Timeline, the book is one of Michael Crichton's most enjoyable page-turners. The first few chapters may be heavy going as the author indulges his tendency to get bogged down in scientific mumbo-jumbo but once it gets going you can't put it down. Timeline, the film is a big disappointment, the fourth bad Crichton adaptation in a row following Congo, Sphere and The Thirteenth Warrior. Once again the filmmakers have taken the basic plot but failed to capture the qualities which made it so suspenseful and entertaining.
Ironically, while the book starts out slow, the movie opens in too much of a rush. The main characters are introduced so hurriedly, we're given no chance to get to know them or care about them. Professor Johnston (Billy Connolly), a dedicated medieval archaeologist is excavating the ancient French town of Castlegard. Joining him at the dig is his son Chris (Paul Walker), who isn't interested in archaeology but is interested in Kate (Frances O'Connor), one of his dad's students. Unfortunately, she's too involved in her work to have time for him. The professor is called away to a meeting with his sponsor, computer entrepeneur Robert Doniger (David Thewlis) and in his absence the students open a new chamber which has remained undisturbed since the Middle Ages. It comes as a surprise when they find within it a lens from a pair of modern-day bifocal glasses, which carbon dating proves to be six hundred years old. They get an even bigger shock when they realise it belongs to Professor Johnston.
Of course we've figured out what's going on long before the characters. While working on a teleportation device, Doniger's corporation have stumbled upon the secret of time travel and opened a wormhole leading to Castlegard in 1357. Professor Johnston has been transported there and has disappeared, apparently having lost the tracking device which is his ticket back. Chris, Kate and fellow students Marek (Gerard Butler) and Francois (Rossif Sutherland) volunteer to go back and find him. Stepping into a very mundane-looking time machine, they're sent to Castlegard hours before a famous battle between the French and English armies is due to devastate the region.
The novel's strongest suit is its harsh, frightening depiction of medieval life. Like the paleontologists who became dinosaur bait in Jurassic Park, these archaeologists quickly find their knowledge of history offers little protection against the brutality of the time. The film tones down the violence for the sake of a PG-13 rating and disappointingly opts for a more romanticised, Hollywood take on the Middle Ages. Whereas Crichton portrayed both armies as cruel, bloodthirsty pillagers fighting for the greed of their leaders, here we get heroic French noble Arnaut de Cervole (Lambert Wilson) and his beautiful sister Lady Claire (Anna Friel) defending their country against sadistic English invader Lord Oliver (Michael Sheen). He may take their land but he'll never take their freedom. Similarly, the book's whirlwind tour of a different time and place gives way to an endless series of captures and escapes, swordfights and battles.
Director Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon) has been promoting Timeline as a labour of love. True, it cost $80 million and took nearly two years of shooting, reshooting and re-editing to complete but the love isn't obvious onscreen and the production problems are. The only sequence which seems to have inspired Donner is the climactic castle siege, about which he speaks at length in all his interviews. Though enhanced with CGI effects, it features real archers firing real arrows and real catapults launching real fireballs. It's quite a battle, though where it falls down is that we don't care who wins. We're supposed to be rooting for the French but Lord Oliver's sneering baddy is a lot more fun than the poorly developed Arnaut and maybe we'd sooner see the French get a pasting anyway.
Bad casting is another of Timeline's weaknesses. On the page, Professor Johnston is for all wants and purposes Sean Connery. In the film, he's Billy Connolly. Now Connolly is an appealing actor in the right role - he was charming in The Man Who Sued God - but Sean Connery he is not. The Great Scot can fill the thinnest of roles with his charisma, the Big Yin can't. And never for a second can you believe Connolly is the father of Fast And The Furious star Paul Walker, who seems more like a blond Keanu Reeves with every film. He shares no chemistry whatsoever with Frances O'Connor, an excellent actress who is given nothing to do but look frightened or anguished. In the book, their relationship was touching. In the film, they're just the Boy and the Girl who must get together because that's what happens in movies. David Thewlis, in an unnecessary role that keeps distracting us from the real drama, does too obvious an impersonation of Bill Gates and puts on a terrible American accent.
There are compensations further down the cast. English actor Michael Sheen hams it up merrily as the brutish Lord Oliver and gives the film its one memorably chilling moment - "Je suis un espion". Sheen has had a good year, playing Tony Blair on TV's The Deal, the camp Miles in Bright Young Things and the chief werewolf in Underworld. He seems destined for stardom, as does Scotsman Gerard Butler, who has in fact already been cast as the big screen Phantom of the Opera. He's perfect as macho medieval enthusiast Marek and makes the only convincing action hero in the film. As his love interest Lady Claire, Anna Friel shows a feisty charm and the pair liven things up whenever they're on screen. It's just a shame that they're relegated to supporting roles while the stars are so lightweight and dull.