Based on a novel by Michael Crichton. From the Producer of "X-Men" and "X-Men 2." Directed by Richard Donner of "Superman" and "Lethal Weapon" fame. Featuring the star of "The Fast and The Furious." The pedigree of the production alone should have hit "Timeline" out of the ballpark. Instead, it’s a bunt to first base – safe but unimpressive. Come to think of it, Paramount Home Video’s recent DVD release follows suit.
Plot wise, the film adheres closely to the novel: five archaeologists are sent back to 1357 France to rescue a colleague, while keeping clear of the catapults and battleaxes of the Hundred Years War between the English and the French. While other Crichton novels translated well to film, this one had a LOT of technical jargon as well as a central concept – the clash of technology and culture – that isn’t as sexy as replicated dinosaurs. Unfortunately, in the interests of telescoping the techno-babble and playing up the medieval swordplay, the filmmakers lost what made Crichton’s novel so much fun – the culture shock of six centuries of progress. As a result, we speed through the time travel explanations and the cardboard characters are just plopped into the Middle Ages where everyone speaks understandable English and French. Anyone who’s studied Chaucer or Rabelais knows the English and French languages of the 14th century are not the same as their modern counterparts. (The book addresses this issue.)
Even those anachronistic elements aside, the film lacks…something. The conflicts are compelling, the characters are likable and the film’s look has the right feel (though nowhere near Jean Jacques-Annaud’s "The Name of the Rose," the standard bearer to this day of Medieval movies), but somehow all these elements don’t gel properly. Donner is a director I greatly admire but here it feels like the material and the elements got away from him. At the end, what should feel like a trip through medieval Hell seems more like a really swinging party at Medieval Times.
The 2.35 anamorphic transfer is gorgeous with rich, deep colors and superb detail. Deep, pure blacks, excellent contrast levels and a pristine source print contribute to a well defined, sharp image, even during the considerable night scenes. Grain is completely absent and there are no compression or digital artifacts, impressive since smoke and fog permeates many shots. Given the film was photographed by the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, anything less than a perfect transfer would have been a shame. (However, Paramount did a release a full-frame DVD. That’s all I’ll say.)
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is a well-mixed soundtrack with an aggressive but not overpowering sound field presence. Dialogue is clean and well defined, even amidst the clanking, swooshing swords. Discrete rear channel sound effects aren’t numerous but they aren’t gimmicky either, the best moment with the hailstorms of arrows flying overhead. LFE enhancement is present, but not overused, primarily beefing up horse gallops, explosions and ominous music cues. A standard matrix surround track is available, along with a French 5.1 audio option.
The extras start with a feature that I stumbled on by accident; you can toggle between a 2003 main menu and a 1357 main menu. I’ll let fans fend for themselves here (hint: always take the middle road!). The main supplement is a forty-five minute video documentary entitled "Journey Through ‘Timeline’." Produced by Jonathan Gaines, who produced the excellent documentaries for the "Superman" DVD, the video diary is broken up into three parts – "Setting Time," "The Nights of La Roque," and "Making Their Own History" – and tackles the location shoot in Quebec. Without narration but with plenty of on-site sound bites with stars and crew, it’s a "fly-on-the-wall" look at the production. We see Donner alternately playful, serious, consternated and dogged to a fault. Specific scenes are broken down according to planning, prep and execution. It’s light years better than those abysmal "HBO: First Look" fluff pieces and in many ways, I found the drama of the filming the movie more compelling than the product itself. Another nice touch is that the video is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
"The Textures of ‘Timeline’" runs about twenty minutes, also presented in anamorphic widescreen and covers the research and replication of the period through armory, costumes visual effects and stunt work. A brief look at the scoring ends the segment. Curiously, there is no commentary track. Not that I regularly expect one, but Donner is no stranger to commentaries and this might have been an opportunity to address some of the film’s "challenges."
Two theatrical trailers are offered, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 audio, as well as trailers (also in plain-Jane letterbox) of such upcoming theatrical features as "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and "The Stepford Wives." At least you go past them if desired.
As far as Michael Crichton novel to film adaptations go, "Timeline" falls a little short. Since the extras are easy to digest so that it could be all viewed in one evening, this would make for a perfect rental.