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A review of the 2003 movie 'Timeline'

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

David Hoggard turns his acerbic wit on a film that doesn't quite understand time travel

As a kid who was interested in history, raised by a family who worshipped Billy Connolly as a comedic god, it was inevitable that I would see the film Timeline at some stage. I remember being transfixed by the melding of sci fi and medieval derring-do, and relieved at the fact that Billy Connolly was hardly in it and mostly wasn’t trying to be funny. Unfortunately, the critics - and more discerning audiences - disagreed with 7-year-old me, and Timeline currently has an 11% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, sixteen years after it made back just over half its budget and ended the careers of half the execs that worked on it.

It's based on a book of the same title by Michael Crichton, of Jurassic Park fame, and Crichton hated it so much that he refused to let anyone adapt any more of his books as long as he lived. In many ways, then, Timeline is directly responsible for the existence of the Jurassic World movies. But can it be forgiven for its crimes? To find out whether it is guilty or just a guilty pleasure, I watched it again.

The film opens with a man in medieval dress fleeing from a knight on horseback and then disappearing. He re-appears on a road in the desert of New Mexico, immediately has a heart attack, and his body is recovered from the hospital by Gordon, a guy from an obviously shady tech company called ITC. But only after some exposition explaining his heart attack: his body is criss-crossed with misalignments and internal scars, like a dodgy fax. This is all later explained, apart from why the hell he appeared in the desert - someone later asks the guy who invented the time travel tech, and he just shrugs it off. This is annoying. None of this has anything to do with the main plot. This is even more annoying.

It is never explained why they are trying to find out things they already know

It turns out that ITC, under David Thewlis, has invented a quantum supercomputer, but hasn't, like, tried to put it to any practical use - other than teleportation. And even the potential profitability of teleportation is ignored once they find out that they've opened a wormhole to a French village called Castelgard in the Hundred Years' War. For some reason, this is so interesting to knock-off Steve Jobs that he has sent hundreds of ex-Marines back there on various trips (including the guy from the start) in order to find out historical stuff, which they then pass on to a group of archaeologists they're funding in order to help them find out the things ITC already knows. It is never explained why they are doing this - it makes more sense in the book because the tech is different.

Anyway, we then follow that group of archaeologists as they realise that ITC knows more than they do about this site - the Professor (Billy Connolly just before his career entered its Garfield phase) goes to ITC, goes missing, and then one of his archaeologist buddies finds one of his bifocals in a previously undisturbed bit of the site and they all go to ITC in a rage, find out all the wormhole stuff, get 'faxed' through with a bunch of Marines, and try to find Billy Connolly. Because this is a movie, half of them get killed, they all get separated, and the fax machine at ITC gets blown up and they've only got six hours to fix it.

There are some interesting concepts in the film, the best of which is straight from the book: you can only go back in time as a stream of electrons (likened to a fax down a telephone line) which means that for a brief period you literally die before being recreated somehow on the other end. Doing this multiple times leads to 'transcription errors' which are what fucked up the heart of the guy at the start. It's a cool concept.

There are also a lot of really stupid moments.

Firstly, Language. In the book, the archaeologists are given universal translators, but these only translate what they hear, not what they say. In the film, everyone speaks English or French and they try to pass off the one French archaeologist as an 'interpreter'. The French guy is suspected by the English Lord as being a spy (which makes no sense, because the English would have had a lot of French allies at the time) and is asked to translate the phrase "Je suis un espion". Rather than reply "You told me say 'I am a spy', my Lord", like a normal human being, the French guy just says "I am a spy" and is immediately killed. This is regarded as one of the worst bits of the film - but I think it's actually fairly forgivable. The French guy's character is established previously as being a nervous wreck, so I can buy that he's not thinking on his feet. It also brings home the point that even if you know a lot about history, that doesn't mean you're going to hit the ground running when you're sent back there.

'Night arrows' are a famously stupid bit

The other silly bit with language is a scene where one of the archaeologists tries to ask his love interest if she has a boyfriend using various modern idioms, and she doesn't understand him. This makes sense in the book, because he doesn't speak perfect Middle French, but it feels really weird when they both speak modern English.

Secondly, the egregious use of ‘night arrows’. This is another famously stupid bit. In the film, a battle takes place at night (in the book it is during the day) and both sides use fire arrows against each other because it’s a movie and nobody in Hollywood knows what archery is about, until dastardly English lord Michael Sheen gleefully orders his guys to use 'night arrows'. Night arrows are, in case you were wondering, just normal arrows that aren't on fire. This cunning plot takes the French by surprise. The scene gets a lot of hate.

For me, though, I kind of buy that if you're in a battle at night, it's useful to see where your arrows land, so you might as well set fire to them, and that abandoning that advantage might take the other side by surprise. What I can't get behind is the fact that this completely ruins the story. Michael Sheen is only keeping Billy Connolly alive because Billy says he can make Greek Fire. But at this point, pretty much everything flammable in the whole valley is already on fire due to the fire arrows (and the filmmakers have these fire arrows setting a stone wall on fire, so it's pretty clear that both sides already have something that's basically the same as Greek Fire) so why would Sheen be excited at the demonstration of a slightly better form of fire when his entire castle is - not to belabour the point - already on fire? It would have been really simple to have the battle take place in the daytime and have Billy Connolly show him Greek Fire, at which point he has his dastardly moment of getting his archers to fire Greek Fire arrows. Silly.

It's also frustrating that every sensible question about the tech is just brushed away

And finally, the actual time travel makes zero sense. In the book, it isn't actually time travel, it's just a jump between dimensions which are almost the same except running at different times - so the Castelgard universe is 600 years behind ours. This explains David Thewlis' interest in the tech, because he can go to any universe he wants and witness the great events of history without having to worry about the butterfly effect because he isn't actually going back in time. This tech could be genuinely profitable - imagine charging people through the nose for a trip to see the Gettysburg Address, for instance. However, it makes no sense internally, because the only reason the heroes go back to Castelgard to save Billy Connolly is because they find his 600-year-old bifocals and a note in his handwriting, which only makes sense if it's the same universe.

In the film, they fix this by having it genuinely be a fixed wormhole back to Castelgard in 1357, which sounds much less profitable than the quantum superfax they use to actually get there. The way they get around this is by making it seem like history is a fixed path - they find the bifocal lens where it was thrown by a soldier who was following them; a destroyed piece of art which appalled one of the archaeologists is actually destroyed by her; the sarcophagus of a one-eared knight becomes relevant when somebody loses an ear due to the actions of one of the time-travelers. But then they decide to change history, and successfully do so (slightly), so it's really weird.

It's also frustrating that every sensible question about the tech is just brushed away. Why did that guy appear in the desert and not in the time machine? Dunno. How does the universe reconstitute you when you get to Castelgard? Dunno. Why is there a wormhole? Dunno, but everyone assumes that a grenade exploding near it will obviously make it disappear. Why is everything in real time despite there being 600 years in between? Dunno, that bit seems to have been taken straight from Bill and Ted.

By the way, in the book, the “How does the universe reconstitute you?” question is explained by David Thewlis’ character. Apparently, the character’s we’ve been following literally died when they tried to go back in time, and the people we’re following in the past are from another present-universe which has already figured out how to reconstitute people in the past. It’s a hilariously dark turn and, as well as making no sense, it has no repercussions whatsoever.

The last piece of time-travel nonsense is the field markers. These are little necklaces that you can use to get back, and they have 6 hours charge (36 in the book, hence the battle taking place on the second day rather than at about 9pm). It's explained repeatedly that they only work if you have 40 feet of open space around you, but this doesn't stop people trying to use them: surrounded by trees (this one successfully!); next to a building; next to a cart; in a doorway; in the middle of a battlefield while being charged at by a knight; etc. etc. etc. Each time this fails, they assume that something's gone wrong (which it has, but they have no way of knowing that) rather than that they're not fucking using it properly.

But other than these things, it’s a perfectly serviceable adventure film of the sort where every character has precisely one trait, a woman changes her mind about whether a guy is a dick because he engages in six hours of running, and the climax is just a big explosion. And if you look at the successful careers of film-makers who have made even worse dreck, it’s hard not to feel that the people who lost their jobs were a bit hard done by. Timeline is a guilty pleasure whose main offence is not being anywhere near as good as it could have been. All in all, it’s one of the better time-travel movies in existence - apart from the time-travel element.

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