Friday, March 20, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

This 2008 "adaptation" (meaning "re-imagination") of Jules Verne's long-lived literary wonder Journey to the Center of the Earth opens with a big fake CGI bug depicted in extreme close-up.

This shot is followed quickly by gliimpses of a big fake CGI tyrannosaur chasing a hapless human.

And this moment is followed, alas, by a big fake CGI shot of a gigantic, volcanic fissure, as the unlucky human attempts to navigate it.

We go from these hideous, artificial-looking (3-D?) special effects moments to something worse. A cutesie-poo montage of balding star Brendan Fraser, as he makes silly faces in his bathroom mirror.

Yep, that's why I want to see a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth: to see Brendan Fraser doing shtick while brushing his teeth...

It was during this ridiculous and unnecessarily "comic" scene (just moments into the movie...) that I realized Jules Verne must be spinning in his grave.

As I'm spinning in irritation and disappointment.

I know, I know. There will be readers who castigate me for disliking a movie that was "made for children." My only answer to that is that children enjoy good movies too, and this re-invention of Journey doesn't fit the bill. It's 100% crap.

By comparison, the 1959 adaptation starring James Mason (my review here) was a family film suitable for children, but also a supreme cinematic entertainment; one that took the premise, characters and adventure seriously. It had a brain, a heart and a sense of curiosity. The new Journey has only...set-pieces and Hollywood shmaltz.

This Journey to the Center of the Earth tells the story of down-on-his luck vulcanologist Trevor Anderson (Fraser), whose brother Max disappeared ten years earlier while trying to prove the existence of "volcanic tubes" leading to the center of the Earth. When Max's teenage son Sean comes to stay with Trevor for a week, they uncover Max's journal...written in the margins of a paperback copy of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. With the help of a hottie mountain guide, Hannah (Anita Briem) in Iceland, Max and Trevor embark on a journey...guess where?

Like most blockbusters made today, Journey to the Center of the Earth's problems begin with the script. In this case, the screenplay is juvenile, unserious, over-the-top in terms of sentimentaility, and pedantic. Even a ten year old viewer may wonder at the coincidences the writers stack up like piles of tyrannosaur poop. Most significantly, that vulcanologist Trevor Anderson (Fraser) discovers his dead brother's journal on the exact same day that the seismic readings in Iceland would permit for a journey to the center of the Earth. Talk about lucky...these readings allegedly match just once a decade!

Or how about the fact that 13-year old Sean gets cell phone reception on the ocean at the center of the Earth? I can't even get cell-phone reception in my parent's neighborhood, and it's not hundreds of meters beneath the surface last time I checked.

Some of these trespasses would be less obvious, or perhaps even forgiven, if the film looked great. But it doesn't. This Journey to the Center of the Earth is bright and colorful, but every new set-piece looks like a gaudy amusement park ride. There's a ridiculous mine-car sequence (shades of Temple of Doom...) that actually adopts the angles and look of a roller coaster ride. And don't even get me started on the scene in which Trevor and Sean pick up sticks and begin batting flying fish like baseballs (this, after a dialogue exchange about going to batting cages early in the film...).

And because a film these days isn't a success if it doesn't generate a franchise, Journey to the Center of the Earth ends with a brazen bid for a sequel...pointing to Atlantis as the next adventure location. Argh!

This movie irks me on so many levels I can hardly begin to enunciate them all. Let me just focus on the gall...the gall of the creators. To craft a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth -- and yet not make it an adaptation of that great work -- can only be described as supreme hubris. The creators happily took the name and a central idea (a journey beneath the Earth) and left out everything else. That's tantamount to fraud.

This would be like going to see a film entitled Star Wars only to learn that a character in the film is reading a paperback novel called Star Wars but you won't actually be seeing Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or any other characters associated with Star Wars. Instead, the movie will just adopt a few of Star Wars' great concepts...and title.

It's troublesome that the book title would be re-used here for a "new" story, but even more galling that the writers thought they could craft a better story with the title Journey to the Center of the Earth than Jules Verne did.

If you're looking for evidence of how dinosaurs, fantasy and dopey comedy don't mix, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a perfect example. And it proves, pretty conclusively I assert, why the new Land of the Lost is going to be terrible. Because as bad as Brendan Fraser is in this film, he's still an infinitely more appropriate lead than Will Ferrell.


  1. John, did you see City of Ember? We watched it tonight, and I found that it was FAR more satisfying than this piece of dreck ... but it almost went completely unnoticed.

    It's no Harry Potter, but it sure kept me interested.

  2. It could be worse. It could be the TV version of Journey with Rick Schroeder.