My Netflix queue contains over a hundred items. As a result, it’s often the case that by the time a movie appears in my mailbox, I’ve completely forgotten why I wanted to watch it in the first place, or even what it’s about.

This was definitely the case for Timeline. I can’t think why I would have put it in the queue; I’m not a big fan of anything mediaeval, I’m not wild about director Richard Donner‘s previous movies, and Michael Crichton has written some pretty cheesy SF.

I certainly didn’t pick it based on reviews. The movie got a complete critical savaging; you’d think it was Battlefield Earth 2 from some of the comments:

“No film in recent memory has cried out this much to be mocked.”

“Timeline may not be the dumbest movie to be released this year. But it’s certainly not for lack of trying.”

I find it interesting that there’s a massive disparity between the critics’ reviews, and the average rating given to the movie by ordinary people. I think the critics are way out of line on this one. If you want to see a really excruciatingly bad SF movie, one that’s so wildly implausible it makes Timeline look like an episode of Scientific American Frontiers, consider The Core. That stinking piece of cinematic excrement got way better reviews from the pro critics than Timeline, which tells me that there’s something seriously wrong with the critics’ sense of judgement.

[Spoilers follow, if a movie as badly reviewed as this can be spoiled.]

There’s one criticism that leaps out as wildly inappropriate:

“It looks like cheesy ’60s television, with paper-thin characters and crummy special effects that wouldn’t even have made it in the last season of Star Trek.”


Since I’ve had the benefit of watching the documentary extras on the DVD, I can reveal that there really weren’t any special effects in the movie. They got the special effect of medieval trebuchets launching projectiles by actually building a bunch of full-size trebuchets and having them launch flaming projectiles. They got that unconvincing effect of a castle blowing up by actually building a full-size castle and blowing it up. The people fighting in a burning smoke-filled courtyard? Well, they set the courtyard on fire, then had a bunch of people fight. The metal swords? Yes, they were made of aluminium, but they were still actual metal swords. And so on.

Make no mistake, there are a lot of grounds for criticizing this movie; but physical verisimilitude isn’t one of them. Still, let’s get a few of the valid criticisms out of the way.

First the plot. It’s easy to say that the foreshadowing is heavy-handed and the outcome predictable, so let’s put some numbers to it: I worked out the major plot twist and knew the basic outline of what was going to happen 12 minutes into the movie. (I jotted a note of the time.) Really, as far as the story goes there’s nothing you haven’t seen in dozens of episodes of Star Trek—right down to the two red-shirted security officers who get killed almost immediately, and the anachronistic object found on an archeological dig. (At least this time it’s not someone’s head.)

Then there’s the medicine. My history teacher (yes, the one who’s now in jail) always used to say that if you did travel back in time, the first thing you’d notice would be the stench. Yet somehow, disease is never a factor in this story—the peasants all look clean and healthy, and today’s bacteria and viruses, with their 600 years of evolutionary head start, fail to impact the people of the past in any way.

Then there’s the language issue. The heroes take back a French guy to help them talk to the locals. The trouble is, we’re heading to the 1300s, when English looked like this:

Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan,
Than may be yeve of any erthely man.
And therfore positif lawe and swich decree
Is broken al day for love in ech degree.
A man moot nedes love, maugree his heed,
He may nat fleen it, thogh he sholde be deed,
Al be she mayde, or wydwe, or elles wyf.
And eek it is nat likly, al thy lyf,
To stonden in hir grace, namoore shal I,
For wel thou woost thyselven, verraily,
That thou and I be dampned to prisoun
Perpetuelly, us gayneth no raunsoun.

I’ll let you extrapolate to French. Maybe you can piece together what most of the above is saying—but speak it? With passably correct pronounciation, good enough to fool knights on the lookout for foreign spies? I don’t think so. Yet nobody in this movie, whether English, French, Scottish or (god help us) American, has any significant trouble understanding anyone else’s accent or vocabulary. Which is a pity, because the situation could have been so much more tense and menacing if they had. I mean, why use authentic medieval costumes of sackcloth and leather, and get genuine heraldry from England, if you’re going to have medieval French people speak modern English with a modern French accent?

Finally, there’s the essential countdown to doom caused by technological limitation. You’ve seen it in countless Bond movies (and movies based on Michael Crichton stories), but let’s overlook the cliché. Instead, let’s think about the fact that a team of half a dozen engineers somehow manage to rebuild a destroyed multi-million dollar computer-controlled time machine, one which it took years of research to construct. And they do it in under 5 hours. In reality, they’d still be installing Windows XP Service Packs by the time everyone got permanently stranded in the past.

Then there’s the acting. Yes, some of it is pretty bad, but what do you expect? It’s a Hollywood action movie. Trying to believe that Paul Walker is Billy Connolly’s son is like trying to believe that Keanu Reeves is the spawn of Sean Connery, but we can probably write off that lousy piece of casting as a market-driven attempt to appeal to the teen and early 20s audience who liked 2 Fast 2 Furious.

More troubling is the complete inability of the cast to make us believe they have a convincing enough motivation to step into an experimental time machine and go through a wormhole in space that they’ve been warned will rip them into electrons so that for a moment they won’t even exist. In the documentary, Richard Donner mentions that in Crichton’s book the technological detail and the characters arguing over what to do ran to around 100 pages, but that they managed to condense it down to 5 pages of movie script. Well, yes, I guess technically all the essential plot points were left intact, but…

Enough negativity! Because if you can somehow look past all that, it’s really not that bad a movie. The medieval detail is well done, and there’s something about real buildings and tunnels and mud and thatch, something about real explosions and smoke, that computer graphics still can’t duplicate. The pacing is evenly fast, so you don’t get bored, and there are some satisfying moments.

So in summary: it’s some painstaking attention to detail that really belonged in a better movie. Sadly, it was stuck into this overgrown B-movie instead. It’s an enjoyable but mindless couple of hours, basically a mid-point between The Messenger and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And I promise you, it’s better than The Core.