starring Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler and Billy Connolly,
written by Jeff Maguire and George Nolft
directed by Richard Donner
This is based on the novel by the same title by Michael Crichton. Michael Crichton is always fun and easy to read, and he has a knack for presenting lots of highly technical, often esoteric scientific information very concisely and in an easy-to-digest form for the general reader. In my opinion, Timeline was not one of his best books, however, and subsequently the film made from it is less than exemplar as well. The premise, however, is intriguing and excellent. Time travel, explored with great wit and comic effect in the three Back to the Future films with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. It was also explored in the recent film re-adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
Archaeologists working in France are being financed by a high technology American company. This company is trying to invent a way of faxing 3-dimensional objects through space. Sort of like the particle beam from the old Star Trek TV show and subsequent movies: “Beam me up, Scottie!” They fail to beam things from point A to point B, but they accidentally discover a wormhole that goes back in time to a French site in the year 1347 - the same site being explored by the archaeologist they are funding. It is a fantastic and fun premise.
One things leads to another and the lead archaeologist accidentally gets beamed back to the fourteenth century. 600 years later his students dig up his glasses from a 600-year-old site only two days after he left on a business trip back to the States. It’s a mystery. They track the professor down and follow him back in time on a rescue mission. But no one properly estimates the dangers and they almost don’t make it back. Some do not, and one of their friends has to be left behind, permanently.
Apart from some weak performances by the cast my main complaint is the cultural chauvinism demonstrated in the film (more than in the novel). My objection on this point constitutes the main reason why I chose to write about an otherwise mediocre film. When the team sent back in time to rescue the lead archaeologist begins to encounter trouble - capture by English troops in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War - one of them rather facetiously tries to psych up his colleagues by saying, “I figure we’ve got a 600-year advantage over these people. We should be able to think of something.” Here is the trouble in a nutshell. It exposes the hubris of moderns in thinking that we are any more intelligent than people in the past - recent or ancient. This is a blatantly false idea. It is well documented that we are no more intelligent than people of ancient times. Not one bit. Our technology is superior and would seem like magic to them at first, but it certainly would not be beyond their comprehension. Our modern intellectual power is exactly the same as that of the people who built the pyramids, or Stonehenge. I expect that is a humble lesson for many modern people to learn.
Apart from that, there is one other glaring historical error - about language. Geoffrey Chaucer was alive in the fourteenth century and died around 1400. It was he who, in his writing, laid the foundations for modern English. Before him the language of the English would have been incomprehensible. The same with French. Fourteenth century French would be incomprehensible to modern French, and vice versa. I remember in the novel Michael Crichton made allowances for the language gap, but typical of Hollywood the film-makers have the English speaking modern English and the French modern French. I don’t blame them too much, because this is entertainment, after all, not a documentary. But, sadly, it creates a very wrong impression among the audience - an audience prone to absorb information visually and aurally more than through reading.