Timeline was directed by Richard Donner. Richard Donner is a director with a number of genre associations. He came to success through the likes the occult film The Omen (1976), the comic-book adaptation Superman (1978), the Mediaeval romantic fantasy Ladyhawke (1985) and the massively successful non-genre buddy cop drama Lethal Weapon (1987). Since the late 1980s, Richard Donner has increasingly started to seem like a director who has slipped into a comfortable middle-age and that his films have lost the creative sparkle they once had. Since the mid 1980s, he has churned out the banal likes of the Dickens modernisation Scrooged (1988), the interesting childrens film Radio Flyer (1992), which was a box-office disaster, the big screen tv remake Maverick (1994), and the entirely awful likes of Assassins (1995) and Conspiracy Theory (1997), not to mention three wholly unnecessary Lethal Weapon sequels.
In Michael Crichtons books, he always places an enormous degree of research into whatever particular topic he chooses to write about be it viral containment facilities, Japanese business culture, dinosaurs, sexual harassment law, the speculative possibilities of alien contact or, as in Timeline, Mediaeval history. That amount of detail Crichton frequently intersperses his books with diagrams and graphs is something that cannot always be adequately conveyed by film. Jurassic Park only skimmed over Crichtons talk about genetic engineering and chaos theory, while most pointedly The 13th Warrior eliminated all of Crichtons discussion of Persian culture and explanation of modern-day Neanderthal survivals. On the other hand, some Crichton film adaptations, most notably Rising Sun, Disclosure and Sphere, have managed to keep a good deal of the detail intact. Timeline alas does not.
The film of Timeline is Michael Crichton Lite. The film has dumped all the things the made the book an interesting read Crichtons dissemination of many modern misconceptions about the Middle Ages, the fascinating clashes between modern and historical culture and even the imaginative depiction of how the use of language between the two periods would have drastically changed. While Richard Donners art directors have gone to a great deal of effort to obtain an authentic-seeming view of the past, what we have now is only a Mediaeval adventure film with a science-fiction gimmick. One struggles to remember even a single historical fact that Timeline imparted. There is only a single scene that even touches upon the linguistic differences where Gerard Butler and Anna Friel are floating down a river and she struggles with blank incomprehension to understand when he asks her if she is going out with or seeing anyone otherwise Timeline is like an episode of Doctor Who (1963-89) or Lost in Space (1965-8) where people turn up on an alien planet and the inhabitants just happen to speak modern English. To the films credit, it does okay as science-fiction retaining Crichtons time paradoxes and actually coming up with a marginally more credible time travel theory involving wormholes. (In the book, Michael Crichton acknowledged the impossibility of time travel into the past and instead invoked quantum alternate world theories but then contradicted himself by giving us a series of time paradoxes where quite clearly the time travellers had travelled into their own historic past rather than an alternate world).
At the expense of stripping away all the detail of Crichton and essentially dumbing down the book, the film has in return pumped up all the easy box-office sell aspects the romance; the swordfights; and the prominent emphasis on the poster of a young, good-looking contemporary male star Paul Walker. Only none of it works. Timeline is a film that tries to appeal to everybody and ends up appealing to nobody certainly not to Michael Crichton fans or anybody who enjoyed reading the book; certainly not to historical buffs, as it is an historical film that lacks any interest in its milieu or culture; not to historical spectacle fans as Richard Donners enervation of the swordfights is routine, barring the climactic attack on the castle; hardly romance fans; marginally only science-fiction fans; and hardly the people that are going to go because of a young sexy male star, who would almost certainly have no interest in the historical spectacle. To no-ones surprise, Timeline met with indifferent box-office reception.