A loose, modernized adaptation of the classic fantasy novel by Jules Verne, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is being billed as the first live-action feature film to be specifically made in the Real-D format. Although a standard two-dimensional version will be playing in theaters without Real-D capabilities, prospective audiences shouldn't even begin to consider seeing the movie that way. Since 3-D is how it was always intended to be seen, 3-D is how it should be seen. Ultimately, though, it's not really worth seeing at all, its only notable aspect being that, in years to come, it will stand as nothing more than a once-groundbreaking curiosity that rapidly became archaic and cornballsort of like "Lawnmower Man"-era virtual reality. Animated pictures in Real-D have been hugely impressive (i.e. 2007's "Meet the Robinsons
"), but "Journey to the Center of the Earth" proves that live-action efforts still have a ways to go to perfect the style. Sure, it's a giant leap forward from the dopey, red-and-green-lensed cardboard glasses, but there's still not enough of a "wow" factor to make up for the story's and characters' inadequacies.
When science professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) learns that his university researching funds have been stripped from him, he becomes all the more determined to prove correct his controversial hypotheses. His biggest chance at doing that stems from seismic readings he picks up in Iceland, which also happens to be where his explorer brother disappeared without a trace years earlier. With 13-year-old nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) in tow and native beauty Hannah (Anita Briem) leading the way as their tour guide, Trevor and company soon find themselves trapped in a cave that leads them to an entirely new worldnot unlike the aforementioned Jules Verne novel, which is directly referencedat the center of the earth.
Directed by visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig (making his helming debut), "Journey to the Center of the Earth" has a few nifty action sequences further benefited by 3-D, one involving a runaway mining cart and another revolving around Sean's attempt to make his way across floating magnetic rocks freely suspended hundreds of feet in the air. Take the 3-D gimmick away, and the movie is a wasteland populated by lackluster material. Deciding that the aesthetics are primary over all else, screenwriters Michael Weiss and partners Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (2008's "Nim's Island
") have penned a dreadful script. For a high-concept project such as this, the plot is about as minimal as they come, the characters are developed by the barest of threads, and the dialogue (particularly Trevor's incessant one-liners in the second half) is painfully tacky.
Playing like "The Goonies" without the wit or resonance, the film skips from set-piece to set-piece as the characters vaguely react to the amazing sights they behold and hairy predicaments they must overcome. From an oceanic scene with attacking sea creatures and a cell phone that miraculously works, to dinosaur chases where the humans always are able to outrun a giant and hungry Tyrannosaurus, to faux-fanciful interludes with glowing birds and stunning vistas, the movie isn't lacking in action and all the other stuff expected in a family entertainment. There's also a would-be heart-tugging moment where Sean mourns the death of a father he hardly got to know, as well as a light romantic subplot between Trevor and Anita. The problem is, all of the above is strictly predictable, thin as a pencil, and lacking involvement. The viewer watches the film, but never actually connects to it.
Of the cast members, Brendan Fraser (2005's "Crash
") has the most experience, but his two major co-stars outact him. As Sean, the formidably gifted Josh Hutcherson (2007's "Bridge to Terabithia
") isn't always comfortable working in front of greenscreen, but he has that rare natural ability to come out of left field and hit notes of such emotional and humane truth that they scarcely belong in a film of this sort. He continues to be a major talent. And, as Hannah, relative newcomer Anita Briem is fetching and unaffected. That she, like her character, is Icelandic lends a layer of realism to a motion picture that is anything but realistic. Fraser, by comparison, is in random, bland action-hero mode as Trevor, and the unfunny dialogue he is forced to utter doesn't help matters.
Whether seen in 2-D or 3-D, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" doesn't resemble a theatrical studio release so much as it does a lame-but-diverting theme park attraction. Briskly paced but soulless where it counts, the film acts as empty spectacle that, when it all comes down to it, isn't particularly spectacular. Kids will be entertained to a point, but most adults will see right through director Eric Brevig's weak, IQ-deficient veneer. "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is akin to "'Jurassic Park' for Dummies."