The most exciting part of "Timeline," Richard Donner's dud of a time-warp adventure, is the big, blazing balls of death hurled from the trebuchets, catapults used by medieval armies to hurl flaming orbs and the occasional poor soul at the enemy. No one gets catapulted during the climatic siege in "Timeline," about travelers who leap from the 21st century back into a 14th century French battle. But not long after the movie opens, the desire to see this collection of cliches and cardboard go hurtling through space becomes an irresistible itch.
Based on a book by Michael Crichton, and credited to screenwriters Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi, the story lumbers to a start after archeologist Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) hitches a ride on a time machine. Built by the professor's sponsor, Robert Doniger (David Thewlis), the usual Bill Gates clone in glasses and beige sweater running the usual ominous tech firm, the machine has zapped Johnston back into the past. Imprisoned in the very era -- nay, in the very same castle -- he was excavating some six centuries later, Johnston leaves an SOS for his crack team back in the present. One thing leads to another and soon these modern-day hotties -- among them Paul Walker as the archeologist's son, and Gerard Butler and a miscast Frances O'Connor as a couple of cheeky dirt diggers -- are on a medieval mission impossible.
Directed with a level of technical proficiency that's to be expected with this kind of studio effort, "Timeline" looks like a real-enough movie and features a handful of credible British actors to class it up. Donner, best known for the "Lethal Weapon" blowouts, doesn't have a visual signature beyond the big and the glossy, but he keeps things moving.
To his credit, the director seems to have realized that the roguishly appealing Butler, a Scot who shares Mel Gibson's bouncy mischievousness, holds the screen better than Walker, whose wooden sincerity recalls the early Keanu Reeves, albeit without the offbeat charm. Donner gives Butler plenty of screen time and tries to pump up the action, but since he can't fill a frame with clashing hordes as persuasively as, say "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, the battles look simultaneously chaotic and undermanned.
Donner's most calamitous mistake, however, was forgetting to light the screenplay on fire and catapult it from the nearest trebuchet. By turns risibly puerile and purely risible, the screenplay groans under the weight of its multiple platitudes (although Maguire and Nolfi do provide a frisson of exoticism when some characters begin speaking French, provoking the unexpected and rather surreal introduction of subtitles into a Richard Donner movie).
When characters are not over-stating the obvious ("You're alive!"), they spend a great deal of time repeating the same pallid plot points, a tic that reinforces, rather than relieves, the overwhelming fatuity. Something along the lines of, "So, what you're saying is that if we go back in time, we may die ..." "Yes, what I'm saying is that if we go back in time, we may die ..."
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense battle scenes and brief language
Times guidelines: Death by swords and arrows, and some mild adult language
Gerard Butler...Andre Marek
Billy Connolly...Professor Johnston
Anna Friel...Lady Claire
Paramount Pictures, Mutual Film Co. and Cobalt Media Group present a Donners' Co./Artists Production Group production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Richard Donner. Writers Jeff Maguire, George Nolfi. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel. Editor Richard Marks. Costume designer Jenny Beavan. Music Brian Tyler. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
In general release.