Going Down: Brendan Fraser falls into a deep, deep hole at the Center of the Earth

At the top, let's be clear about one thing: Journey to the Center of the Earth is more a demo reel than a narrative feature. It's a decent, if overly familiar and yawningly obvious compendium of look-at-me moments intended to show off the latest and greatest in stereo 3D filmmaking, in which the same thing's shot twice, more or less merged into a blurry single image and rendered almost-kinda-sorta-not-really lifelike through the polarized shades of the RealD glasses you get to wear (and keep!). It's successful enough to merit further exploration into 3D filmmaking, where, till now, the greatest advancement has been that, well, 3D no longer hurts your eyes as much as it used to. Seriously, to the director and his team of assemblymen, a pat on the back — look forward to what you come up with when blessed with a real screenplay, a few more dollars for special effects that don't look for total shit, and an actor who hasn't played against green screens for so long he's forgotten how to relate to people. Should be interesting.

Till then, we're stuck with dissecting the demo reel, tethered this go-round to another in a long line of remakes of Jules Verne's 1864 novel — which hit its apex for those of us in our late thirties with the Saturday-morning cartoon voiced by Ted Knight and Rick Wakeman's epic-length prog-rock retelling, the first to do so in stereo. The new Journey is more or less a remake of director Henry Levin's 1959 offering, in which James Mason, as precursor to both James Bond and Indiana Jones, drags Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl down to a prehistoric art gallery stocked with assorted matte paintings and papier-mâché sculptures that give the earth's core a groovy, lived-in vibe. Levin's was a template for the innerspace sci-fi films of the late '50s and early '60s, and here, director Eric Brevig — a visual-effects coordinator finally taking his seat in the director's chair — is just tracing old footsteps, with Brendan Fraser filling Mason's sturdier boots.

Oh, but it's in 3D this time — the best thing about which you can say is: "Hey, no headache!" With a catering budget to cower his predecessor's special-effects outlay, Brevig's version still feels astoundingly less ambitious than Levin's, which made more with less. If the 3D here is better than average, slightly, the rest of the movie brings it way, way down — not quite to the center of the earth, but at least a good six feet under.

Fraser, about to appear once more shouting for his Mummy in a googolplex near you, has completely forgotten how to speak to other actors sharing his space; it no longer looks like the guy's reading from cue cards, but shouting from them. As Trevor Anderson, a disheveled science professor nursing an invisible ache for a brother who died looking for the center of the earth, Fraser's so unrelentingly up all the time that a trip down, down, down is precisely what he needs. Only, there's wide-eyed and then there's blank-eyed, and Fraser can't find his way into a script in which he's subservient to effects that don't even arrive till a good third of the film in.

He loses us early, in scenes where he's supposed to be bonding with his dead brother's teenage son Sean (Josh Hutcherson of Firehouse Dog), whom he almost immediately leads into peril without a second thought. Fraser marches from one scene to the next, plot-plot-plotting along till, whoops, that's a mighty deep hole.

The movie takes its time arriving at the earth's core — there's another visitor to pick up, love interest Hannah (Anita Briem), the Icelandic tour-guide-slash-model — and then rushes to escape from it, almost in embarrassment. (The whole thing's a brisk 90 minutes, with half spent on top of the earth's surface.) There's good reason not to linger downtown: All the filmmakers summon from their collective imaginations is a dingier version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, replete with giant mushrooms and glow-in-the-dark birds that, close up, look like Mr. Bluebird escaped from the Song of the South. And there's a dinosaur. And some giant piranhas. And man-eating Venus fly traps. And...yeah, that's about it.

Episodes of Land of the Lost were more inspired.

The mine-train ride, nicked almost rail for rail from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, provides a bit of a mid-movie kick. (Journey to the Center of the Earth pretty much climaxes before it even penetrates.) Kids'll dig it, because they don't know any better; adults won't mind because, what with the rising price of gas and all, it's a paltry but sufficient substitute for a theme-park ride. Maybe that's how Warner Bros. ought to market the movie: Journey to the Center of the Earth — for the ultimate in summer staycations!

 
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