RIORI Vol 3, Installment 33: Richard Donner’s “Timeline” (2003)


The Players…

Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connelly, David Thewlis and Neal McDonough, with Ethan Embry, Matt Craven and Rossif Sutherland.

The Story…

Archaeology can be a dirty business. It can also be boring and thankless, contributing to the historical record to an indifferent public. It’s really tough bringing glimpses of the past to eyes of the modern age in the name of science and social development. One would assume that if the powers deemed possible getting the message out would require some tangible, active analog to our 21st sense of being. A time machine would be nice (chuckle).

No such thing exists. On purpose.

But Einstein—that devil of a physicist—once purported that if one could fold space-time (literally make ends meet), wouldn’t it result in a  shortcut? You know, the swiftest distance between two points is a straight line, regardless of the medium?

Uncle Al coined it a “wormhole.”

Betcha he never imagined such as gizmo would burp up in the French countryside.

The Rant…

Hey. If you were there, do you remember back in the 90s when all those movies adapted from Michael Crichton’s books were oozing from the cineplex? Sure you do; it was inescapable as death, taxes and overly extended jams at a Phish concert. You can either thank or blame the original Jurassic Park as the first sortie of Hollywood’s assault on Crichton’s library for that. Don’t get me wrong. The original Park was very fun and delivered with the trademark Spielbergian élan. But just cuz an Oscar-winning director does a bang up job of translating page to screen—the guy did have a little experience before with a tiny film called Jaws—doesn’t mean any studio worth their salt can just acquire the film rights to a successful novelist’s work and make it stick to the silver screen (e.g.: virtually every Stephen King movie ever made, past and future).

To which you say: no sh*t.

Don’t misunderstand me anymore than you usually do. I’ve read my fair share of Crichton novels. One of my favorite, desert island books is the man’s autobio/travelogue Travels. Of course I read Jurassic and many of his other books that ultimately went through the movie mill, almost all of them screw ups. As for the books, Congo, The Great Train Robbery, Eaters Of The Dead, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man and (another personal fave) Sphere varying in quality from pretty good to downright awesome. These titles all made it to screen. Some shouldn’t have. I mean, some had no business whatsoever being made into a movie. True Jurassic, Andromeda, Train and Terminal were damn fine. Hell, Crichton himself directed Train, did a good job and wisely hitched his wagon to Sean Connery lending some star power, so the guy knew a little about how to make a movie work. But those films were anomalies torn from Crichton’s pages. The remainder (and the list is long) sucked big dumb insert offensive sexual simile here.

Why was this? Crichton wrote primarily science fiction with the classic, no-fail tropes attached. Technology run amok. Meddling in God’s domain. Culture clash. Hard to f*ck up such simple, well-established story devices. But Hollywood did, over and over again. Still, there really was no wonder why the studios kept placing bets and throwing darts at Crichton movies. Since Jurassic Park made a mint, and that medical drama on TV ER was sucking up ratings, let’s hop on the bandwagon (a bandwagon Hollywood almost singularly created)! We got a cash cow to milk into Parmalat!

Uh, no. And not even Stamos could resuscitate the show towards the end of its vaunted run.

So again, why did most Crichton films tank? Of course I have a theory. Lissen hup.

Back in my high school days—not long after Jurassic had theatrical release—I immersed myself in Crichton’s catalog. As I said I read Travels, Congo et al with aplomb. I also mentioned my favorite novel of his was Sphere. For those not in the knowSphere was about a group of scientists who discover a spaceship on the ocean floor. Said spaceship appeared to come from the not-so-distant future and somehow got bounced back in time. The rest of the plot was simple: figure out how and why. Like with all good sci-fi, we had mystery, technodrama and the human condition examined into the ground but not before setting up some keen tension. Simple. Really. What made Sphere crackle was said human drama and the thrill of a mystery, both well rendered by Crichton’s pen. I caught Jurassic (the gateway drug), dug it and tore into and loved Sphere. Even back in those pimply, sexually frustrated adolescent days I knew that if Sphere ever made it to being a movie, they’d f*ck it up.

Fast forward to my college days. Me and my buddy Mark—I’ve mentioned him here before. We were java jockeys at the local cafe—were quite the bookworms. Every year before summer break we complied a list of must-read books to chew over before school reconvened in the fall. We always suggested to one another a personal recommendation. I had discovered via primitive online message boards that my beloved Sphere was gonna get the Hollywood treatment. The horror. I insisted, nay, demanded of Mark to read the book before the movie was released. I told him in no uncertain terms that the movie would ruin the book. They’d f*ck it up. For sure.

Mark heeded my words. The following fall he raved about the book, but he failed to regard my movie caution. He later caught the film version (inexplicably directed by Barry “Rain Man” Levinson). Christ, why I don’t know. Don’t look at it, Marian. Close your eyes. When I next saw him, he was stunned. I’m not kidding. Like “that newborn babe looks nothing like me” stunned. He shook his head after coming back from the cinema and told me, “Sh*t Nate, you were right. They f*cked it up. How’d you know?”

Here’s how I knew. My theory, which is steeped in centuries of fiction writing:

Sure, Crichton’s tales were littered with cool tech, intricate detailing (the man sure know how to do his research) and wild ideas. But that’s not what made his books great. Hell, none of that crap makes a story great. Whether it be time traveling spaceships, cloned dinosaurs or space viruses, it’s all frosting. All that sh*t is the hook, what initially nabs your attention. It’s characterization and how the cast reacts to the weirdness—that classic tension bringing about conflict and ensuing drama—that creates the backbone of the story. What keeps you turning the pages. Without interesting characters and compelling conflict (manifesting itself into “how do we get out of this mess?”), the whole narrative falls flat. What Hollywood has failed to understand time and time again is no matter how much whiz-bang you throw at the audience—adapted from a bestseller or otherwise—if you don’t got no meat on the bone, all that shiny ain’t gonna save a crap movie. And gristle can look mighty shiny.

I guess that applies to all stories, movie scripts included. Just a thought.

Since those heady days of nineteen ninety whatever, Crichton movie adaptations have fallen by the wayside. Probably too many turkeys courtesy of Tinsel Town to risk a loss leader. The last one made was back in 1999 with The 13 Warrior (adapted from Eaters Of The Dead) before Timeline lurched to life in 03. This is an eternity in Hollywood regarding riding a pony like Crichton’s works. I mean, look at today’s John Grisham output. Right.

Maybe taking a vacation away from movie adaptations of John’s smart efforts will prove good, if not better in the long run. I figure only time may tell.

Oh, shut up. That was f*cking brilliant…

You know that quote by Philip Burke? “Those who who don’t know history are destined to repeat it?” Most folks misquote that one as “doomed to repeat it.” Well, thanks to an overly high-tech “delivery service” with a thirst for knowledge that bent is more accurate.

Archaeology professor Ed Johnston and his son Chris (Connolly and Walker) are conducting some research in Southern France. The professor and his crew of the usual scruffy history buffs with scabby knees and permanent grime under their nails are hip deep in a dig. They’re carefully dissecting the ruins of Castelgard, an important stronghold from the Hundred Years war. In simpler terms: “pig in sh*t” territory.

To Chris, it ain’t nothin’ but another hole in the ground. Unlike his historian dad, Chris prefers his knees off the ground and hands clean. His dad knows his son isn’t cut out for archaeology, despite his respect for history. Ed also knows that Chris is only tagging along to get with Kate (O’Connor), one of the best and brightest students. It’s funny what guys’ll do to score a chick.

The dig proves to be a curious one. There are edifices here and there that are out of synch with the historical record. The anomalies intrigue Andre Merek (Butler), the site manager, but upset Professor Johnston. He gets a suspicion that the dig’s benefactors ITC have been tampering with things. Incensed at the possibility of his work getting botched, Johnston hauls ass out to HQ for an explanation.

He doesn’t get one. At least not in the conventional sense.

Meanwhile, Kate and Chris are crawling around the catacombs of Castelgard. Not only do they uncover more curious artifacts, but Kate accidentally trips over a very unique relic: a chipped and scratched lens from a pair of bifocals. The caves have been sealed from around 600 years; folks didn’t wear bifocals back then.

Especially ones with plastic lenses.

Fast forward to ITC. Where’s the Professor? How the hell could these dusty antiques be from six centuries ago be made only in the modern age? What’s going on at the site anyway?

ITC’s prez Rob Doniger (Thewlis) is hesitant to explain. Best leave it up to his right-hand man Kramer (Craven) to take the reigns:

“Have you ever heard of a wormhole?”

You know that quote attributed to Alexander Pope? “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” Yeah, somebody should’ve reminded Doniger and his cronies of that…

Okay. About that Crichton tech being misunderstood and/or misused. Timeline didn’t do that. It kept the technobabble short and F/X quick and tasteful. Everything after that fell on its face.

To be fair, tag “for the most part” at the end of the last finger point. I gotta admit, for all the movie’s flaws, director Donner. was hip to keeping the dread splash and dash in check with Timeline, at fate most Crichton-inspired films have succumbed to. He fell back on his strengths: make Timeline into an action/adventure. Instead of maverick cops and their shenanigans, we’ll do knights with swords a-clashin’. Sure, we’re gonna throw a sop to the Crichton purists out there (maybe the author himself), try to keep the movie sailing along with the concepts and characters at odds with one another with sharp tension. And Timeline did have that in fits and starts. But there were two major flaws colluding against the movie being…how shall I put this? Not sucking too much?

Here’s exhibit A: Donner, though a solid, journeyman director, has had no solid experience directing S/F movies, of which Timeline is toeing the line. Before you starts hurling beer cans at me, again, full ones this time hear me out (like you have a choice anyway, and ignore that back button in the upper left). I don’t consider the first two original Superman films S/F. They’re more fantasy/action movies with a lot of good, cheesy B-movie pulp nods, mostly from the cast (Brando being in the first and getting top billing alone is hilarious). Not hard S/F, or very soft either. Great stuff, but quite a different animal than Timeline, barring the scene where Supes recused Lois for the umpteenth time. No. For the most part Donner has been a spinner of action tales with a few comedic fantasy films along the way (e.g.: Ladyhawke, Scrooged, et al). Although he didn’t outright swamp the audience with info overload, like a lot of Crichton movies have a tendency toward, he did apply his almost signature 80s style directing panache to Timeline: “high concept” low production value with a healthy dose of attempting to be clever and/or cute. Sometimes it even works.

Not here. Timeline felt like it was reaching towards a 21st Century Jules Verne aesthetic. The film is too slick. Lacks bite. It’s hurried but not urgent. It has its exciting moments and was often entertaining, but smelled like cosplay/Renaissance Faire gone awry. Donner’s in yo face style does not let itself well to would-be “high concept” S/F; no room for subtlety. The guy didn’t seem to understand how S/F—especially Crichton’s—worked. You just can’t smack the audience upside the puss with a gym sock filled with glitter and expect them to just roll with it. I’m not talking the crucial “interior logic” paradigm that needs to be followed AT ALL TIMES in an S/F movie (do not dispute me; I read it in Popular Mechanics). I’m talking about a bait and switch here. The nifty time travel aspects of the film were all but abandoned by Act 3. Instead we got the aforementioned joust/history lesson. If Donner was on the ball, understood his source material and took notes from other Crichton scripts (e.g. Jurassic Park), Timeline might’ve been more engaging. Instead Donner saw Riggs and Murtaugh gallivanting across medieval France with no regard for diplomatic immunity. He lost the plot. Sure, he did a good job directing, but it meant for another film. Maybe The Goonies for grown-ups, which might not’ve been a bad thing if you think about it. Now do the Truffle Shuffle.

The other tech flaws with Timeline are myriad. The movie pulled the classic flub in trying to pull a huge info dump into a very small window. Again, like with so many past Crichton flicks, the science in his S/F got stripped bare and dumbed down to just the juicy bits. Sure, a few sparks of from the writer’s fevered imagination squeaked by, but this is Hollywood here and  we need to inject only enough smart to make it sell (or dumb, which is more probable). I repeat, I don’t think Donner really knew what he was getting into. Or just fell back on old formulas (some might say habits) and just galloped through production with not enough wisecracks at the ready. Oh, that and he hadn’t made a movie since (thankfully) the final Lethal Weapon film. Might’ve gotten a tad rusty like an old suit of armor (I’ll stop it now).

Now, enter exhibit B: The acting. It’s wooden, stiff. It’s likely Timeline‘s greatest fault. Our hero Walker tried to be strong, but his delivery came across as just plain awkward. It’s understood that the “reluctant hero” archetype is a favorite one, but his Chris came over as too reluctant. The character was passive and reactionary. I mean, he was trying to rescue his dad, for Pete’s sake. The least he could’ve done was overtly care. Don’t misunderstand me, Walker could play rough and ready (those Fast And Furious flicks are lacking without him, and they had a lot to lack, future ones also), but here he just seems rudderless. No love lost here for O’Connor, Thewlis and Connelly, too. All caricatures, all going through the stereotypical motions with next to no verve. The third tier characters were more interesting than the leads (especially Craven and Embry, God bless ’em).

The one bright spot in the cast of sleepwalkers was Butler’s Renek. His had a certain Captain Kirk vibe about him: kinda hammy, kinda funny, rather passionate. It wasn’t just me being a Trekkie, either. Renek was the only guy in this motley crew that gave a sh*t about what was at stake. Also not to mention his entrenched love of archaeology had him chewing into the historical record as he would have wanted to as if he was there. Good thing he was. Renek’s Han Solo scrappiness/Indiana Jones enthusiasm/insert any Harry Ford character’s charms here was a lot of fun and actually made you interested in the story when everything else had hopped the tracks.

Apart from Butler’s performance, wanna know another good thing Timeline possessed? Editing. Editors don’t really get the due they deserve. Movies aren’t put together in a linear fashion. At the end of the day it’s all patchwork, spackle and crossed fingers. Timeline felt seamless. I said it was slick, but it also was smooth. Almost everything here ran together well, so the throughput was a very direct execution amidst a messy fest of wonky S/F malarky, clipped exposition and Donner beating us over the head with a sledgehammer on speed. In sum, Timeline didn’t feel like two hours crawled by, and my attention span is about as long as look a puppy!

An aside: although I found Timeline‘s editing to be on the mark, I felt a small tweak was in order. I know, plenty of legit directors and scenarists have already “tweaked” with stories like this a jillion times over in the past with varying degrees of success. Based on watching a thousand more movies than any sane idiot would do, I think I learned a little bit. Not much, but here’s hoping: Timeline might’ve been a lot better with more of those sharp, angular cuts between “then and now,” modulating closer and closer, thereby heightening some tension (which this movie so desperately needed). If we got us a time travel piece here, relegating the “present” to the back seat kinda robs the story some of that urgency to make an adventure flick click. Just a thought. Don’t worry, though, no one at Paramount ever calls me back. Must’ve been my Star Trek/snuff film mash-up pitch.

So what have we learned? By my writing, not a lot, except I need more Lamictal and fewer cans of PBR down the throat. But I think all films have a message to send, even the cruddy ones. C’mon, a time travel tale, no matter how tepid, piques the brain cells. As far as I could glean from Timeline, the message there was this: how much have we f*cked with history? Like Walt Benjamin said, “History is written by the victors.” Hopefully not these victors.

One final thing (yer welcome): let’s just face it. You can thank (or curse) the original Jurassic for all the Crichton adaptations that followed in its wake. Most have been scattershot, usually a result of Hollywood grease or underestimating the audiences’ collective intelligence (my money’s on…both to be honest). You can’t write smart fiction and expect a guaranteed buck with it at the multiplex. It’s been proven time and again (remember Congo? Don’t) that technothrillers often loose their tech, characterization and backbones once they take a ride through the sawmill. I guess that’s inevitable. Too bad since Timeline had a lot of potential going for it, which got squandered by mismatching everything.

Anyway, about that R-rated Goonies concept. Sloth should be played by Steve Buscemi. Heavy duty CGI there.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Here we have it folks, the movie The Standard exists to be. A solid “I don’t know,” separate from scams, egos and hype. Timeline was lame, yet it tried hard to not be. The esteemed director was out of his league, but did his best. Paul Walker was the (diminished) lead. I like ice cream. In the endgame, this was a simple action movie with some fairy dust sprinkled over its glossy wings. Timeline would be the kind of flick you’d stumble onto via TBS and let the remote fall to the floor. Call it all a complement, really. Meanwhile I’m still waiting for Mad Max: Fury Road to get here via bruised disc because I can’t afford streaming and the flying monkeys—

Dang. Bitchiest verdict I ever posted. Tune in and enjoy the show this time and next time! I got this thing on my thigh to…never mind.

Stray Observations…

  • Hey, that’s Donner in the opening scene, driving the car.
  • “I’m not interested in the past.” Foreshadowing maybe?
  • Nice to see that goofball from Empire Records was still able to find work.
  • “Now we wait.”
  • I’ve heard that Crichton got often irritated with how his work was bowdlerized to film. You ever think he ever got really pissed about it? Who knows, but I bet he still cashed the checks.
  • “Please tell me you have a backup plan.” Mantra of the movie.
  • Is it because I’m of French heritage I generally dislike British fiction? Or is it I despise boiling everything before I eat?
  • I knew REDACTED was going to stay behind by Act 2. Hey, it’s a time travel flick. Something always gets left behind.
  • “…Why didn’t you listen to me?”
  • Trebuchets worked. It took weeks but they worked.
  • “It’s me!”
  • “Fire The Moat” would be a great name for some emo band. Who’s with me?
  • Paul Walker, the poor man’s Keanu Reeves. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
  • Postscript: After a hat trick of bleah movies, I’m gonna take some personal time to clear off my palette (that and a I have few days off of work). Mad Max: Fury Road was just unleashed on Netflix so I plan to indulge in all four films for the coming week. Just gimme a bit away from the loose cannon fodder and allow me to watch Mel Gibson and Tom Hardy drive us to the end of love. Deal? Call your mom.

Next Installment…

There is now an entire generation of kids who have no idea what the phrase “Be Kind Rewind” even means. I envy them.

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