Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) / Adventure-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG for some scary moments
Running time:
92 min.

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Myers
Director: Eric Brevig

Screenplay: Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin (based on the novel by Jules Verne)
Review published July 19, 2008

The following review is based on the viewing of the theatrical 3D release.  In my opinion, seeing it in 3D enhances the enjoyment factor, provided you don't feel adverse effects from the process.  Given the dearth of even semi-entertaining 3D movies released theatrically, Journey benefits from being one of the best in a very short list of worthwhile examples.  Perhaps if it were the 10th 3D release this year, I would hardly recommend it, which is why I would say to knock a half star off my score if you aren't seeing it with the spiffy glasses on.         

Eric Brevig, the Academy Award-nominated visual effects guru for such movies as The Day After Tomorrow and Men in Black, directs a feature film for the first time to relatively successful results.  Journey to the Center of the Earth is certainly not going to blow away any audiences for its story or imagination, but for an amusing and breezy bit of escapism for the family, it will fit the bill.

Brendan Fraser (Crash, The Quiet American) stars as science professor and geologist Trevor Anderson, who is entrusted with care of his nephew Sean (Hutcherson, Firehouse Dog), a typical teen with a nasty disposition, and no love for staying with his goofy uncle.  An old copy of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth", once owned by Sean's long-lost father Max, a "Vernian" who took the author's writings literally.  It's soon obvious that Trevor will do the same, but Sean isn't going to be left behind, and soon the two head to an Icelandic volcano in search of the portal that will take them, as well as their mountain guide Hannah (Briem, The Nun), to where Max went, deep down under the surface of the Earth where no man has come back alive to talk about it.

If you've ever seen a 3D film in your lifetime, you'd probably know that most examples of the genre use the gimmick to make up for the fact that there is little else going for it in terms of entertainment.  Good films don't usually tend to work for the medium, as there is a certain distancing factor to wearing the glasses and eyes constantly having to readjust, and especially when things fly at you from the screen.  Journey to the Center of the Earth benefits from having a simple, very easy to follow story that delivers consistently good visuals without overdoing it to the point of boredom.  There are a few instances when things appear to be coming at you, such as Fraser spitting toothpaste into the camera, yoyos zinging near your head, carnivorous flying fish jumping from the ocean, and one giant dinosaur's globby phlegm almost dropped right into our eyes.

If you're seeing the film in 2D, whether at a theater that isn't supporting it, or on video/cable, none of these things will probably be noticeable unless you know that it was partially shot with the intention of a 3D experience.  Although I haven't seen the film in 2D as of this writing, my guess is that it is only marginally entertaining at best, probably more of interest to younger viewers not familiar with the Jules Verne book, or the older film version of the same name.  In some ways, it is reminiscent of the wildly popular adventure-family comedy Night at the Museum, except taking place underground, whereby every turn around the corner reveals something alternately scary or delightful.  As for the plot, think TV's "Land of the Lost" if Holly were replaced by a hot babe potential love interest for the father and son.

The science of the film isn't just iffy, it's a complete fabrication.  Everything you see under the Earth's surface is tangentially in the spirit of Verne's speculative science fiction, much more of a set up to provide for the basis of an action movie.  To get around the fact that it would be pitch black most of the time, the screenwriters toss in phosphorescent walls, oceans, and even luminescent animals.   The creatures are mainly set up for the film's scares, with the flying fish with giant teeth providing the biggest jolts for viewers sporting the specs.  I'm always intrigued by out-of-control mine car scenes that have the tracks set up to resemble a roller coaster ride.  One wonders if the miners weren't bored by their travels to their digging locations and needed fast-paced thrills to wake them up when no coffee houses were available.  It's about as dumb as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, from which the scene is lifted, but at least it didn't go way over the top with the rushing water coming after them (funny how a giant tank of water without enough contents to fill the room it's contained in can fill miles of corridors, canyons, and caves and still have enough force to blow a larger hole out of a mountain, but I digress). 

Fraser is his usual goofy self, which in a film this silly, tends to work in its favor.  It's not as imaginative as the other big adventure-fantasy this year, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but it does benefit from the low overhead of infinitely lesser expectations, so disappointed reactions from less-than-superb quality probably will not be a factor.  The story hangs by the thinnest of threads, merely a set-up for the simplistic bits of action, but at least the action and special effects deliver in believability, even when the science and storyline do not.  Any analysis of the environs would cause the whole story to fall apart, and the script by Weiss (The Butterfly Effect 2), Flackett (Little Manhattan), and Levine (Wimbledon), while not anything more than workable, at least never makes the mistake of laborious explanations or justifications.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is only worth going out of one's way for if you're interested in the 3D viewing experience, and it's the best film I've personally seen in 3D from a visual and overall quality standpoint.  I realize that this doesn't say much at all, but given that there are similar examples coming, perhaps studios are wising up to the fact that people want an experience they won't likely get from their home theater should they want to wait for video, and certainly couldn't be captured by a bootleg copy downloaded from the internet.  It's a novelty that only works for the here and now, a throwaway film in almost every other regard.

 Qwipster's rating:  

©2008 Vince Leo