[Screen It]

(2003) (Paul Walker, Francis O'Connor) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi/Action: After learning that their professor has sent them a plea for help from 14th century France, several archaeology students and others travel back in time to find and rescue him.
Professor Edward Johnston (BILLY CONNOLLY) and his assistant, Andre Marek (GERARD BUTLER), are leading a group of students on an archaeological dig at the ruins of a 14th century French castle at the village of Castlegard.

Long ago, following the hanging of a French woman, Lady Claire (ANNA FRIEL), the French forces were so enraged that they stormed the heavily fortified English castle and defeated their enemy. While that historical legend enthralls Johnston, Marek and students such as Kate (FRANCES O'CONNOR), Stern (ETHAN EMBRY) and Francois (ROSSIF SUTHERLAND), it means little to the professor's adult son, Chris (PAUL WALKER).

That changes when the group discovers a previously unearthed chamber that's been untouched for more than 600 years. Yet, not only do they discover a bifocal lens that wasn't invented until hundreds of years later, but they also find an ancient document. To their amazement, it's a handwritten plea for help from their professor dated April 2, 1357. After carbon dating and handwriting analysis proves the document's authenticity, the students head to the New Mexico headquarters of ITC, their expedition's sponsor.

There, they learn that Robert Doniger (DAVID THEWLIS) and his team have figured out a way of transmitting objects and people from one part of the world to another. Such research generated the unexpected discovery of a wormhole straight to 14th century France. Needing people versed in the culture of the time, Doniger recruits the students to travel back to 1357 -- along with marine Frank Gordon (NEAL McDONOUGH) and his team -- to rescue the professor and find and deal with a renegade worker who's stayed behind in that time.

Although they can't believe these amazing developments, the students agree and travel back to the site of their dig, only 600 years earlier. There, they attempt to find Chris' dad, all while dealing with the pending massive battle between the English, led by Lord Oliver (MICHAEL SHEEN), and the French headed by Lady Claire and her brother, Arnaut (LAMBERT WILSON), as well as an unexpected development back in the 21st century that threatens to leave them stranded in the past.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Aside from a few notable exceptions, it usually isn't too difficult to discern what type of a film a director is trying to make. Be it a comedy, western, horror or straight drama, there are often enough telltale signs to indicate what genre we're seeing. In such regard, it's easy to see that veteran director Richard Donner ("Superman," the "Lethal Weapon" movies) is working on a mixture of sci-fi and period action/adventure with his latest offering, "Timeline."

Based on best-selling author Michael Crichton's novel of the same name, the picture involves a group of archaeology students and a few marines who travel to the 14th century to rescue a contemporary professor who's trapped there. Of course, they land smack dab in the middle of a pending historical battle and must avoid being killed while trying to succeed on their rescue mission.

While that's pretty straightforward if a bit goofy sounding, it's rather unclear whether Donner -- who works from Jeff Maguire ("In the Line of Fire") and George Nolfi's (making his debut) adaptation of Crichton's work -- is attempting to make a "serious" film (notwithstanding the subject matter) or is having some fun in making some purposefully ludicrous if sloppy escapist entertainment.

Had the filmmakers been a bit more overt with some measures, and picture fallen more into the guilty pleasure category, I would have more trust in believing the latter, but I just can't convince myself of that. Accordingly, the result is a mess of a movie that appears to be unintentionally funny -- including some true howler moments -- but not enough to make it enjoyable.

Instead, all of the odd, goofy and sloppy material eventually becomes just as tiresome as the underlying effort itself. Having not read Crichton's source novel, I can't attest about how faithful the film is to it, but I can't imagine it was this slipshod. It's also rather shocking that it's turned out this way considering what Donner has obviously been capable of in the past.

As one stupid and unbelievable development (even for a sci-fi film) occurs after another, one quickly realizes this isn't going to be a good film. Once that realization sinks in, the only hope one has for the effort is that it will be entertaining enough in some lamebrained fashion.

Alas, that's not the case. With a lame plot, mediocre to bad acting, uneven pacing and mostly subpar action and adventure moments, there's just nothing here to recommend. Things essentially are set up and then unfold like one of those bad 1950s era sci-fi films where everyone tries to act, look and sound earnest. Instead, they only come off as that much sillier and melodramatic because of such posturing and the truly awful dialogue they're asked to deliver (that's particularly true for the scientists left in the contemporary setting).

My "favorite" part -- of so many -- was when the head of the International Technology Corporation -- blandly and one-dimensionally played by the usually far better David Thewliss ("Seven Years in Tibet," "The Island of Dr. Moreau") -- informs a bunch of archaeological students that he needs them to travel back to 1357. That's because they're "cultural experts" who can "mingle with the locals."

Never mind that he's just informed his subordinates that if word of an earlier mishap gets out their company will be ruined. Or that the students don't seem too shocked, amazed or -- more realistically -- disbelieving of what they've been told or asked to do.

Then there's the fact that one student is sent back without his glasses (since they weren't invented yet) and thus will be blind in a foreign setting. Another favorite part is when new rules are suddenly disclosed to the participants, right when they're in the middle of something important and/or dangerous and when the film needs to add some conflict and complications.

For sci-fi (and particularly time travel) purists, however, the worst factor is that neither the students nor those who send them back seem too concerned about the old time travel conundrum about purposefully or accidentally changing the past.

From that old short story about a lone squashed butterfly in the past changing everything in the present through many a sci-fi flick, that temporal element has been a mainstay of the genre. Donner and company, however, only seem concerned with devising and unleashing what they think are some clever related moments concerning what amount to circular time travel elements.

Unfortunately, and despite the participants being elated over discovering their place in time, the material isn't terribly clever, scientifically accurate or particularly interesting. That pretty much holds true for most of the film.

The historical setting into which the time travelers have been sent isn't overly compelling (from a historical or storytelling perspective), the medieval action and battle scenes (save for some cool looking catapult action) are boring and don't remotely look realistic, and we simply don't care about the characters or their rescue mission. It certainly doesn't help that everything's far too hokey, and the performances generally don't help matters.

The worst offender is Paul Walker, the film's biggest marquee name due to having appeared in the "Fast and Furious" films. He's about as bland as one can imagine and his performance here is the equivalent of nails down the proverbial chalkboard.

Frances O'Connor ("A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," "Bedazzled") is misplaced and miscast, Billy Connolly ("The Last Samurai," "Mrs. Brown") can't do much with his character and Neal McDonough ("Minority Report," "Ravenous") plays too much of a stereotypical, B-movie action star hero. Gerard Butler ("Reign of Fire," "Dracula 2000") and Anna Friel ("Me Without You," "An Everlasting Piece") barely manage to create some mildly interesting characters, but the lame and listless script even undermines that.

Maybe it's the far reaching curse of Monty Python (and the Holy Grail), but filmmakers seem to be on roll of recent in making goofy medieval pictures. Whether it was the contemporary (but far more entertaining) elements in "A Knight's Tale" or the equally bad Martin Lawrence flick, "Black Knight," "Timeline" now joins the illustrious group.

Rather awful, but not bad enough in a fun sort of way, the film offers a few unintentional laughs but the rest of the amazingly insipid dramatic, action and sci-fi material make this a waste of both your time and money. "Timeline" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed November 21, 2003 / Posted November 26, 2003

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