Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)
Directed by Eric Brevig. Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem
Arguing whether Jules Verne is the Father of Science Fiction seems useless now. Regardless of who may deserve the title more—Cyrano de Bergerac, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, etc.—Verne’s effect on literature of the imagination is so enormous and continually influential that he’s clearly the Father of Something Really Big. However, in the U.S. he still suffers from poor, outdated translations (often with cuts that remove almost a fourth of the originals) and the perception that he’s only an author for children. Better translations are now available, but the awful ones still remain in print, perching on bookshelves like croaking ravens to scare new readers away. New translations of his non-scientific-themed novels have started to broaden the author’s reputation (see my reviews of Michael Strogoff and The Lighthouse at the End of the World to get a sense of the other sort of novels that the distinguished Frenchman wrote), but Verne still remains “that guy we read in fifth grade” for many adults.
I’m a Verne fanatic, unabashedly, and I love him even more now than I did when I was an eager “young adult” reader. Discovering new books and new versions of books I thought I knew—the recent translations and restorations of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea are nothing short of revelatory—makes each Verne read a thrilling exploration. My favorite of his novels is Voyage au centre de la Terre, published in 1864 as the author’s career was starting to ascend. It was translated into English as Journey to the Center of the Earth, and sometimes Journey to the Interior of the Earth. On a deep personal level, I respond to the romance of a subterranean sojourn and discovering the mysteries hiding in the great caverns beneath a volcano in Iceland. Verne’s sense of wonder here is simply breathtaking.
However, I didn’t feel excited about seeing the new film version of the novel, so I skipped the New Line Cinema/Walden Media 2008 Journey to the Center of the Earth in theaters, and instead waited for video. The novel had already received a major film adaptation in 1959 as part of a stampede of Verne and Victorian Steampunk movies riding the success of Disney’s 20 000 Leagues under the Seas, the best and most influential of Verne movies. The 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth is an adequate film, surprising most of all because Pat Boone isn’t one of the problems with it. The Bernard Herrmann score is awesome, and some of the effects are excellent. But the lizards with fins stuck on their backs standing in for dinosaurs are sad to watch (where are Ray Harryhausen and Eiji Tsuburaya when you need them?), and there’s too much “duck” in the film. A new theatrical version was long overdue.
But the trailers for Journey ‘08 turned me off with their emphasis on comedy, Brendan Fraser, and “family” entertainment. Walden Media’s previous Verne adaptation, Around the World in 80 Days, was screechingly awful and had almost nothing to do with the novel, and that didn’t bolster my confidence in the new Journey to the Center of the Earth at all. I waited for the DVD, and that means I missed out on what must have been a spectacular 3D experience.
The movie was shot in RealD 3D, the same single-projector technology used for 2007’s Beowulf, but not every movie theater showed it in this format. New Line has released the film on DVD in both flat and 3D versions—glasses included. Unfortunately, I was only able to see the film in the 2D format, something I have to take into consideration when reviewing it. The 3D version probably isn’t impressive on a television screen, but it received enormous amounts of praise from critics when it played in theaters . . . in fact, it was often the only praise the movie got.
But 3D be damned; I genuinely like this film, which came as an utter surprise to me. I didn’t think a story like Journey to the Center of the Earth could work in a contemporary setting—most Verne movies since Disney’s 20 000 Leagues under the Sea take place in the Victorian Age—but director Eric Brevig and Co. proved me wrong. The new film presents the story as both a new version of the book and a sequel to it; the novel plays a role in the movie, where it isn’t fiction but disguised nonfiction that Verne took down from the experiences of a real Professor Lidenbrock. The movie often stays close to the novel’s narrative because the characters use a copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth to guide them. It’s a good solution, and it will inspire young readers to seek out the novel for themselves. (Be warned: a completely false translation still lurks on bookstore shelves. Read this for a guide on how to pick your Journey. Here’s a quick hint: Don’t buy the Signet version. If you can find it, buy the Oxford World’s Classics edition with a translation by Verne scholar William Butcher.)
The 3D gimmicks come flying at the viewer immediately, and in 2D they have a annoying quality (“Oh, hey, 3D!”). Tape-measures, yo-yos, Brendan Fraser spitting into the camera . . . the film desperately wants to get audience members wearing the funny glasses hooked on the effects as soon as possible. This gets less annoying once the story enters the subterranean world, where bizarre objects flying all over the screen no longer seems improbable. Baseball-batting killer fish into the camera? Fine, I’ll go with that.
Professor Trevor Anderson (Fraser), a volcanologist who has just had his project funding cut, locates his vanished brother’s notes inside his copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth. These notes, a substitute for the Old Norse code from the novel, might lead to Verne’s world deep under the earth. But since Trevor is supposed to be taking care of his brother’s sullen teen son Sean (Hutcherson), he drags the kid along with him for the trip to Iceland to check with another volcanologist listed in his brother’s notes. They fund the trip with jars of quarters. I’m not kidding.
The uncle and nephew bonding sounds like a clichéd groaner (although the novel also features an uncle-nephew pairing), but the chemistry between Fraser and Hutcherson is very good. Hutcherson is a natural young actor, and I’ve appreciated his performances in everything I’ve seen him in so far (Zarthura, Little Manhattan). Fraser mugs much less here than he usually does, and he projects an immense clumsy likability that makes the bantering dialogue work. And there’s far less jokiness in the script than the trailers made it seem.
Trevor and Sean find that the Icelandic volcanologist has died, but his daughter Hanna (Breim, an actual Icelandic actress; I appreciate the verisimilitude) agrees to guide them to the volcano where Verne’s book claims Lidenbrock made his descent. Through a series of accidents, including extremely precise lightning strikes, a wild mine cart race (ooooh, 3D!), and a collapsing muscovite floor over an endless shaft, our three heroes end up in the fabulous inner world of the Verne’s novel. Now, to find a way out. . . . Good thing they’ve got Verne’s book to help them. I hope it’s a decent translation. If they got stuck with the “Hardwigg” re-write, they would be doomed.
As an adventure movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth delivers. It moves fast and through clever dangers and suspense set-pieces. Most of the novel’s main events appear here: the interior ocean crossing, a giant mushroom forest, the escape through a steam-shaft, the appearance of prehistoric animals. The movie throws in a few more hazards, as you might expect for an effects-driven Summer movie: huge carnivorous plants, leaping fanged fish, floating magnetic rocks, and pursuit by a carnivorous dinosaur identified in the press-book as a Gigantosaurus (go ahead and call it a T. rex, I don’t think anybody will mind). The characters show ingenuity in extracting themselves from these dangers in a way that feels like Verne, and they make extensive use of science in doing so. Although obviously an outrageous story, the movie treats the use of scientific knowledge with enormous respect, and I applaud that. It rewards characters for thinking, and that’s a better moral than any family-bonding message the movie might try to convey.
The effects probably look better in 3D. In the flat version they often look, well, flat. The compositing between the actors and the digital effects often makes the characters look pasted on to the scenery. In one scene, Trevor punches out a giant Venus flytrap with a backhand, but the effect makes it look as if the CGI plant is about five feet behind Fraser. However, the backdrop artwork is sumptuous and gives the feeling that it might have come from a painting done for one of Verne’s original editions.
Journey to the Center of the Earth ultimately gets through the occasional clumsiness of its dialogue and tendency to rib the audience because it still retains Jules Verne’s sense of wonder and his love of scientific possibilities. It is far more fun than most adventure films today, and hands down beats any live-action “family” film released this summer. (WALL·E beats it in the general category.) It’s superior to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and that’s the second time I’ve claimed that about a 2008 adventure film with Brendan Fraser. Yes, I disliked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that much.
If you’ve got the time, I recommend reading this article, Jules Verne: A Reappraisal by William Butcher, which challenges many of the presumptions about the author in the English-speaking world.