After watching the film Timeline a few nights ago, I had to stop and wonder why it was such an extraordinarily bland movie. Many of the elements of a catchy blockbuster were there: a big time director (Richard Donner, of Superman and Lethal Weapon); it was based on a bestseller whose author has a pedigree of hits (Michael Critchton, of Jurassic Park, Sphere, Great Train Robbery, Andromeda Strain, ER fame); science-fiction style time travel; medieval heroic action; and a lot of very attractive people running around looking, er … attractive. Throw in the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly for a dash of levity, and you have yourself a sure-fire hit, right?
Unfortunately, there is no real recipe for box-office success, although the Hollywood movie mills do try their best to grind out variations on time-honoured formulae. However, I was quite expecting to like this film, and perhaps that’s why it was all the more disappointing. You see, I have a dirty little secret: I have actually read a number of Crichton books, and have even enjoyed a few of them. While I was quite bored with a lot of the “running around in dark passageways” type of action in the Timeline novel, I did quite enjoy the pseudo-lessons in quantum physics and medieval history, and they provided the framework to make the rest of the book, well… tolerable. So much of the imagery, I noted, could work so much better in film than in the book (at least, given the skill and approach of its author, or lack thereof). And the plot and characters were just dimensional enough to work within the two-hour confines of cinema. Top that off with the fact that I am a closet medievalist, and I hoping for a nice little historic treat.
First, a bit of background. The novel surrounds a group of archeologists who are excavating a series of 14th-century ruins in France. When the professor leading the project disappears during a visit to their funders, and his students dig up his 650-year-old plea for help, they realise something strange is going on. Soon they are called into the funding super-scientific organisation where they will essentially be “faxed” to a parallel universe where the time is around 1350, and where the professor has disappeared during a visit. Well, a head gets lopped off, the courageous students get separated, there’s a bit of jousting and swordplay, a medieval French babe joins the mix, some bad guys threaten our vigilant heroes, and eventually everything comes to a head when the group seeks to reunite and jump back (er, forward) in time, where the laboratory folks are having their own problems. Notice how nothing really imaginative happens here? Yes, it is a formula, but one that works quite well for Crichton: throw some science at the reader, make something that’s impossible seem somewhat plausable (remember Jurassic Park?), and then begin a good ole’ fashioned life-and-death romp through this playland where lots of cardboard characters and evilly-inclined heavies lose their lives. Toss in a token good-guy sacrifice or two near the end, and we have a winner. Indeed, Timeline is but one in a long line of bestsellers for Crichton, many of which bear more than a passing plot ressemblance to each other.
What made the book intriguing for me were the little scientific and historical touches. For example, since one of my interests has been medieval language and literature, I quite enjoyed the fact that modern-day characters had such a hard time interacting with these dead languages. (In my mind, I often used to “speak” these languages to myself, rolling the delicious vocabulary around my tongue and paying attention to the subtleties of meaning and the musicality permeating them.) As each phrase appeared in the book, I sounded out the words phonetically to understand them before the characters could figure out what was meant; it became a bit of an amusing game for me. Now, I warrant that few of Crichton’s readers could enjoy this as much as I did, but I’m sure that what they did understand was that communication across the many centuries created a barrier, one that made the situation far more precarious, far more real. However, when the film’s heroes meet the medieval characters, everything is perfectly understandable. Even the French characters seem to speak perfect 21st-century English. It would have been so woefully easy for Donner (along with a few under-funded scholars) to set up a believable language barrier, one that could be overcome in the course of the film, and build both believability and characterisation at the same time.
And this is rather symptomatic of most of the issues in the movie. The film takes a reductionist approach, which of course is actually a necessity for most movies, since we can’t expect a few dozen hours of reading material to be sufficiently distilled to 120 minutes and include everything of interest. However, any reduction of plot or character should be balanced by other aspects of the film. By eliminating third-string characters, we should see more characterisation of the central ones. By eliminating subplots, we should see a well-developed main plot. However, this movie reduces the main characters –which were unique enough in the novel– into pure stereotypes, and the plot into a loose and unstructured mess. To illustrate, we have a handsome hero with minor foibles, a beautiful and strong-minded love interest that isn’t interested in him at the outset (and who spends far too much time being shocked or worried), a dashing swashbuckler type that falls for a woman he should not have, a professor that is both booksmart and barely effectual, a military guy that barks orders, a bad guy who kills with no sense of morality or even flair, and so on… the characters and plot were so predictable that even if I had not read the book, I could have guessed the whole film from start to finish, and perhaps even have acted it out with a set of Barbies, Kens, and GI Joes. (Which would at least have made the film more original, if not better-acted.)
While the film did have a few interesting moments, such as the siege battle near the end, I found it almost completely devoid of inspiration. Take out the historical and scientific framework that Crichton tried so hard to set up (no doubt he knew how weak the plot and settings would be without it), and you have a film so ridden with cliches and two-dimensional characters that it feels less like a failure to bring an epic-style story to life, and more like an embarassment. Donner should know better: his Lethal Action characters were interesting, unpredictable, and inherently likable, and his Superman turned cartoon characters into real people we could care about. In the hands of someone who cared more about the characters and storytelling, Timeline would at least be as good as Crichton’s book, and perhaps far better.