Hollywood returns to the center of the Earth with a new dimension

by John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

10 July 2008


We might be digging for an analogy here, but compare the Earth to a golf ball (and the Big Bang as tee time!): Both have a dense inner core, a lighter but rigid middle interior, and a relatively wafer-thin surface. Our planet may not be white and dimpled, but it certainly flies through space.

What we’re pretty sure it doesn’t have inside are vast oceans, bejeweled caverns and prehistoric animal life.

“Whattya mean?” joked Eric Brevig, director of the action-adventure extravaganza “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (opening Friday) in which the phantasmagoria of the 1864 Jules Verne novel are recreated, and a plausible human drama is sandwiched in between the 3-D pyrotechnics.

“My idea was taking the classic novel and making it accessible for a modern audience,” he said. “It was a challenge - there were scripts around that were period scripts, but my idea was to take the fun of the movie, which is that there’s stuff down there that people don’t know about, and make the characters emotionally interesting. ... And they’re not just uninteresting humans in a movie about visual effects.”

Brevig knew he had an edge with Brendan Fraser in the lead (“He was my first choice ... “I thought, ‘If I can get this guy, half my work is done”). Fraser plays Trevor Anderson, a forward-thinking seismologist whose brother disappeared some years before. When Trevor’s nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) comes to visit, he arrives with a box of his father’s papers. Inside is a copy of the Jules Verne book, with notes indicating the existence of a portal to inner Earth. The next thing you know, Trevor and Sean are off to Iceland, where they pick up a beautiful guide (Anita Briem). The trio vanishes into the ground.

It was Fraser’s idea, Brevig said, to change the Trevor-Sean relationship from father-son to uncle-nephew, which gives them a common concern - the missing brother/father - and the movie more of an emotional hook. But there’s no getting around it: At the heart and soul of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is a whole host of visual effects and the attraction of 3-D. What Verne wrote about - in a book that was geologically clueless coming from a 19th century author who predicted space travel - is custom-made for filmmaking technocrats. (It also inspired the Henry Levin movie of 1959, whose visual-effects people are forever in debt to the inventor of papier mâche.)

3-D has its critics: Brevig admitted he wanted to make something that “wouldn’t hurt the eyes.”

“3-D opens up a wonderful tool set for the director and shuts a lot (of doors) for the visual-effects people,” Brevig said. “Because a lot of what visual effects is about is tricking the audience, and you can’t trick the audience if they can see it with both eyes. There are a lot of shortcuts you have to rethink.”

Effects vet Christopher Townsend (“Star Wars,” “A.I.,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”), who led Brevig’s visual tech team, said it was difficult bringing the experience of a “mono” world to make a film in “stereo.” (“In visual effects,” said Brevig, “3-D refers to computer graphics that can move around and have shape, so we used ‘stereo’ - and then it’s the sound people who get all confused.”) In 2-D cinema, Townsend said, building a mountain involves certain conventions: “You make it small, you decrease the contrast on the image, increase the black to imply depth, soften the focus and put it behind other things. That’s the basic recipe.”

But in stereo - everything is shot twice, and the images “married” - two eyes are working and forced perspective doesn’t cut it. “You can put the mountain behind the person in the foreground, but it will be on the same visual plane as the character,” Townsend said. “So you need to really construct something larger and put it 1,000 feet behind your character. It makes the work a lot harder.”

Still, Townsend thinks it’s the way to go, regardless of content. “Someone was saying, ‘Well, you wouldn’t do a little romantic comedy in stereo,’ and I said, ‘No, I think you do.’ You do ‘My Dinner With Andre’ in stereo, you do ‘Before Sunrise,’ two people sitting in a cafe talking. People will say, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ but if you imagine it as a stereo film, you’d be the third person at the table. It wouldn’t have to be an eye-popping thing. But you’d be more immersed in it.”



Brendan Fraser may be a bona fide movie star, but can he possibly compare to Pat Boone? When the ‘50s pop idol stepped into the role of Alec McEwen for 1959’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” he was coming off several years of singing top-charting hits and making Little Richard songs (like “Tutti-Frutti”) safe for white America. His performance? Let’s say it ranks up there with fellow rockers Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo” and Fabian in “Five Weeks in a Balloon.”

The crowning performance in Henry Levin’s version of the Jules Verne classic is by James Mason, who is so hammy you could smell it from sea level. As Prof. Oliver Lindenbrook, knighted geologist from the University of Edinburgh, it is Mason who leads Alec, strapping Icelander Hans Belker (Peter Ronson); Hans’ duck, Gertrude; the evil Count Saknussem (Thayer David), and the recently widowed Carla Goetaborg (Arlene Dahl) into a subterranean lair of giant lizards and secret oceans. Carla’s late husband did the research Lindenbrook uses to make his trip. Bad guys are in hot pursuit.

The ‘59 “Journey” got three Oscar nominations, and while the special effects pale in comparison to the 3-D pyrotechnics of the new film, they aren’t bad, considering their time. The older version was also fairly faithful to the Verne book (except for the bad guys, and the fact that the novel began in Germany rather than Scotland). The new film uses the novel itself as a plot device; the male principals (Fraser and young Josh Hutcherson) are Americans who team up with an Icelandic guide (Anita Briem) to follow a “Vernian” route below ground. There are plenty of other updates as well - Googling at 30,000 feet during the flight to Iceland, for instance, or our intrepid explorers trying to use a cell phone miles below the Earth’s crust. Things, we can be sure, that Pat Boone never dreamed about.

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