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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/13/04

Widescreen - 2003 (2004) - Paramount

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Timeline (Widescreen) Film Rating: C

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/C+

Specs and Features

115 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, keep case packaging (with locking clips), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), Journey Through Timeline documentary, The Textures of Timeline featurette, 2 theatrical trailers, preview trailers, alternate menu design Easter egg, animated program-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0) and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

There's no real mystery why Hollywood loves Michael Crichton. Crichton is, after all, a Brand Name Author. Like fellow Brand Name Authors like Tom Clancy and John Grisham, Crichton's name on the book cover suggests a certain type of book with a certain type of built-in audience. So why is it that Hollywood has such a difficult time getting his books right on screen?

Directed by action vet Richard Donner and based on Crichton's most recent bestseller, Timeline has a typically Crichton-esque set-up. While on an archeological dig in France, Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) heads back to the States for a meeting with the team's mysterious financial benefactors. Seems they've been dropping him clues about where to dig in addition to money and Johnston's become a wee bit suspicious. A couple of days later, the team discovers part of the professor's eyeglasses and an ancient note in his handwriting with the frightening message, "Help Me". All this in a room that supposedly no one has entered in over 600 years. The key members of the team and the professor's dilettante son Chris (eternally fast and furious Paul Walker) head to New Mexico themselves to track him down.

It turns out the corporation funding the dig had been working on a 3-D fax machine (or, as they're usually called in movies like this, teleportation machines). It didn't quite work the way they thought it would. Instead of sending a package from coast to coast, they opened a wormhole that sent it back to 16th Century France. Why France instead of New Mexico? Um... well, hopefully you'll like the movie enough to read the book afterwards if you really want to know. Anyhoo, Chris and the team fax themselves back to France in an attempt to rescue the professor. Naturally, things do not go smoothly.

On page, Timeline isn't a bad little page-turner, especially if you're sitting in an airport or waiting for a train. On screen, it's Jurassic Park meets Army of Darkness if you took the Necronomicon and all the other supernatural stuff out of Sam Raimi's movie. And that's not exactly a good thing. Michael Crichton's novels are compelling because of the copious amounts of research and detail that are put into them. This runs contrary to Hollywood thinking which would suggest that they're successful in spite of all that. The novel Jurassic Park is fascinating because of all the details about dinosaurs and cloning. Rising Sun works because of Crichton's dissection of the differences between Japanese and American economic models. And Timeline works because Crichton devotes page after page to an understandable and compelling look at nanotechnology. If you take these details out, all of his books are pretty much the same.

In Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Jurassic Park, you didn't necessarily miss all the scientific minutiae because you were seeing something on screen you hadn't before. Namely, the most realistic dinosaur effects to date. In Donner's Timeline, you have seen all this before. Knights and medieval battles have been a staple of movies since before they had sound. Neither Crichton's novel nor Donner's film does anything new with the genre. The movie also feels curiously old-fashioned. If it had come out in 1985 or so, it might have been a perfectly entertaining summer blockbuster. And it certainly could have. There's nothing here that Donner wasn't already doing back then in Ladyhawke. But today, it feels stodgy and predictable. Even the time travel effect isn't really much of an effect. We've seen plenty of time travel movies too and let's face it. A big circle of mirrored walls isn't nearly as cool as a DeLorean. The cast is essentially a capable bunch of semi-familiar faces, if not household names. David Thewlis is amusing as the evil CEO responsible for the technology. But Paul Walker's Chris is basically in the background for much of the picture. Not given much to do, it's easy to forget how unlikely it is that this very So-Cal actor is supposed to be the son of the ultra-Scottish Connolly. But while everyone else is given a moment to shine, Walker just tries to keep up, shouting pearls of wisdom like, "We've gotta go now!"

Fortunately, Paramount's DVD presents Timeline in the best possible light. Picture quality is excellent, as well it should be for a movie that just came out last November. I detected no edge enhancement or other distractions here. The sound is also very good, with horses thundering and arrows whooshing every which way. The LFE channel is given a workout repeatedly but it never threatens to overwhelm dialogue or more discreet effects.

Timeline is one of those discs that falls somewhere in between a full-fledged special edition and a barebones movie-only DVD. There isn't a lot on here but I enjoyed what there was. The major bonus is a well-produced making-of documentary entitled Journey Through Timeline, divided into three separately accessible featurettes. Unlike a lot of making-ofs on discs like this, Journey Through Timeline does more than simply interview Donner and the cast about how much they loved Crichton's novel and what a huge legend Richard Donner is. Here, we actually get involved in some of the specific details involved with filming some of Timeline's most complex sequences. We're also treated to interviews with a number of crew members we don't usually hear from in such pieces, including the script supervisor and the first assistant director. The Textures of Timeline takes a closer look at the film's costumes, production design, visual effects and score. While Timeline isn't a particularly great film, the documentaries give a solid look at what it takes to make a film of this size and scope.

In the final analysis, Timeline is a bit of a misfire and continues Crichton's generally underwhelming cinematic track record. It's better than Philip Kaufman's version of Rising Sun and leagues better than the abominable 13th Warrior. But it's certainly not at the level of Spielberg's Jurassic Park, which itself wasn't as good as Crichton's original novel. It's probably not possible to do justice to all of the details of Crichton's books in a two-hour movie. If one could be adapted for television while keeping the same level of spectacle and grandeur we've come to expect from Hollywood's big-screen adaptations, we might come close to the definitive treatment of Michael Crichton on film.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

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