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Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 July 2008
The title on the print shown at the advance screening was as given above, ending with “3D.” But though the intention was for this movie to be shown only in 3D, many theaters have yet to make the conversion to digital projection (and, I assume, a more highly reflective screen). If you see it flat, don’t expect to see “3D” as part of the title.

But the preview screening was in 3D, and terrific 3D at that. This is as lightweight as the giant dandelion fluff Brendan Fraser sends drifting down under the ground somewhere. It’s largely for kids, who are likely to love it (though one kid after the screening was heard muttering that ninety-two minutes was too long). It’s loaded with thrills, and though it really has only three main characters, they’re likable enough, and the actors are entertaining. Icelander Anita Briem, a compact, agile blonde, is as cute as sunrise on a snowfield; she deserves to have a bright career.

This is sort of based on the famous Jules Verne novel, but far enough away from it that a copy of Verne’s novel is an important item in the plot. Verne’s novel was serious; this is largely an action comedy, and a reasonably lively and amusing one at that. Brendan Fraser is professor Trevor Anderson, whose division at a Canadian university, named for his brother Max who disappeared in 1997, is about to be closed down, turned into a storeroom.

Preoccupied, Trevor has forgotten that his 13-year-old nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), son of the vanished Max, is about to be dropped off, left in his care for two weeks or so. Sean is bored with it all, though the yoyo Trevor fishes out of a box of Max’s effects catches his fancy (and soon vanishes as thoroughly as Max). Also in the box is a copy of Verne’s novel, heavily annotated by Max. Back at the lab, the various earthquake sensors Max placed in key spots around the world have gradually ceased operation, leaving only three dots on a computer screen. But then Josh notices that there are four. The new, or revived, one is in Iceland.

Eager to save the Max Anderson laboratory, Trevor immediately heads for Iceland, bringing along the increasingly-interested Sean. They follow clues in Max’s notes to a remote area, supposedly another laboratory. But the scientist they hoped to find there has died, leaving the place in charge of his delectable daughter Hannah (Briem). Fortunately, she happens to be a hiking guide, and the three set off for the volcano crater indicated by Verne’s novel and Max’s notes.

Thus begins the title journey, greatly enhanced by 3D. If you intend to see this, be sure to find a theater showing it in this entertaining process. The 3D begins immediately—a trilobite thrusts its feelers into the audience; the fleeing Max Anderson is chased by a Tyrannosaurus rex right off a cliff into a lake of magma. As Brendan Fraser’s Trevor is introduced, we’re treated to one 3D gag after another—he finishes brushing his teeth and spits straight down, right into our faces. A measuring tape pokes us in the eye. That yoyo gets a lot of off-the-screen use, including slamming into some kind of model full of small colorful balls.
Special effects artist Eric Brevig makes his directorial debut here, and maintains a light, quick pace. No sooner has our intrepid trio been trapped underground than they find themselves rocketing along in the cart of an abandoned mine in what seems to be the longest (and best lit) mine tunnel on the planet. Some of this is real, some CGI, but it’s hard to tell them apart—we’re not given enough time, and the 3D thrills keep coming. But Brevig is also creative enough to find new ways to use 3D. Early in the film there are several aerial shots that work especially well in 3D, including a shot of an airliner that seems to extend from the screen. As the three explorers cross a rocky landscape, the textures of the rocks extend what the audience sees, into and out of the screen. When our heroes are trapped by a landslide, they use flashlights in the slightly dusty air—and the beams add depth and visual interest in 3D. They’d just be lights in a 2D movie; here, they’re long narrow cones of light. There’s a straight-down shot at our trio, catching their breaths as they lie on a slab of stone—and then stand up, right into our faces.

The three fall down a shaft for what must be miles, finally finding themselves surrounded by drifting drops of water, also falling. They end up in a deep lake, with the three actors all seen underwater—underwater shots are always interesting in 3D. They encounter little sparrow-like birds that glow like fireflies; one takes a liking to young Sean, and joins him on their journey. (Is this a nod to the goose that went along for the ride in the 20th Century-Fox movie of Verne’s novel?) They manage to escape the fanged leaves of carnivorous plants, like giant Venus flytraps. (What do these things eat when there are no explorers?) At the shores of a vast underground sea, with the temperature rising to dangerous levels, they make a raft that’s towed by a large kite; it’s seen from above, so the billowing fabric seems to brush our noses. Leaping fanged fish attack them, then the leaping fanged fish are themselves attacked by what looks like a school of plesiosaurs. And of course, there’s that Tyrannosaurus rex waiting ahead.

You know the movie is going for broke when the climax involves Fraser hanging upside from the inverted skull of a T-rex while trying to use a flare to ignite veins of magnesium which will unleash a flood of water that, turning to steam, will propel our trio up a long volcanic shaft.

The screenwriters include Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Weiss mostly writes sequels (“The Butterfly Effect 2,” “I’ll Always Know What you Did Last Summer,” “Octopus II”); among other TV shows and movies, Flackett and Levin wrote “Nim’s Island,” released earlier this year). The script of “Journey” is serviceable; there’s not much in the line of characterization, and a romance between Fraser and Briem that surfaces late in the game seems grafted on. Brevig has been a major special effects worker for many years; he knows how to handle this film’s extensive effects, and keeps the camera pointed at the actors.

Fraser is an old hand at this kind of thing—the recent “Mummy” movies (including a third out in a few weeks) and “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” He relates well to objects and creatures that weren’t on the set with him, but is an agreeable partner to live actors as well. He has a light, friendly personality, ideal for this kind of role. But he’s not bad in straight dramas, too, like “The Quiet American.”

Josh Hutcherson, who seems to be turning into a double for Michael J. Fox, is a talented child actor who works well in dramas (“Bridge to Terabithia”), effects-laden adventures (“Zathura”) and family comedies (“RV,” “Kicking and Screaming”). He’s a relaxed, confident pro; his role here is anything but challenging, except physically. He works well with Fraser and Briem, herself a bright and charming newcomer.

There are, of course, scads of effects. It was extremely difficult to do optical effects in the 3D movies of the 1950s, but employing the digital realm has made 3D today much easier. It’s still tricky and requires skilled and intelligent planning; when things go wrong, you can make your audience feel like their eyes are falling out, not a desired goal. There’s at least one scene here, where the heroes launch their raft on the shore of the underground sea, that seems to be flat rather than 3D. But there’s very little of that.

Mostly the 3D is used with exuberance and a certain flamboyant show-offy style, which is great fun for a lightweight movie like this. Brevig crams the first reel or two with lots of in-your-face bits, then backs off on that sort of thing for a while—the story is eventually spectacular enough on its own. This is a great introduction to 3D for those unfamiliar with the process. Yes, it’s worth wearing those damned glasses. (Even if you, like me, have to wear them OVER your own damned glasses.)

This is summer froth, but it’s well-done summer froth and rarely pretends to be anything more than that. About the middle, it turns a bit serious for a while, as Trevor tries to get Sean to understand that his father was a great man. Yeah, sure, now let’s get back to the flying piranhas.

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