In "Timeline," an international group of archeologists travel from their 21st-century perches back to the France of the less civilized 1300s. There is action. There is history. There is science. There is love. There is the awful feeling that you've wandered into a mid-budget Discovery Channel production of a medieval role-playing reenactment in a land before cable.
Adapted from yet another Michael Crichton bestseller, the film begins with a mystery: Who is that sweaty gentleman running for his life? It's unclear, but his death prompts someone to worry aloud that "If this gets out, ITC is finished." In a nod to the movie's shaky sense of imagination, originality, and style, ITC stands for International Technology Company, and is run by a pair of concerned gentlemen (David Thewlis and Matt Craven), who are a kind of synthetic blend of corporate goon and science geek.
The company has invented a tele-transportation machine that is meant to revolutionize the shipping industry but instead winds up uncorking a wormhole that leads straight to the 14th century, where the French are engaged in feudal warfare with the English. We know this to be true because archeology professor and Scotsman Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) has traveled back to that era, where the ruins of the castle he and his students have been excavating become the setting for his stint as an imperiled hostage.
The goon-geeks determine that Professor Johnston must be rescued not by scientists, but by "cultural specialists," which means that a team of the professor's disciples must join a crew of military commandos. Our specialists include Andre Marek (Gerard Butler), another Scot, only this one's lusty and swarthy; Francois (Rossif Sutherland), a French translator; and Kate (Frances O'Connor), the sort of hardcore archeologist who doesn't have time for romance until she's 700 years in the past. There she'll rekindle her flame for Professor Johnston's son, a blond, indifferent young man named Chris, played by Paul "The Fast and the Furious" Walker. (Interestingly, Walker's Santa Monica drawl never raises the eyebrows of the sniveling, murderous Frenchmen, who'd be right to call him "Bill" or "Ted.")
Costumed in bogus medieval finery, the gang has six hours to get to the past and back to the present. ITC equips everyone with medallions, called markers, that with the press of a button can whisk a beleaguered time traveler back to the lab. Of course, that kind of efficiency would guarantee a 40-minute runtime, so to drag us closer to the two-hour area, the movie cooks up one pot of nonsense after another. One of Frank's men, for instance, makes the mistake of pressing his marker while carrying a live hand grenade; zipped back to the present, he ends up reducing the teleportation device to smithereens. Everyone's thus left behind to do things like flee men with crossbows, climb thatched roofs, and rescue and woo (thank you, Gerard Butler) the French noblewoman (Anna Friel), who speaks perfect English and seems to be at the root of all this medieval pomp.
While Andre, Chris, and the gang try to get out of the past, the group's lone physicist (Ethan Embry) stays in the present to help rebuild the time machine and ask the ITC heavies a lot of seemingly rhetorical questions. ("What you're saying is that they would be stuck there forever once their markers expire?") And so "Timeline" becomes two races against the same clock.
The trouble with the movie is basically everything. It's long, sloppy, and -- to both the quantum-physics ignorant and informed -- steadily implausible, never exciting in either its skill or its ludicrousness. It even manages to make valiance and cosmic matters of historical fate seem silly. The veteran action director Richard Donner handles things with an earnestness that ranges from absurd to stultifying. The picture itself seems stuck in another era.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.