltered – that is, as long as the French win the battle – then the details don’t matter. But how can that be? How can the fact that different men, that a different number of men, on both sides will live and die have no effect on ultimate history?
Timeline is nearly two hours long, and in that two hours it succeeded in engaging my interest precisely twice. (Okay, three times: few things in the film caught me as strongly as my need to remember where I’d seen Anna Friel before. Answer: the BBC/WGBH TV production of Our Mutual Friend.) One of those times was when we started to get the time travel pay-off, when the travellers discover that their actions have already had an effect on their future. (Not that this stops them from tampering further, but never mind.) This is the fun part of any time travel story, of course – but Timeline blows it by the heavy-handedness of its approach: there is barely an archaeological moment in the opening scenes that doesn’t scream Foreshadowing! Foreshadowing! Thus, we listen as an irate Kate, examining a vandalised painting, wonders what son of a bitch could have done such a thing? – only to realise later – aloud, to the horror of an accompanying pair of English-speaking French monks – that she herself was that son of a bitch. The focus of the film, however, is upon the twee little subplot of a mysterious sarcophagus, containing the remains of a one-eared man and his lady-love. “I wonder who they were?” murmurs the fascinated Marek. Ooh, I wonder? You’ll forgive me if I find Warlock’s version of essentially the same scene better executed and far more unsettling. (Although, granted, Timeline is probably the only chance you’ll ever have to see someone react to the severing of his ear by chortling, “It’s ME! Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee!”) The other part of Timeline that grabbed me was the final night-time battle scene. I said that Timeline is badly directed, and so it is: deprived of any clear guidance, the actors, all but Paul Walker competent at worst, spend most of the film simply shouting at one another. But by the end, it becomes clear why Richard Donner took on this project: for the opportunity to stage the battle between the French and the English that forms the climax of the story. This is, truly, a memorable scene, and one devised as far as possible “for real”; the lack of cheaty CGI is very heartening. (It’s full of flights of deadly arrows whistling through the air, too, something I’ve had a horror of since first seeing John Sturges’s Escape From Fort Bravo.) This sequence goes on for some time, but never feels overlong; although one does have to admire the sheer obligingness of Lord Oliver, eye-rolling and “Mwoo-ha-ha!”-ing leader of the English, who simply stands there calling out “Trebuchet!” and occasionally ducking while half of his stronghold is destroyed, before he eventually bothers to retaliate.
With a screenplay so lacking, there isn’t much that the cast can do to salvage Timeline. Gerard Butler and Anna Friel manage to bring some conviction to their roles, and finally come out of it best. At the other end of the spectrum, Paul Walker is….Paul Walker. A graduate of the Keanu Reeves School of Acting, you can’t see Walker open his mouth without expecting the word Dude! to issue forth. Billy Connolly seems so bemused by being cast as this nonentity’s father, he shows little of his demonstrated dramatic ability. Frances O’Connor never rises above her “token female” stereotype (I’m irritated by Timeline the way I was irritated by Deep Blue Sea: why did she have to be American anyway?); while Neal McDonough and David Thewlis – the latter in an exaggerated offering that seems intended as a satire of Bill Gates – appear to have entered into a competition to see which of them could overact more. Moreover, the denizens of 14th century France are just as Hollywoodised as you might expect, with nothing beyond tousled hair to indicate a less than immaculate personal hygiene. In the end, though, Timeline’s problems run far deeper than the shortcomings of its performances. The production sticks in my craw simply because it so obviously assumes – as so many films do these days – that it needn’t bother too much about “logic” or “consistency” or “plotting”, because its audience won’t care anyway. This is clear in the “Awww!” sequence towards the end, which has Kate calling the others to see the epitaph on the sarcophagus first excavated by Marek. It proves, of course, to be that of Marek himself, and of his wife, Lady Claire. “I wonder what it would have said if we hadn’t gone?” reflects Kate, and so do I – as I wonder what happened to all the history books written about the era, and to the students to whom, in the film’s opening scene, Marek described the execution of the Lady Claire, and the subsequent turning of the tide of war. (They probably failed their finals.) There is something uniquely disturbing in Timeline’s utter disregard for history – and all the more so because it is the very scientists who have dedicated their lives to that history who show it the least concern. I suppose it’s because they are scientists: after all, in movie parlance, a detached scientist is an unfeeling scientist is an eee-vil scientist; the unhesitating interference of Marek and the Professor was probably intended to “humanise” them. But what is one to make of the fact that, other than a brief moment in which Kate and Marek compare what they see with what they predicted from their diggings, none of the travellers seems excited or stunned or awed or even frightened at finding themselves in the very time and place which they have been investigating? That none of them, save Marek, seems able to summon up any strong emotion about their experiences one way or the other? The final lesson of Timeline is that history is something that is best kept between the covers of a book; something to while away the hours, but not to be taken too seriously. Marek might yearn for the time when “honour” meant something, but the others understand only too thoroughly when they are well off. The biggest shock of Timeline is perhaps its final revelation that Chris has entered Kate’s world and joined in his father’s work after all, rather than, as you might predict, that her experiences have induced Kate to quit her job and enter his. This is, after all, the young woman who could sum up the subject of her life’s passion with the line: “The only thing worse than living here is dying here!”