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Timeline on DVD

Michael Crichton can sure spin a yarn, and even his lesser works still tend to be ripping stories that blend science fiction with science fact and drama.

Such is the case with Timeline, a reasonably ripping tale that blends history with sci-fi. It’s no “Jurassic Park,” but it’s a reasonable couple of hours in the home theater.

Timeline deals with a group of archaeologists and their “handler/guides” who “fax” themselves back to 14th century France to rescue a modern day archaeologist who preceeded them in time travel, then got trapped there.

They’re guided and supposedly protected by tough as nails ex-Marines, but these Marines are woefully unprepared to cope in those olden days where the rules of engagement were totally different from what they expect. And needless to say, most of the Marines don’t make it more than a few minutes into the past, leaving our intrepid hero academics to fend for themselves in a frighteningly violent age.

Of course, they’re better prepared because it just so happens that they’d been working on a dig exactly where they’re sent to, excavating the locale they're visiting, and so they have at least a middling understanding of life there – though there are plenty of surprises awaiting them, too.

In some ways director Richard Donner’s movie is better than the book, or at least more interesting, in that it focuses more on the “present day” efforts of the scientific team to get the time travelers back (which, if our memories serve us, didn’t occupy nearly as much time in the book) and that gives a “reality hook” to the action that helps with the suspension of disbelief as well as preventing the movie from being merely a blast to the past. And while they’ve eliminated quite a bit of the trip itself (which we found the weakest part in many ways) – what they’ve left works well.

As with the book-to-movie conversion of “Jurassic Park,” there’s may fifteen per cent of the book in the Donner film, and that percentage is reasonably faithful. But we end up with more of an action/adventure story than the book (which almost seems like a historical lesson) gives us – and that’s fine for the visual medium.

Donner’s film is visually lovely (Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography undoubtedly helps here), and it really looks great in the anamorphic widescreen version of the DVD. The production values are first rate, colors are gorgeous and the battle scenes are exquisitely staged.

The cast is pretty good. The only members of whom we’d really heard before are Billy Connolly and David Thewlis, and they're both fine here. The rest put in journeyman performances, but it isn’t the characters that star here, anyway: it’s the situation – and overall they’ve done it pretty well.

Timeline virtually disappeared from theaters on its initial release, which is surprising considering that it's a Crichton outing, but part of the reason may be that if you haven’t read the book you may have trouble figuring out what’s going on. We watched it in an audience that included two people who’d read the novel and one who hadn’t, and the ones who had read it enjoyed the movie version – and could follow the twists – much better.

As hinted at above, the DVD quality itself is first rate. The picture is offered in two separate versions, one featuring anamorphic widescreen video (16x9 TV compatible) and a Pan&Scan version. We were fortunate to receive the widescreen version and it’s gorgeous.

Audio is offered in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and it’s also very good, with nice use of the surround channels. There was one instance when a bird was calling out of the rear speakers and one of our audience thought there was a bird outside the house.

Extras aren’t bad. There’s no director’s commentary, unfortunately (we’d love to have heard Richard Donner’s thoughts about the movie), but there are some decent documentaries on the making of the film. You also get some theatrical trailers, including two from this movie and several others from upcoming Paramount releases.

Bottom line: Timeline isn’t the best Crichton, but it’s worth seeing.

Timeline, from Paramount Home Entertainment,
115 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35.1, 16x9 TV compatible)/Pan&Scan (sold separately), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Paul Walker, Frances O’Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Jim Van Wyck, Richard Donner
Written by Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi, directed by Richard Donner


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