Dir. Eric Brevig, 2008, US, 92 minutes
Effects whiz Eric Brevig (Total Recall, Pearl Harbour) makes his feature debut with this 3-D take on Jules Verne's classic 1864 novel; the result targets children (particularly boys) and their parents. In fact, the 3-D novelty could prove to be more of a draw than the cast, where Brendan Fraser is the only marquee name and there are just three main characters fielding minimal dialogue.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth is, at heart, an experiment with the versatile Fusion System, a camera rig developed by James Cameron that brings greater flexibility to 3-D shooting. Unsurprisingly given this, the director's background and the minimal acting challenges, the main draw here is the special effects, with the script mostly there to set up the fireworks. With or without 3-D, the most obvious current comparisons are Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, with receipts veering towards the latter.
With its minimal script and strong visual focus, international prospects are good, as is ancillary, given Hollywood hasn't attempted such an ambitious screen adaptation of the Verne novel since 1959.
As scripted by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, Journey To The Centre of the Earth is centred around brilliant but bumbling professor of geology Trevor Anderson (Fraser), whose odd theories mean the future of his lab is in danger.
Trevor's geologist brother was lost in a subterranean expedition a decade earlier, and the arrival of his bratty nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson), forces Trevor to clean up his house.
In the process, he finds papers left behind by his brother that send him and Sean to a volcano in Iceland. When a landslide traps them and their beautiful local guide, Hannah (Anita Briem), their journey underground begins.
The three fall through a fragile geological formation into the core of the earth and trek through one terrifying landscape after another in a desperate search for a way out. Trevor and Sean bond as uncle and nephew, and Trevor and Anita show signs of an attraction that is never going to go beyond a kiss - this film's PG rating is due to 'intense adventure action and some scary moments' as opposed to anything racier.
Fraser as the intrepid geologist is this film's version of Indiana Jones. His absent-minded professor exploring the earth's inner core has less camp than he brought to the Mummy franchise, yet the script gives him room for more comic irony than James Mason brought to the part in 1959.
As Sean, the angry fatherless nephew, Josh Hutcherson follows the cookbook version of the callow damaged youth who matures when challenged. (Heart-throb Pat Boone played the comparable part as a wholesome young man in the 1959 version.) Icelandic actor Anita Briem brings pluck to the cast as the mountain guide (daughter of another renegade geologist) who can out-climb either male.
Brevig's imagination shines through when the trio, crossing an underground sea on a raft, are set upon by huge piranhas, whose teeth snap out at the audience in 3-D. Just as vivid are sea serpents that feed on the piranhas, and luminescent underground birds which give off light like fireflies.
In another ingenious blend of computer-generated creatures and live action, Trevor and Anita find themselves prey to carnivorous plants, which choke their victims like boa constrictors or close their jaws line Venus flytraps.
Beyond the impressive flourishes, to be expected from an effects specialist, Brevig's direction is barely there, although DP Steve Shuman does get at some of the growing tenderness between Fraser and Briem. Scenes in Trevor's lab or in the Icelandic landscape would be lifeless, if not for the 3-D novelty - which is Journey To The Earth's not-so-secret weapon in bringing the kids back for repeat visits.
New Line Cinema
Visual Effects Supervisor