Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Timeline (2003)

rating: ****

the story: Modern archaeologists time travel to the 14th century.

what it's all about: This is the kind of movie that ages well.  I remember watching Timeline on home video soon after its release, and not thinking too much of it.  Like a lot of people I mostly thought of it as a Paul Walker movie, which in 2003 didn't mean as much as it does in 2018.  Not so much because Walker went on to have a brilliant career, but because the Fast & Furious franchise exploded, and that alone increased his significance over time.  2003 also saw his turn as the lead in the second Fast & Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, but that was hardly an indication of where Walker, much less the series, was going to go. 

Oh, and by the way, watching Timeline again, Walker isn't really the star of the movie anyway.  That's the biggest irony, right?

Instead, hindsight really helps make obvious that Timeline is a Gerard Butler movie.  What a fascinating career Butler has had.  He made his name in 2006's 300, and his subsequent career has been a tug-of-war with whether or not audiences actually can think of him for anything other than 300.  Which means in a lot of ways, his career hasn't actually changed all that much.  But what always fascinates me about movies is the constant discovery of it.  Movies are a curious medium.  You can follow them any number of ways, and certainly actors are one of them.  To the general public, it's always about the present, or if the past is revisited at all it's mostly to do with movies that are already well-known or random ones that have developed cult followings.  It's rarely about revisiting movies for the sake of revisiting them.  And yet, Butler is as ripe for that as anyone.  Was 300 truly a fluke, or did he have anything that might have helped indicate such a development?

You can guess my answer already.  Timeline would certainly been a strong indication.  The whole point of his character can be summed up by attempting to answer whether or not Butler's type of hypermasculinity can best be acclimated in the past.  Every character in the story struggles with fitting in.  It would've been cheap storytelling to have Butler just slip into it, and maybe because he was still a relatively unknown element, his arc develops the way it does, but precisely because it works out that way, it works extremely well both for the story and to illustrate both where Butler was at this point in his career and where he was headed. 

Bottom line, if I had been paying attention, I would've recognized back then that I had just seen a star be born.

There's a ton of great talent worth relishing around him, beyond Walker.  Billy Connolly, obviously, and also Michael Sheen, another actor years ahead of be "discovered" as a star.  David Thewlis, meanwhile, puts on an American accent, and I assume in 2003 I had no idea who he was, much less that he would become a favorite.  My big draw, back then, was actually Neal McDonough, who never quite found his sweet spot, following the early demise of Boomtown.  Matt Craven is always worth noting.  Anna Friel, meanwhile, plays French and quite convincingly, even though she's clearly British in real life, so when I saw her again (and in 2003 I had no idea I was supposed to care about her, either), I initially wasn't even sure she was someone I knew, just that she looked familiar. 

This is also the penultimate film directed by Richard Donner, which in 2018 sounds ridiculous, especially when his last movie was 2006's 16 Blocks.  Not that 16 Blocks was a bad way to go.  It was an excellent way to go.  It's just sad to see a talent retire, especially when he was still firing on all cylinders.

The story was based on a book by Michael Crichton, whose professional height was in the '90s, when he was riding on the success of the Jurassic Park film and ER, plus his continuing string of blockbuster thrillers.  I've read him off and on for years, and every time I remember all over again how much I appreciate what he brought to the culture.  In a lot of ways, Jurassic Park distorted his appeal to a fairly cartoonish degree.  And in a lot of ways, Timeline is Jurassic Park minus the cartoonish distortion, an attempt to revisit the past in a way that spectacularly backfires.  Crichton more often tried to resolve real world misconceptions than went for sensationalism, which Jurassic Park the movie was at least wildly accepted to be.  I mean, it single-handedly revived popular obsession with dinosaurs.  But it was also about hubris run amok, as Crichton often explored, totally misjudging when a gamble has been miscalculated.  That's Timeline, the role Thewlis plays.  It's a shame Crichton died just at the start of an age when hubris has exploded, when a little perspective is most desperately needed.

But to watch something like Timeline, and to see how effortlessly, finally, it straddles escapist storytelling and the classic cautionary tale, is to see Crichton's genius all over again, and how Donner brought together a rich host of actors to tell it.

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