Title: Journey to the Center of the Earth
Genre: Action, Adventure, Family
Director: Eric Brevig
Screenwriters: Michael D. Weiss, Jennifer Flackett
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem
In a couple of decades we may look back on Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D as the birth of the 3-D era, with director Eric Brevig playing the historical role of the Lumière Brothers. Maybe. I have no desire to detract from the technological accomplishment it represents: it’s the first feature-length, live-action film to be released (in some theaters) in a 3-D format that’s viable — i.e. good-looking, convincing, and not headache-inducing. That’s nontrivial, and I commend the film to you if you’re excited about the experience. There’s nothing wrong with that. Enjoy yourself.
By the same token, there is absolutely no reason to see the movie in the ordinary 2-D format. It’s aggressively dumb — a clunky, charmless adventure, obsessed with catch phrases and starved for imagination. Meant as a non-stop roller-coaster ride, it mistakes spectacle for energy, fancy effects for wonder, and a lazy meta-plot for a clever update of a classic. It purports to be about the incredible discovery of a never-before-seen subterranean world, but neither it nor anyone in it seems all that amazed or impressed. The characters encounter amazing carnivorous plants, ungodly piranhas, prehistoric creatures, a giant underground ocean — but all these things seem to have been placed there to annoy them, and occasionally chase them around. What excites them most seems to be diamonds. Eventually they have to make a dramatic escape. Think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (complete with a runaway mine train) without a shred that film’s wit or technical chops, and you’ll come close to the Journey to the Center of the Earth experience.
This is supposed to constitute a modernization of the classic Jules Verne novel, but the film does everything possible to neuter it. In one of the most mind-boggling adaptation strategies I’ve ever run across, the screenplay posits not that the events of the book takes place in the present day, but that the book itself exists in the present day and turns out to be the literal truth. That’s right — it turns out that the protagonist’s dead scientist brother was a “Vernian,” a member of a radical group that believes that Verne’s writing (or maybe just Journey to the Center of the Earth, I’m not sure) wasn’t fiction.
Here’s the problem. Verne’s novel isn’t stupid. A modernized version of Verne’s novel, hinging on a 2008 discovery of a vast subterranean world, wouldn’t be stupid either (or at least it wouldn’t have to be). But having your plot turn, for some inexplicable reason, on the premise that Jules Verne’s novels are inerrant (leading to the discovery of a vast etc.) is stupid — laughably so. It shatters the story’s credibility. And it’s cowardly, backing away from the task of making Verne’s conceit engaging in a modern setting without resorting to cynical meta maneuvers.
It’s hard to be impressed with the 3-D on anything other than a technical level. After all these years it’s still not truly a storytelling tool. Brevig deploys it as a blunt instrument, to wow us at specific moments — a bug’s antlers seem to poke at us; we get an ant’s eye view of Brendan Fraser spitting water into the sink, seemingly hitting us with the spray; we gasp and/or chuckle on cue. James Cameron has promised to cure this problem with his long-awaited Avatar and future projects (he plans to film a low-key drama in 3-D), but the solution will have to wait for him. The use of 3-D here is strictly pro forma, not too far removed from the theme park rides that were so impressive in the ’90s.
As a showcase for state-of-the-art 3-D technology, Journey to the Center of the Earth works, for now. There might be enough novelty for the film to make it worth your time. But from a storytelling or action filmmaking standpoint, there’s simply nothing to see here. It might eventually be remembered fondly as pioneering. I’d wait until then.