With a principal cast of only three, the new 3-D “Journey to the Center of the Earth” probably has the highest screams-per-capita ratio in the history of action-adventure pics, and a better thrill-per-minute deal than most. Visual-effects vet and debuting helmer Eric Brevig makes clever use of the 1864 Jules Verne novel and its fantastical, subterranean wonderland, and fortunately has on hand thesp Brendan Fraser — whose mission in Hollywood seems to be to humanize the most f/x-besotted adventure. Boisterous action, 3-D visuals and equal doses of humor and chills should rocket the deep-dwelling tale into strong B.O. orbit.
From space travel to submarines, the writings of French sci-fi pioneer Verne predicted much of what would be discovered and invented in coming years. But “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was uncharacteristically wrong about … well, everything, but especially the Earth’s interior, which Verne imagined as a realm of dinosaurs and secret oceans, and a maze of natural phenomena.
Henry Levin’s 1959 adaptation featured pop idol Pat Boone (singing and shirtless), an operatic Arlene Dahl and the campiest-ever performance by the great James Mason. Levin moved the story from Hamburg to Edinburgh, added a subplot in which the explorers were being pursued by rivals and otherwise followed the Verne-ian itinerary — heroes enter the Earth in Iceland, experience the terrible, the perilous and the prehistoric, and emerge happily in Italy.
Following a mercifully updated script by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, Brevig puts the Verne book itself in the hands of hero Trevor Anderson (Fraser), an American professor and seismological prophet, whose brother Maxwell disappeared mysteriously some years earlier.
When Max’s son, Sean (Josh Hutcherson) — predictably, a miserable, materialistic and bored adolescent — comes to visit for 10 days, he brings along a box of Max’s papers. Inside is a copy of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” with notes indicating Max’s Verne-ish theory that volcanic tubes — bypassing the magma one would expect to find below the surface — could provide entree to the core of the planet. Like every “Journey” hero, Trevor impulsively drops everything and heads for Iceland, taking along the 13-year-old he’s supposed to be babysitting.
Fraser is an interesting commodity: Good-looking, charming and possessed of great comic timing, he seems capable of doing it all (see “The Quiet American”) and is certainly a refreshing ingredient in “Journey,” which could have dispensed with humanity altogether in its headlong pursuit of CG pyrotechnics. What the film needs — the book had it, and the 1959 film had it inadvertently — is humor, which Fraser provides. That’s a lot more than one gets from the stiffly Scandinavian Anita Briem, who looks beautiful, much like a glacier.
Conveniently, Briem’s character, Hannah, is a mountain guide whose late father was, like Max, a “Vernian” — someone who believed Verne was writing fact rather than elaborate fiction. Hannah finds this all very embarrassing but agrees to take Trevor and Sean to the mouth of the volcano for 5,000 kroner a day. One anticipates the frostiness between Trevor and Hannah will thaw, which it does, as Sean looks on with adolescent envy/yearning/disgruntlement. But it takes a while.
In the meantime, the trio perform alternately dangerous and ridiculous feats of derring-do — jumping into a couple of handcars on a decrepit mining rail line, by which they plummet miles below sea level to a jewel-encrusted cavern floored with fragile muscovite. This, of course, collapses spectacularly, after several seconds of will-it-or-won’t-it, sending our heroes to even greater depths. There, they find carnivorous plants, “Alien”-like fish and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Who knew?
What “Journey to the Center of the Earth” emphasizes is how technology ends up dictating content: Helmer Brevig seems compelled to remind us, now and again, that we’re in 3-D, so something flies at our faces for no apparent reason except to justify the ad budget. It’s ornamental, gimmicky and wholly unnecessary in a film where the narrative and 2-D effects would have been absorbing enough on their own.
A more unavoidable obstacle here is that there’s not much in the way of plot — the story is in the tour through the labyrinthian intimacies of inner Earth. As such, it’s an f/x wizard’s dream, and Brevig makes the most of it.
Production values are first-rate.