Cynics mutter that Master and Commander sullies Patrick O’Brian’s source by changing the flags of the menacing Acheron from Stars and Stripes to Tricolore, and transposing the action from the War of 1812 to 1805—a savvy move in this post-freedom-fries era of ally-cosseting. In Richard Donner’s 1999 Timeline, based on Michael Crichton’s century-hopping novel, an expert from the company responsible for chrono-displacement technology instructs a rescue team, “Nothing modern goes back.” This mantra seems to cover politics as well: The main scenario, set in 1357, has heroic French forces rally to evict from their soil an interloping army from across the channel.
C’est la “B”! Timeline is crudely written, haphazardly acted, and improbably fun. When archaeologists poking around the ruins of Castlegard, France, turn up a series of discoveries too good to be true, chief bone-duster Johnston (Billy Connolly) goes to confront the dig’s funders, the mysterious ITC (headed by an ostensibly American David Thewlis). When Johnston’s team discovers a note from him written in 14th-century ink, they get suspicious, and learn that ITC’s prototype 3-D fax machine has been erroneously propelling things back to battle-torn Castlegard, circa 1357, as the battle thickens. (ITC’s machine draws on supercomplicated wormhole technology, as evidenced by the formula x3 = y3 on a dry-erase board.) Soon Johnston’s cohorts, led by son Chris (not that fast, not that furious Paul Walker), strap themselves in for a blast to the past (maximum length: six hours), their mouths contorting like those of the folks in the trailer for that new Epcot ride. Plenty of chases and dungeon breaks await, and the 14th seems an extremely flammable century—things seem to catch on fire every few minutes.
There is indeed something appropriately timeless about Timeline—you already feel like you’ve seen much of it on cable. But the film is eager to please, as in the way it cheekily amps the suspense with periodic outbursts of specific time cues (“Twenty-eight minutes—can we do it?”) that prove less than reliable.