Monday, September 08, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth / ** (PG)

Prof. Trevor Anderson: Brendan Fraser
Sean Anderson: Josh Hutcherson
Hannah Ásgiersson: Anita Briem

New Line Cinema and Walden Media present a film directed by Eric Brevig. Written by Michael Weiss and Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG (for intense adventure action and some scary moments).

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
— Thomas H. Palmer, “Teacher’s Manual” (1840)

There are certain properties that seem to get made into movies over and over again. It happens a lot with science fiction literature adaptations. Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is a story that has particularly dogged filmmakers—especially of late. Perhaps the best known movie version is the earliest attempt at the material, the 1959 film starring James Mason and Pat Boone; but IMdb lists no less than 12 other versions of the property since then, including 5 television adaptations in the last 15 years.

The makers of the latest theatrical version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” have tried to take advantage of the technological advances in film medium to give us an experience unlike any of the previous versions. “JCE” holds the distinction of being the first live action movie to be presented in the new digital 3D format. Of course, the makers have also taken advantage of the most recent CGI technology to create digitally animated scenery and creatures for the story; so much of the movie isn’t truly live action.

Unfortunately, Marshall Cinemas haven’t been equipped with the expensive digital 3D projectors; so I’m not able to comment on the effectiveness of the new format in respect to this movie. In a way, that allows for an impartial analysis of the movie itself, which should be able to stand on its own without the gimmick of three-dimensions.

To go along with the new technology, however, the filmmakers have taken a new approach to the material of Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel. Instead of just adapting the story Verne wrote about a scientist who discovers volcanic tubes that lead to a world contained within the Earth, screenwriters Michael Weiss (with his first theatrical writing credit), Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (the writing team behind “Nim’s Island”) suppose that Verne’s novel was not fiction at all but a first person account told to Verne by the very scientist he uses as his hero.

In the present day, Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) is Professor Trevor Anderson—a seismic expert continuing the work of his brother, who disappeared more than ten years prior. Through some fairly routine scenes depicting his classroom etiquette and a disheveled apartment, we find that Trevor is not a very organized person. That is why it has slipped his mind that he had scheduled a 10 day visit with his brother’s teenaged son, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, “Firehouse Dog”). How inconvenient for him that on the very day Sean arrives the seismic sensors he and his brother had placed in strategic positions around the world show their first signs of activity since the brother’s disappearance.

The numbers point toward a seismic event in Iceland—the very location where Verne’s adventure begins. Trevor goes to investigate with Sean in tow. Once in Iceland, they hire a guide, Hannah Ásgiersson (Anita Briem, Showtime’s “The Tudors”). The three find themselves trapped in the volcano where Trevor’s readings were emitting and end up discovering the very tubes Verne described in his book. Soon they are retracing the steps of Verne’s scientists and ducking all the same dangers encountered in the book.

What is interesting about “JCE” is that it actually takes the time necessary to set up its intricate premise. Considering the 3D gimmick and the trends of modern Hollywood filmmaking, one would expect director Eric Brevig (a visual effects supervisor for such blockbusters as “Pearl Harbor” and “The Day After Tomorrow”) to be chomping at the bit to get to those action sequences. This cinematic patience might make younger viewers a little restless, but it allows the filmmakers to preserve the themes and scientific logic of Verne’s novel.

The action does eventually start rolling, but it is here where the movie strikes its warbling notes. Unlike the stunning visual effects Brevig was responsible for in the underrated 2003 live action “Peter Pan”, the world created for the center of the Earth never feels real. The actors seem to hover just above the ground in their CGI locations. And there is an overall impression that the budget was just a little too small to afford the shots Brevig really wanted. Plus throughout the movie—including the real location scenes—Brevig goes out of his way to exploit the 3D format, resulting in cheap 3D thrill shots, like when Fraser spits out his toothpaste right into the camera, or the coal mine car rollercoaster scene, which was done better more than 20 years ago in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.

Verne’s story of a world within our world seems like it would be a natural candidate for cinematic adaptation. It’s an adventure that relies more on thrills than substance and offers a glorious fantasy world for audiences to behold. For some reason, however, filmmakers just can’t seem to make it work. In this day and age of realistic CGI animation and digital 3D formats, it would seem as if the time is ripe for a good version of this sci-fi classic. But for now, it’s back to the drawing board.

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