Journey to the Center of the Earth (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Journey to the Center of the Earth Poster

Journey to the Center of the Earth is the first live-action feature to take advantage of the new digital 3-D technology. However, in generating what amounts to a 90-minute theme park ride, the filmmakers lost track of the need to tell a compelling story to supplement the eye candy. Despite taking its name from one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, Journey to the Center of the Earth is as weak when it comes to "fiction" as it is when it comes to "science." This movie is an overlong gimmick, an opportunity for special effects whiz-turned-director Eric Brevig to "wow" an audience with his technical bravura. With 3-D, a little goes a long way and, in the absence of a legitimate script with credible characters, the fun dries up long before the running time has expired.

Brevig's film, based on a screenplay credited to three writers, is not intended to be a strict adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. Instead, it's more of a sequel. It postulates that the novel's hero, Professor Lidenbrock, made the trip described in the book and related the details of that trek to Verne, who recounted them in the novel. The characters in this movie - Professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser); his nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson); and their mountain guide, Hannah (Anita Briem) - follow in Lidenbrock's path as they travel to the top of a mountain in Iceland that reveals tunnels leading deep beneath the Earth's surface. Below, they discover a prehistoric world where dinosaurs and man-eating plants exist. But it's getting hot down there, and the trio must find a way to escape before they are broiled alive.

The absence of a villain means that the only conflict is between our heroes and their environment. Under normal circumstances, this would not be inherently uninteresting, but the film's grip of physics is so confused that the rules display an alarming lack of consistency and change at the director's whim, depending on what he needs for a particular scene to work. Normally, I'm tolerant of flaws like this in a movie, but the so-called "science" on display in Journey to the Center of the Earth is so atrocious that it creates towering barriers to the suspension of disbelief for anyone knowledgeable about such things. Fortunately for New Line Cinema, the majority of potential customers won't care.

The film's "drama" is as painful as its science. The bonding between Trevor and Sean is trite; neither is developed as more than a toy to play around in the 3-D environment. Hannah's role is to make Trevor look like an idiot and eventually provide some low-key romantic tension. Brendan Fraser tries to bring some of the charm he exhibited in The Mummy to this project, but it feels forced. Trevor is neither likeable nor dislikeable; he's there to provide us with a human face as a means of entry into a world that's a cross between Jurassic Park and Land of the Lost.

Ultimately, Journey to the Center of the Earth is about spectacle, so the characters and storyline are of secondary concern. The movie views them as, if not irrelevant, at least inconsequential. This is all about making the digital world come to life and having things jump out of the screen at us. The 3-D work is admittedly done very nicely but, after 30 minutes (or so) of pretty images, one starts to desire more. And the movie can't deliver. The experience of watching this film in old-fashioned 2-D, while it would brighten the images a little (polarized glasses darken things), must be a hollow one indeed. Take away the 3-D, and there's little remaining.

Ten years ago, I can recall standing in line at the Universal Studios theme park in Florida to see Terminator 3-D, a twelve-minute sequel to Terminator 2 that was projected in 3-D. Technology has advanced so that now it's possible to have essentially the same experience in any theater equipped with a digital projection system. However, as with any visual effects tool, 3-D should be applied in service of the overall production, not vice versa. And that's where Journey to the Center of the Earth goes wrong. Like the virtual roller coaster ride we go on mid-way through the proceedings, there's something critical missing. Seeing, even in 3-D, is not the same as feeling. And once a movie has lost the capacity to reach us on more than a trivial level, what's the point?

Journey to the Center of the Earth (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2008-07-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1