Think back in time to contemporary movies having to do with time travel: “Pleasantville,” “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Back to the Future.” These are all caviar to the stale popcorn offered by “Timeline.” Mostly it’s a problem of tone. The successful time-travel adventures mentioned above sugared their plots with hearty doses of humor and over-the-top action, mindful that the premises were ridiculous. “Timeline,” on the other hand, wants to be a movie about real science, populated by real scientists. This is serious business. Fine, but taking that approach requires pretty serious thought to tackle all the contradictions, paradoxes and — gulp — physics inherent to time travel.
Early on, however, it becomes obvious that any attempts to delve into the complexities of time travel have been abandoned in favor of an ordinary rescue movie. “Timeline” becomes a series of chase scenes. The chase scenes are always followed by a capture. This leads to an escape sequence that insures another chase scene. It doesn’t take long to realize we’re not talking Stephen Hawking here.
We’re talking Richard Donner, a director most famous for his “Lethal Weapon” quadrilogy and many other chase-scene-filled movies starring Mel Gibson. For once I found myself wishing for Mel, or some other star power to save the day with a little screen presence. The attractive nobodies on display in “Timeline” look like they just came off the set of “Days of Our Lives.” Standing together in the time machine, of which more will be spoken later, they scream with the intensity of that soap’s Bo and Hope while smoke curls around them and lights flash.
Shazam! They arrive in 1357 France on the eve of a historic battle to save their elderly leader, an archeology professor played by the poor man’s Sean Connery, Billy Connolly. Is it me, or does the former “Head of the Class” star sound like the voice behind Scrooge McDuck? At any rate, he’s one of the few Scots who shouldn’t play one. As for his attempted rescue, think the medieval episode of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” though it’s doubtful “Timeline” has something as redeeming as a budding Keanu Reeves among its cast of unknown Lancelots and Guineveres.
There are a few saving graces for “Timeline,” including the impressively staged battle scenes. But they only make us wish for a full-fledged story about medieval Europe, not a movie about time travel. Not one with production values this low: The company that supposedly invented time travel (by accident!) is called International Technology Corp. (may as well have been Universal Widget Consortium). Its foyer-sized time-machine gizmo is literally a combination of smoke and mirrors. The only thing close to paradox during the time travels is unintentional irony. Example: the scene when the party first arrives in France, on an anonymous wooded hillside. As a character astutely observes, “How do we know this is 14th-century France?” It could be his grandparents’ place in Maine.
“Believe it or not, it was better than the book,” scoffed one audience member after the preview. That book is by Michael Crichton, author of “Coma,” “Jurassic Park” and many other sci-fi adventure tales. Like “Timeline” the movie, the novel also overindulges in hypermedieval pursuit, but it’s hard to blame Crichton for the mess on the screen. Surely he’s just cranking out the stories at his publisher’s request. One can only hope for early retirement, or an act of Congress that limits film adaptations of his work. As it is, no one can predict how many “Timelines” are in our future. S *1/2