Timeline (2003)

(On TV, September 2016) I’m mildly surprised that it took me thirteen years to get to Timeline. After all, it’s a science-fiction film, it’s based on a Michael Crichton novel … and it’s not as if I’ve gone out of my way to avoid either watch SF or reading Crichton. But the reviews at the time were bad, and I must have been focusing on something else (yeah, I now see it came out in November 2003—I was obsessively writing a novel that month) because here we are, watching it for the first time in 2016. Much to my surprise, Timeline isn’t as bad as the reviews then suggested. It is, in science-fiction terms, irremediably basic: the time-travelling mechanics are arbitrary, the treatment of temporal paradoxes is entry-level (with an air of astonishment betraying the author’s deliberate lack of SF sophistication) and the plot lines can be seen converging long in advance. And yet, it does offer a mildly satisfying package, a bit of a window into history (as inaccurate as Hollywood history can be) and a conclusion that ties everything together. Gerard Butler takes centre stage as a romantic scholar more at ease in the Middle Ages than in modern times, with notable performances by Paul Walker, Billy Connolly (as a scientist!) and Anna Friel. Veteran director Richard Donner isn’t particularly daring in his choices, but he keeps things running until the end. As far as the relationship between the film and the Crichton adaptation goes, the Hollywood version simplifies things remarkably, gets rid of troublesome ambiguities and notably loses the power of the opening chapter despite re-creating it almost verbatim. For seasoned science-fiction fans, Timeline’s use of time-travelling plot devices may be less interesting than seeing modern characters rediscovering medieval times, and witnessing an assault on a castle. While Timeline isn’t a great film (already, it feels half-forgotten), it’s decent enough to be worth a look through the end.

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