“You’re not studying rocks in a lab here, professor. This is life or death.” on making this announcement, the mountain guide Hannah (Anita Briem) means to goose geology professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) to action. But while he’s more or less ready to be goosed, having traveled to Iceland in search of his missing brother, Trevor is more or less immobilized. Specifically, he’s stuck inside a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth, which has precious little new to say about journeys, centers, or — amazingly — action.
Eric Brevig’s adventure flick alludes repeatedly to its most obvious sources, Jules Verne’s 1864 novel and the amiable 1959 movie version starring James Mason. While Trevor does tend initially to look for scientific explanations, he is also indebted to his more audacious brother Max, who was in turn a “Vernian.” In this he was, it turns out, much like Hannah’s father, who went so far as to erect an institute in Iceland, the better to pursue the idea that the earth has an explorable center. When Trevor arrives at the institute, long shut down, he brings with him Max’s marked-up copy of Verne’s Visionary Novel. Hannah recognizes the obsessive inclinations signaled by that book, and so begins to reveal her father’s history with similar inclinations.
Before you begin to worry that these adults are running amok on their own, rest assured that they are both appropriately goosed by Max’s 13-year-old son Sean (Josh Hutcherson), determined to redeem his nutcase dad’s reputation and also learn a bit about his absence. Their three-way effort lands them pretty promptly inside an ostensible “old mineshaft,” that is, in fact, a sort-of direct route to the much-discussed planet’s center (and not a little bit ripped off from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom‘s roller-coaster mineshaft sequence). After some early moments spent rappelling and falling, the trio arrives at something like a destination, where the temperature is exceedingly high and the effects are extremely unimpressive.
This is, amazingly, the primary takeaway for Journey to the Center of the Earth, the disappointment of the 3D. As the people go down (through a glacier, the mine shaft, and assorted crevicey-looking holes) and then make their way across a few horizontal environments (a lava field, a heated sea), they are on occasion confronted with three-dimensional gimmicks. These include a yo-yo at film’s start (found among Max’s effects, an indication of his questing nature, or something), as well as a few Plesiosaurs and flesh-eating fish, variously lurching or flying through the earth’s interior space. But for the most part, the action, so-called, remains rudimentary.
It’s not the first time a plot and characters have been limited by lack of imagination, certainly. And it’s not a necessity that a kids’ movie worry about impressing adults. But given the premise here — 3D! — the lack of visual adventure and imaginative stretch is particularly odd. It’s helpful that Sean declares their simultaneous first plummets “awesome,” because otherwise you might have missed it.
Beyond its dearth of 3D exploitation, the movie feels slowed by its repetition of plot points. They find diamonds and twitty creatures called “glowbirds” (with Sean selected as companion by one whose chirp is provided by Fraser), as well as Max’s notebook and materials to construct — so ingeniously — a boat in order to cross the increasingly roiling sea. Indeed, they soon realize that the earth’s center comprises a world with something like seasons, and that the temperature will within hours get high enough to kill them. Thus the trio is granted a narrative urgency: they need to get out.
This point is reinforced by the tedium of their expedition. Most everything they find here — from organisms to surroundings — is awfully familiar. By the time Trevor is on the run from a Tyrannosaurus rex, you may be wondering if maybe he’s fallen into a long-lost collection of Spielbergian outtakes. Suffice it to say, that such comparisons are not beneficial. Always charming and enthusiastic, Fraser is up against it here. As he grimaces and exerts, so earnestly, and for long minutes, your mind may begin to wander. Remember Gods and Monsters? What happened to that career?