Yet another case of making time travel a messy ordeal rather than a load of fun, "Timeline" lacks the consistent tone, pace and point of view for either a science fiction thriller or medieval war adventure. Story of archaeologists forced to go back in time to rescue a colleague is at times incoherent. Pic's only salvation may be offshore markets.

A correction was made to this review on Dec. 2, 2003.

Yet another case of making time travel a messy ordeal rather than a load of fun, “Timeline” lacks the consistent tone, pace and point of view for either a science fiction thriller or medieval war adventure. Story of archaeologists forced to go back in time to rescue a colleague, director Richard Donner’s would-be epic — based on Michael Crichton’s novel — is scattershot and at times incoherent. Toned-down violence for a PG-13 rating and extremely basic dialogue signal a bid for pre- and young teens, but a callow Paul Walker won’t be enough to draw them in at the malls and pic’s only salvation may be in timely travel to offshore markets and ancillary.

Already well known in some circles as a troubled production (highlighted by re-editing so significant that Jerry Goldsmith’s original score no longer fit and had to be replaced with a jack-hammer score by Brian Tyler), pic seems patched together right from the jumpy start, when a victim of a sword-wielding knight suddenly appears in the middle of the American desert. Something is wrong with the corpse, and International Technology Corp. founder Robert Doniger (David Thewlis) wants the whole thing covered up.

Doniger is backing an archaeological dig in the Middle Age French ruins of Castlegard led by Professor Johnston (Billy Connolly). This jolly Scotsman, with an unaccountably very American son Chris (Walker) who’s not interested in archaeology, has a gaggle of eager students and assistants, such as Kate (Frances O’Connor) and Andre (Gerard Butler). They are all too willing to poke around in dank tunnels. Chris has a crush on Kate, but this takes second billing as Johnston, suspicious that Doniger’s up to no good, takes off for Doniger’s New Mexico headquarters.

When the students find a note from Johnston pleading for help — and written in 1357! — they set off for New Mexico to find him. Exposition and scientific explanations are often shouted at full volume and in confusing group scenes, but basically Doniger has developed a machine that can transport objects at the molecular level. Unexpectedly, tests of the device have also sent things — and people — through time via a wormhole.

To retrieve Johnston, the students must risk using the machine themselves, and do it all (for no articulated reason) in three hours.

Pic’s actual “ride” through time is unspectacular — it just looks like folks standing in a hall of mirrors and screaming while they’re hit with bright lights and bursts of wind. Scene does not convey the engrossing wormhole effect that was present in “Contact.”

And, in addition to a premise and execution that lack credibility, pic constantly flirts with unintentional Monty Pythonesque comedy while struggling to establish an intense mood of danger. Jeff Maguire’s and George Nolfi’s script rarely rises above the rhetorical level of “We gotta go!” as the crew madly dashes about trying to find Johnston in the English-occupied Castlegard during the 14th century Hundred Years Wars. The fact that the medievalist tough guys — and ladies — don’t immediately sense something odd about these early 21st century college students is one element that makes “Timeline” malfunction.

Additionally, Donner appears uninvolved at a point where he had the opportunity to make a Middle Ages war movie. Production designer Daniel T. Dorrance puts in the heavy lifting with a small city of actual — and not virtual — sets. Unfortunately, this real setting isn’t utilized for inspiration for the movie as a whole.

The Doniger plotline, with hints of the corrupt business-science syndrome that’s long been a Crichton staple, gets lost in the shuffle. Thewlis, as a result, looks ungrounded and his strange, mid-Atlantic accent hardly helps.

The ensemble barely operates beyond the vague identity as a group, with only Butler managing some intriguing link between present and past. The clear trade-off for speeding up production of the film (Richard Marks is credited as editor, with Debra L. Tennant handling additional editing), and not having a major star is a severe loss of aud involvement with the characters.

Although fairly lavish on the surface, the filmmaking package is a curiously dull affair. Along with bland compositions and battle staging in naturally stunning surroundings, the usually top-line lenser Caleb Deschanel (aided on second unit by no less than Vilmos Zsigmond) creates images that appear in the screened print to be washed out and frequently over- or underexposed.

Timeline

Production

A Paramount release of a Paramount Pictures/Mutual Film Co./Cobalt Media Group presentation of a Donners' Co./Artists Production Group production. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Jim Van Wyck, Richard Donner. Executive producers, Michael Ovitz, Gary Levinsohn , Don Granger. Co-producers, Kevin De La Noy, Michael Aguilar. Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay, Jeff Maguire, George Nolfi, based on the novel by Michael Crichton.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Caleb Deschanel; editor, Richard Marks; music, Brian Tyler; production designer, Daniel T. Dorrance; visual consultant, Tom Sanders; supervising art directors, Gary Freeman, Andre Chamberland; art directors, Caroline Alder, Real Proulx, David Sandefur; set designers, Martin Geoff Hubard, Richard Shean, Greg Hooper, Felix Lariviere-Charron ; set decorators, Jille Azis, Mary-Lynn Deachman; costume designer, Jenny Beavan; makeup, Annick Chartier; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Patrick Rousseau; supervising sound editors, Dennis Drummond, Michael O'Farrell; visual effects supervisors, Roger Guyett, Mark Dornfeld; special effects coordinator, Neil Corbould; special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; stunt coordinator, Allan Graf; associate producers, Derek Hoffman, Brian Read; assistant director, Jim Van Wyck; second unit director, Graf; second unit camera, Thomas Burstyn, Vilmos Zsigmond; casting, Sarah Halley Finn, Randi Hiller . Reviewed at the National Theatre, Los Angeles, Nov. 19, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 116 MIN. (English, French dialogue)

With

Chris Johnston - Paul Walker Kate Ericson - Frances O'Connor Andre Marek - Gerard Butler Professor Johnston - Billy Connolly Robert Doniger - David Thewlis Lady Claire - Anna Friel Frank Gordon - Neil McDonough Steven Kramer - Matt Craven Josh Stern - Ethan Embry Lord Oliver - Michael Sheen Lord Arnaut - Lambert Wilson De Kere - Marton Czokas Francois Dontelle - Rossif Sutherland

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