[This review refers to the theatrical release of the film. A review of the DVD and bonus features can be found at the bottom of this page.]
It took me a while to get around to reviewing Journey to the Center of the Earth because I wanted to see it in 3-D. It remains a fact that there are relatively few theaters in the country equipped with the right projection equipment to show a digital 3-D movie, although that number is increasing with every year. Two-thirds of American cinemas will show this movie in standard 2-D, which is kind of sad considering that the whole thing exists as a demonstration of how digital 3-D takes a movie thrill ride to the next level.
The plot is simple. Brendan Fraser plays Trevor Anderson, a volcanic scientist whose brother went missing during fieldwork. Trevor agrees to have his troubled young nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) stay with him for a week, but as soon as the kid arrives, suspicious activity is found on Trevor's computerized volcano-watch system. He and the kid pack up and head for Iceland, where they hire a tour guide named Hanna (Anita Briem) to lead them to the base of a volcano. There, Trevor finds what he always suspected: that there are volcanic tubes plunging straight into the Earth's core.
The trio falls down one of these tunnels and discovers a little "world within the world." There are mountains and an ocean, and other more dangerous things like dinosaurs, carnivorous plants, and man-eating fish. Together, they must navigate all these dangers and find a way to safely return to the surface.
My problem with 3-D has always been that it's a gimmick. Filmmakers who use it tend to get distracted thinking about ways to make stuff pop out at the audience. And isn't it hard to get lost in the plot when you're constantly being made aware of something coming at you? Journey to the Center of the Earth is really the first 3-D movie I've seen that even begins to circumnavigate this problem. While there is no shortage of "popping," the film frequently uses 3-D to convey great senses of depth as the heroes traverse further down into the earth's core. There are shots where the characters peer into deep volcanic tunnels, and you get a sense of vertigo as you observe. The best use comes during a scene in which Sean, in the midst of a magnetic field, has to hop from one floating rock to another while a bottomless chasm awaits below him. So delightfully nauseating is this sequence that I literally couldn't wait for him to climb to safety. This is how you make 3-D work.
Other scenes are just as remarkable. A mine cart sequence (not unlike the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) conveys a real sense of speed as you appear to vicariously rocket down a rickety track. Later, the explorers are on the mini-ocean where they are attacked by giant piranha-like fish that jump out of the water to bite them. Using pieces of wood like baseball bats, Trevor and Sean knock the fish away - right toward us. Perhaps the ickiest scene (and I mean this in a complementary way) involves large Venus Flytraps that try to eat the trio, and appear to be attempting to eat us in the audience too.
In 2-D, Journey to the Center of the Earth would be okay, I guess, but you'd be more apt to notice the cardboard characters, or the thin plotting, or the way each grave danger seems to be easily solved. In 3-D, however, it's a complete blast. This is a case where adding an extra visual dimension also adds a dimension to the film itself. If you can find a theater near you that's showing it in 3-D, by all means make the extra effort to see it in this format. The whole movie seems to be designed to demonstrate the possibilities of the new digital process, so to see it in 2-D seems kind of pointless.
( out of four)
Journey to the Center of the Earth is arriving on DVD (in both widescreen and fullscreen) and Blu-Ray (in widescreen only) on October 28. Excitingly, it will be presented in your choice of 2-D or 3-D formats, with four pairs of 3-D glasses included in the case. The quality of the 3-D presentation depends on where you watch it. I initially attempted it on my rear projection TV, which didn't work at all. When I put the DVD into my computer, it worked beautifully. When I watched it on someone else's HDTV, it was even better. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the scope of the 3-D worked in the home format. It proves that today's video technology allows for the successful exhibition of 3-dimensional movies. When Journey was in theaters over the summer, the finite number of digital 3-D theaters in the country meant that 2/3 of theaters showing the film had to show it in 2-D. If you didn't get to see it in 3-D at the time, the home viewing experience ultimately proves to be successful and satisfying.
There are, of course, some bonus features to go along with the main attraction. Star Brendan Fraser and director Eric Brevig share a lively, jokey commentary on a separate audio track. Under the Special Features menu, you will find the following:
"A World Within a World" - This mini-documentary explores the historical origins of the theory that led Jules Verne to write the book on which the film is based. History experts give us an overview of the different theories that were formulated when scientists first began pondering the center of the earth. This feature is educational, entertaining, and kind of funny when you hear some of the things people used to believe.
"Being Josh" - This segment follows young actor Josh Hutcherson during a typical day on set, from his trailer, to the hair and make-up tent, to the blue screen set where he filmed the fantastic "floating rocks" sequence. Extra time is also given to Hutcherson's on-set teacher, who gives the 13 year-old an education in between filming. I think this feature will appeal most to the actor's young fans.
"How to Make Dinosaur Drool" - In one key scene, a dinosaur drools on Hutcherson. This short but humorous segment looks at how the props department tried different recipes to create the most "realistic" drool possible.
Additionally, the DVD contains two TV games - one recreating the mine cart scene and the other recreating the "fish batting" scene - that may appeal to children, but which won't hold much challenge or appeal for adults. A digital copy of the movie is also included so you can watch Journey on your computer or portable device.
The bonus material is good, but the real news is that Journey to the Center of the Earth is available here in 3-D. As I wrote in my original review, 3-D is the only way to see the film, as it was clearly designed for the format. For a really fun movie night, gather the family around the TV, pop on your 3-D glasses, and enjoy the show.
Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D is rated PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D
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