Had all gone according to plan, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" would have opened in 3-D today at some 1,400 theaters nationwide. But many exhibitors balked at installing the necessary technical equipment, and so the 3-D "Journey" will only be screening at around 800 locations. This is too bad, because the 3-D version of the film is good, dumb fun. In standard 2-D, I imagine, it would just be dumb, and much less fun, since the movie has been entirely constructed with the 3-D experience in mind. Flesh-rending fish leap through the air and straight into your face; yo-yos come barreling off the screen (an echo of the 3-D 1953 classic "House of Wax"); and in one tooth-brushing scene, the hero spits a mouthful of foamy water down at us. Cool. In 3-D, anyway.
Like the hit 1959 movie of the same name (which was not in 3-D), this "Journey" is drawn from the 1864 sci-fi novel by Jules Verne. Here, there's a sort of meta-twist, though — the book itself becomes a part of the central adventure. This is sort of clever, but not especially meaningful. Brendan Fraser, a good actor who's made an unfortunate career detour into the realm of blockbuster claptrap, plays Trevor Anderson, a mild-mannered volcanologist who decides to set out in delayed pursuit of his brother, Max (Jean Michel Paré), who disappeared 10 years earlier while searching for "volcano tubes" leading down into the Earth's core. Accompanied by his teenage nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson), Trevor flies off to Iceland to locate a famous scientist who famously knows about these things. Upon arriving, Trevor learns that the scientist is dead. However, his daughter Hannah (Anita Briem) is on hand — and she happens to be a professional mountain guide too. Soon she's leading Trevor and Josh up among the snowy Icelandic peaks, where, in an impossibly remote location, they find an abandoned mine housing one of those volcano tubes.
There follows a wild roller-coaster ride in a pair of careening mine carts that is lifted virtually whole from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," but is a pretty thrilling 3-D experience nevertheless. Descending into the bowels of the planet, Trevor's tiny party encounters towering waterfalls, bioluminescent birds ("extinct for 150 million years!"), enormous fossilized mushrooms, and — while traversing a storm-tossed underground sea on a fragile raft of bundled reeds — the aforementioned flesh-rending fish. The hardy trio is also menaced by giant carnivorous plants, throat-choking vines and the inevitable rampaging dinosaur. In the end, though, things ... well, I won't spoil it.
The film's production design — by David Sandefur, no doubt abetted by first-time director Eric Brevig, a veteran effects specialist himself — is lavishly rendered, and there are some memorable sequences: Trevor and company in a boatlike dinosaur skull, rocketing up a vertical flume atop a gusher of boiling volcano magma, for instance; and Josh hopping gingerly along a precarious string of magnetic rocks dangling high above a cavern floor. The artificial environments grow claustrophobic after a while, though, and the actors — especially Fraser, who's reduced to tiresome scary-faced bellowing throughout much of the picture — don't add much in the way of personality to the proceedings.
This 3-D thing could have a future, though, if theater chains embrace it. The modern version utilized here, called "fusion 3-D," relies not on the headache-inducing cardboard spectacles of the 1950s, but on much more comfortable plastic-framed glasses. The multi-dimensional images are still a little dark, but the eye-punching effects are more exciting than ever. Best of all, from an industry perspective, they're something you won't find on cable TV. Not yet, anyway.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," and "August," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on " Journey to the Center of the Earth."
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