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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Timeline

Starring: Paul Walker, Billy Connolly
Director: Richard Donner
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: November 2003
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action, Suspense

*Also starring: Marton Csokas, Gerard Butler, Anna Friel, Marie-Josee D'Amours, Neal McDonough, Frances O'Connor, David Thewlis

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Review by Harvey Karten
2 stars out of 4

"The Gospel of John" and "The Passion of Christ" take us back two thousand years, "Master and Commander" two hundred, "The Missing," positively currrent events with just 118 years. Richard Donner's "Timeline" splits the difference, transporting us six hundred fifty years back into the Middle Ages. Why all this interest in the past? As one character in "Timeline" states during the opening minutes, "The past is where it's at. The past tells us where we were and where we're going." Archeology trumps futurism. Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi adapt Michael Crichton's novel for the screen giving the audience the impression that Crichton must have some Luddite genes. At the very least noting the casting of David Thewlis as physicist Robert Doniger, a man with an eerie resemblance to Bill Gates we might even get the impression that Crichton is anti-Gates or at least convinced that computer science and quantum physics do not hold the answers the way archeology does.

Crichton, like John Grisham, has made heaps more money in writing than this graduate of Harvard Medical School could have made in the profession he studied, even if he'd find someone to pay his premiums for malpractice insurance. With 100 million sold copies under the belt, including such well-known fiction as "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain," you'd trust that his genius would be evoked by the cinematic version of his multi- layered book, "Timeline." Unfortunately, Richard Donner's project, exploiting a castle made from scratch with a set design in Quebec, may enjoy Caleb Deschanel's lush photography, but the story, obviously scratching a good deal of the novel, is banal and the many action scenes simply clutter up the big screen with redundance. Anyone hoping to get an insight into 14th century European history will find out nothing about the lives of the peasants, and considering that the marvelous Billy Connolly is given ample screen time, will be surprised at the complete absence of humor and wit.

Paul Walker, perhaps the handsomest young actor that Hollywood currently offers, takes the principal role of Chris Johnston, a fellow who has his heart set on the pretty Kate Ericson (Frances O'Connor) but whose love is unrequited because Kate is into archeology and Chris simply has little interest in the past. That's about to change, because Chris will discover that no course at N.Y.U. can match the experience of being an active participant in the life of the Dordogne Valley in France during the month of April, 1357.

The experience begins when Chris's father, archeology professor Johnston (Billy Connolly), takes a trip back in time in a machine constructed by Robert Doniger (David Thewlis) and his staff a gadget designed to transport three-dimensional objects like faxes but which is now used to bear people through a worm hole into the distant past. Now a captive at a time that the French and English are in the midst of a hundred years' war, he writes a note asking for help to get back, which leads Chris, Kate, archeologist Andre Marek (Gerard Butler) and others to the past with the warning that they have exactly six hours to effect the rescue before they can click gadgets on their necks to return. When something goes wrong with the machine and the visitors may be looking into an awfully short life span at the swords and arrows of English and French knights, love gets a chance to blossom amid the chaos that has been Europe's fate for millennia.

Credit must be given to the production team for shunning a reliance on CGI and going with a real set for the actors to work with. Aside from the generic explosions, aided by a device given by Prof. Johnston to his captors to blow up sections of castle walls, there is more confusion than clarity in the exposition of the story. Are we supposed to root for the French, since it's their land being plundered? For the English, because their survival helped them centuries later to support President Bush's wars? Character development is sparse, a couple of romances are slapped together, and there is an absence of the kind of wit we enjoyed in Daniel Vigne's 1982 film "The Return of Martin Guerre, about a 16th-century peasant who returns to his wife and family a better person, and Jean-Marie Poire's 1993 work, "The Visitors," a time-travel saga of 12th century knight and his dim squire who find themselves in the contemporary French countryside.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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