Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (2003)

21. Timeline

There was a four year period between “Lethal Weapon 4” and Richard Donner’s next movie. That may not seem like very long but Donner had been cranking out movies on a very consistent schedule since the mid-seventies. The truth is “Timeline” had a troubled post-production. The movie was shot in 2001 for a 2002 release date. However, the studio was dissatisfied with the initial cut. It took two separate edits before “Timeline” satisfied the studio. All this tinkering was for naught. Dropped into theaters in late November, “Timeline” was seen by nobody. It wasn’t a high-profile flop so much as it was totally ignored by the public. There might be a reason for that. “Timeline” is exactly as memorable as that reception implies.

A group of archaeologists are excavating a location in the French countryside called Castlegard. Over six hundred years ago, a deciding battle of the Hundred Years War took place in the same place. Scottish professor Edward Johnston leads the dig. His son, Chris, isn’t especially interested in ancient history but he is interested in Kate, one of the professor’s students. Soon, Professor Johnston mysteriously vanished. Afterwards, a pair of his glasses is found inside one of the ancient castle’s sealed rooms. The eye-wear is dated to the 1300s. The corporation funding the archaeological dig soon reveals that they’ve invented a machine that can access a worm hole. Anyone sent through the device is flung back to 1357. Hoping to rescue his father, Chris and his friends willingly travel back through time. However, the past is full of danger.

Time travel is one of those sci-fi premises that writers and filmmakers can't help but return to. The idea of visiting an older time, hundreds of years before you were even born, is irresistible to just about anybody. Wikipedia refers to “Timeline” as a “techno-thriller,” which I suppose it is. The story intentionally places limitations on the heroes, creating the structure of a thriller. However, the sci-fi elements exist just to get the characters back to the twelfth century. “Timeline” is ultimately the awkward fusion of a medieval adventure movie and a science fiction story.

“Timeline” is based on a novel by Michael Crichton, that blockbuster novelist whose books were often turned into blockbuster movies. Like all of his books, Crichton meticulously researched “Timeline.” In the film adaptation, that research manifest in the mechanics of time travel. There isn’t a proper time machine in the film. Instead, “Timeline” builds upon the slightly more plausible premise of a worm hole. The scientists in the film explain time travel working in a way similar to a fax machine. Except with people, instead of letters. I’m not sure that makes sense either but at least it’s a different approach then what you usually get in time travel movies.

Despite all the details that was put into “Timeline’s” science, there’s aspect of it that annoy the audience. Where the worm hole comes from, why it’s attached to this specific date, or how people access it aren’t elaborated on. Which is fine, I guess, because we’re probably not expected to think about it that hard. The script makes constant references to characters speaking the right language. The French soldiers speak French and, once the translator gets run through with a sword, the English characters have to figure it out for themselves. Yet for all the focus that is given, the movie seems to forget that the French and English languages of the 1300s sound nothing like their modern versions. By half-assing these details, “Timeline” only draws more attention to its own plot holes.

A major theme in “Timeline” seems to be xenophobia. As soon as the English soldiers in the past meet the French translator, they murder him. Every time an Englishmen wanders into the French camps, they are threatened with death. Once again, “Timeline” pays a concept lip service without actually saying anything about it. After everyone gets to know each other, the movie goes back to ignoring the differences between countries. A different phobia ends up defining “Timeline’s” back half. Michael Crichton was an author both fascinated by and frightened by scientific advances. This conflict often manifested itself in his books and films, where breakthroughs like genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and dinosaurs are presented as wonders that inevitably turn on humanity. Time travel is treated much the same way here. The technology has wondrous potential but is ultimately too dangerous to use. When the scientists in present are fighting over what to do with the technology, “Timeline” hammers this point too hard.

One of the biggest problem with “Timeline” is its void of a leading man. The late Paul Walker stars as Chris. Whatever talents Walker might have had, an innate cinematic charisma wasn’t one of them. Walker is a handsome blank, running through most of the movie without making an impression on the viewer. Francess O’Conner plays Kate, Chris’ love interest. O’Conner initially makes an impression on viewers, as the actress is attractive and shows some decent energy. Once everyone gets to the past though, O’Conner is reduced to a shrieking damsel in distress. The character practically disappears not long after that point, running around with the other character without making an impression.

Another one of “Timeline’s” main characters was destined for bigger stardom. Gerard Butler plays Andre, Chris’ close friend who also winds up tossed backwards in time. Butler gets to keep his Scottish accent. While Walker is ambivalent towards archaeology, Butler is enthusiastic about it. Once in 1357, Andre is forced to fight back against the attacking soldier. Andre angsts about killing a man, which is kind of funny considering Gerard Butler’s future career as a star of body count heavy action flicks. The script soon forgets this hesitation though, as Butler is striking out at opponents minutes later. While Butler has some verbose energy, the character is so thinly scripted. Anna Friel plays Claire, Butler’s love interest. The two are immediately smitten with each other, which pushes believably. Friel is charming but, like O’Conner’s character, “Timeline” is too unfocused to actually develop her personality any.

While “Timeline” casts its lead roles with hunk-of-wood would-be leading men, its supporting cast is filled with established character actors. Billy Connolly plays Chris’ dad. His voice immediately recognizable from his first scene, Connolly provides the audience with some mild amusement, even if his character ends up getting swept away by the script. David Thewlis appears as the cautious scientist in the present. Thewlis brings a nervous quality to the part which makes it slightly memorable. Neal McDonough shows up as the soldier sent back in time to protect the kids. McDonough is playing another overly competent authority figure, who gets dispatched early on, which doesn’t allow the actor much of a chance to distinguish the part. Michael Sheen appears as the primary villain, smirking evilly and hamming it up. These performances are about the only thing in “Timeline” that sticks with the audience at all.

As a latter day Richard Donner movie, “Timeline” features its fair share of action. After arriving in the past, the main characters are immediately beset by attacking archers. There’s quite a lot of horseback riding and sword slashing in these early scenes. Gerard Butler gets some action beat of his own, busting down a door with an axe or running a bad guy through with a sword. The finale of “Timeline’ involves an entire castle going up in flames. While the action sequences are clearly directed, they’re still awfully chaotic. The combination of sword fights and blazing fire causes the entire last act to disappear in a blur.

Truthfully, so much of “Timeline” looks the same. The movie has a bland visual design, composed of sterile greys contrasted against bright orange flames. For those on the look out for Richard Donner’s trademarks, at least one is present. Once again, he emphasizes action scene with some slow motion. in “Timeline,” this technique comes off as especially goofy. When the core cast screams in slow-mo before being blast to the past, the audience can’t help but laugh. Sadly, Donner doesn’t sneak any anti-NRA or anti-fur bumper stickers into the twelfth century. I was hoping he’d pull that one off.

Another side effect of “Timeline’s” strangled post-production was a shifting score. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith was going to provide the music. However, with each new recut, a newly reconfigured score was required. Goldsmith’s quickly deteriorating health made it impossible for him to continue work on the film. Thus, Bryan Taylor was brought into compose a new soundtrack for “Timeline.” Tyler’s work is fairly one-note and forgettable. He even slips in a horror movie style jump-scare stings, which are grossly inappropriate for the film. Goldsmith, which was released, is not his best effort but features some strong, brass-driven musical themes. At the very least, it’s more memorable then the music used in the final film.

“Timeline” is not a full blown fiasco. It’s not that memorable. Instead, “Timeline” is an instantly forgettable movie. The story isn’t that interesting, wasting a potentially note-worthy concept. The characters are incredibly bland, often played by actors lacking in presence. “Timeline” isn’t even able to satisfy non-demanding action fans, as the action scenes are also highly forgettable. Michael Crichton even hated the movie. It’s a shame that Richard Donner spent so much time trying to improve “Timeline.” I suspect his skills might’ve been better utilized somewhere else. [Grade: C-]

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