As the name implies, Timeline is a generic time travel film from 2003 starring Gerard Butler, Frances O’Connor, and the late Paul Walker as a group of archeologists excavating the ruins of a castle in the aptly named location of Castlegard, France. “Timeline” is also a pretty good name for this movie, as the story is surprisingly linear for its concept, and also quite long and drawn out.
At the beginning, a man is shown fleeing from a medieval knight, but then he vanishes and reappears on a desert road in modern times. A car stops just short of running him over, and the driver carts him off to the hospital. The doctors examine him to find out that all his organs are slightly out of alignment, and he’s wearing a strange necklace with the words ITC Corp on it. An ITC employee then shows up to the hospital to recover the body and cover up the incident.
Cut to Castlegard, where archeology students listen to their professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) describe the history of their current location and its famous battle of La Roque Castle, telling it in a way that makes it obvious this is all foreshadowing. The story goes that the village was burned by the English and the castle taken over. The French then rallied to take back the castle, to which the English responded by hanging a French captive, Lady Claire, in the hopes that it would demoralize the French. But instead, it only fueled their desire to win, and the French ran the English out of the castle. The lecture ends and everyone goes about their business excavating the ruins of the village.
Also among the group is the professor’s son Chris (Paul Walker), and we of course never get an explanation for why the professor has a Scottish accent while Chris sounds like a California surfer. At the start, Chris seems resistant to the idea of becoming an archeologist like the old man. He and his friend Marek (Gerard Butler) examine a sarcophagus that shows the image of a man and woman holding hands, with the man missing an ear. They ponder the meaning of the sculpture (more foreshadowing, of course), and talk about archeology in general until Chris finally admits that he truly is interested in it. Well, that’s heartwarming.
The next day, the professor flies off to ITC headquarters, which turns out to be the company that sponsored the dig. Shortly after the professor leaves, they happen upon an underground chamber, and Marek and Chris’ would-be love interest Kate (Frances O’Connor) descend into the newly exposed chamber. The time travel shenanigans begin as they discover a 600 year old parchment that contains a plea for help from the professor. Everybody freaks out and then they all rush to ITC headquarters to demand answers.
ITC breaks the news that they accidentally discovered time travel, and the professor is now trapped in 14th Century France. If they want to get him back they’ll need to be good test subjects—err, volunteers, and go on a fun and quick trip back in time! Being the shady organization they are, the ITC members neglect to mention the significant chance of having their insides scrambled upon their return. They each get special pendants, along with vague instructions on how to use them to get home, and the kids and a couple of ITC Redshirts are sent on their way into the past.
They’re transported to 14th Century France, where they’re immediately attacked by English soldiers. One guy gets hit by arrows and uses his pendant to return to the present, which in one way or another breaks the time machine, and now the gang back in the 14th Century are on their own.
After running away from soldiers for a while, Marek rescues a French girl (Anna Friel) from the English. That’s when they realize that, to no one’s surprise, they happen to have arrived on the day the village was burned down, and the French girl is actually Lady Claire, who was originally supposed to be executed by the English before our group of meddling time travelers intervened.
Eventually, they’re caught and taken to Lord Oliver d’Vannes (Michael Sheen) who also happens to be holding the professor captive. It seems the professor has, completely out of nowhere, decided to trade the secret of Greek fire for his life. This means the old man has been holding out on one of the most sought after technological advancements in history, which is absurd any way you look at it. Then again, this is a time travel move, so maybe scrutinizing silliness is not the right approach.
As you’d expect, the crew find themselves re-enacting the same battles they learned about at the start of the film. There’s lots of running through the forest, arrows flying, and flaming catapults, as our main characters screw with the natural progression of historical events, killing tons of English soldiers without batting an eye. And even under the threat of being beheaded by a knight, love still blooms, as Marek becomes smitten with Lady Claire. Meanwhile, Chris uses this whole time travel thing as a way to hook up with Kate.
Eventually, they have to use their advanced expertise to get everyone home safely; Chris even rallies the team with “we’ve got 650 years of knowledge on these guys!”—as if knowing how to drive a car and use a cellphone would give this lunkhead any advantage. They join the battle alongside the French, all the while causing, presumably, numerous time paradoxes by blatantly messing with history. Or not. Timeline doesn’t really concern itself with such trivia.
Back in the present, there’s a subplot where the ITC executives try to get the time machine working again, leading to lots of internal conflict between them. This all leads up to a moment where one exec (sorry, I never bothered to learn their names) knocks out another exec which oddly turns out to be the end of that story.
Oh, and towards the end, one ITC guy accidentally gets sent back in time and is immediately beheaded by a knight, which kind of makes me think he was supposed to be the villain, but I honestly have no clue. All of the ITC guys were pretty unlikeable from the start, so I don’t see how we were supposed to single out one of them as being especially deserving of a gruesome end.
Naturally, the film ends with Marek getting his ear sliced off in battle, and instead of collapsing in pain, he’s overjoyed to realize that he’s destined to be the guy on the sarcophagus holding hands with Lady Claire. Marek tells the others he’s decided to stay in the past, and the rest of the group basically goes, “Cool, see ya!” and quickly runs off without a second thought to make their way back to the present.
As it stands, Timeline is a bland time travel movie with a few decent actors who put on funny Scottish accents. It doesn’t really hold any historical value to those interested, as the story of La Roque is fictional, and the random fact that the professor knows how to create supposedly authentic Greek fire almost seems like a joke. Also, the question of why the time machine can only take them specifically to Castlegard, France in the 14th Century is brought up frequently, but never answered. It seems the characters themselves just stop caring.
The actual act of time travel is mostly incidental to the story, and merely seems like a half-baked reason to get the cast into the 14th Century. Why not just make a movie about French villagers in the 1300s? It would be the same movie, just minus about forty extra minutes. Admittedly, the time travel aspect does add some slight (very slight) twists to the film, but mostly seems superfluous.
Timeline had a relatively decent budget, but the whole film looks cheap. The period costumes verge on Monty Python-esque, and the time machine itself appears to be just a set of rotating mirrors inside of a wind tunnel. The medieval battles don’t seem so bad, until you remember this movie came out at the same time as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, making it look like a bad RenFaire reenactment by comparison.
As of this writing, this movie and 16 Blocks were the last films from Superman and Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner, who seems to have completely phoned it in here. The whole thing feels rushed, and by all accounts it tosses out everything readers liked about the original Michael Chrichton novel (and this may be one of the few instances where you’re better off playing the game). This isn’t a movie that ranks very highly in any aspect, and there’s almost no reason to choose it over the myriad other time travel adventure movies out there, save for morbid curiosity.