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Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Little-Late Film Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Have you ever noticed how in movies, caves deep within the bowels of the Earth tend to have just enough light for us to see how much work the artists put into their presentation?  This is not just an honest observation I had while watching Journey to the Center of the Earth, but it’s a metaphor for the entire film. Some movies are made for the sole purpose of looking good to capitalize on a trend or to simply lure eight-year-olds into nagging their parents about taking them to see it; and like that amazingly well-lit cave, Journey is a cavernous, empty, twisting mess that got very old, very fast. 

This is one of those movies where the heroes can easily drop everything and enter the ancient nether with little regard for familial or financial responsibility.  They just go, and they always seem to get where their going with little danger.  The danger is always reserved for the unknown places that are hidden near their destination.  Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) is a socially inept scientist who is losing his grant and is being forced out by an antagonistic rival named Alan Kitzens (Seth Meyers).  One day, while babysitting his nephew Sean (Joseph Anderson), an anomalous seismic reading leads him to leave on the spot to Iceland, teen in tow.  It is here that they meet a guide named Hannah, who leads them into the mountains to the reader.  There’s a cave, and some falls, and boom!  Center of the Earth!

Journey to the Center of the Earth is not so much a film, but a series of ideas that are forced together in an attempt to generate artificial thrills.  All of the things you would have expected to see are here; there is lots of running, falling, shouting, hanging from ledges and unconvincing CGI creatures.  Nothing in this film is really convincing or even cohesive.  There are lots of phosphorescent beings, lots of big scary things want to eat you, a ton of science and logic-defying set-pieces, and lots of unnatural natural disasters to remind us we are watching an action/adventure film. 

Instead of there being natural development of the characters in Journey, they tend to sort of evolve.  The nerdy scientist becomes an action hero; the bratty teen becomes a brave adventurer; and the blonde chick, who doesn’t seem particularly surprised she’s sailing across and ocean deep beneath the earth’s crust, just sort of stands there looking sexy.  I guess you could argue they are adapting, but I think screenwriters Michael Weiss (who spent his career up to this point writing overblown and crappy thrillers) and Jennifer Flackett (who spent her career up to this point writing overblown and crappy family films) just wanted to write lame one-liners and clich├ęd interjections during over-the-top action scenes, rather than an engaging, honest screenplay.  There is meant to be a dynamic that grows between three characters in the depths, this is obvious, but the one time the film does slow down during their adventure to develop this people, it feels forced, manipulative, and totally illogical.

The character development is further addled by the poor performances by the three leads.  Fraser is always charismatic, though usually not great, on screen.  Here he is boring and shallow, spouting out “sciency” things to make sure we know he’s got brains.  The obligatory female is played by Anita Briem.  She is okay, though she really doesn’t have any purpose in the film except to provide Fraser’s character someone to quip to when they and the young Sean are obligatorily separated.  Sean exists to give the kids in the audience a point of connection.  That’s it.  This entire film could be re-cut without him and it would not make a bit of difference.  He is not a particularly good actor here.  Some critics don’t like to pick on kids but not me.  There are good child actors.  There are plenty of them.  Casting a boring, uncharismatic teen does not make the movie better.  Given the needless inclusion of characters in this film, I’m surprised they didn’t include a twenty-something sidekick who provides constant comic relief in the form of snarky dialogue.  In fact, one young scientist that works with Trevor in the lab was probably, I speculate, originally meant to be in the action as well to give us more cheap laughs, but was eventually written out.  Once again: I only speculate.

This is a shameless movie, complete with a built in car commercial and a blatant tease for a sequel in the end.  The movie also fully exploits its advertised 3D-ness, though I did not watch it in 3D (that crap gives me a headache).  There are plenty of moments where things are sent towards the audience to create those wow moments that are meant to make you forget you’re watching a mediocre, or in this case bad, film.  For that matter, I refuse to even call this a movie.  It is a jigsaw puzzle of poorly conceived action scenes that more closely resemble a video game than a film.  So, Journey to the Center of the Earth, I cast ye aside, you don’t even deserve to be called a piece of cinema.

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