As a movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth isn't much more than a feel-good adventure emphasizing the importance of family, an encyclopedic knowledge of geology and chemistry and loads of good old-fashioned luck. But as a visit to cinema's third dimension, it's a thrill ride not to be missed.
One of the first entries in what promises to be a spate of 3-D movies to be released over the next few years, Journey is at once a throwback to the extra-dimensional films of old - when directors concentrated on making sure that their characters threw lots of stuff at the camera, the better to get a rise out of the audience - and a showcase for new technology that both heightens the effect and makes the movies easier to watch.
Brendan Fraser, in one of those generic Everyman performances that are becoming his specialty, is Trevor Anderson, an academic geologist about to get his tenure yanked out from under him. Desperate, he scours his brain and archives for something to prove how valuable he is to the university. Just when he despairs of ever finding such proof, up pops his malcontent nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) for a visit
Sean's in a bit of a teen funk, perhaps in part because his explorer dad vanished years ago, and his mom hopes Uncle Trevor will be the man to shake him out of it. Instead, the two feed off each other's funks, until a book shows up that used to belong to Sean's dad - a book that apparently offers a convenient road map to the Earth's core, accessible via an Icelandic volcano.
So off they go exploring, picking up a handy and resilient and beautiful guide on the way, Hannah (Anita Bream, briefly seen in Showtime's The Tudors as Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII). Turns out the map is pretty good, too - which is lucky for them, since it makes the title trek possible, and for us, since it affords the movie all sorts of extra-dimensional possibilities.
First-time director Eric Brevig, who cut his teeth as a visual-effects supervisor on such films as Total Recall, Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow, tries using the 3-D technique to immerse his audience in the film and make them feel as if they're right there in the midst of the journey. The effort's only partially successful; while the 3-D effect adds depth and enables certain objects to seemingly escape the plane of the film (especially a flock of magical glowbirds that will most likely find their way under some Christmas trees this year), there remains the problem of the self-limiting movie screen to conquer. Everything still happens within the limiting rectangle of the screen, which keeps jarring the viewer back to the inescapable unreality of the movie-going experience. If only 3-D could somehow be married to Cinerama, a '60s-vintage process that used a wraparound screen to virtually embrace the audience within the film frame. Now that in 3-D would really be something.
Still, Journey offers plenty of extra-dimensional thrills. Some are fun, if a little too calculated, like a series of plunges down tunnels and crawls along sky bridges that would seem more at home in a theme park than a movie theater. But being chased by a 3-D Tyrannosaurus rex should be on anyone's must-experience list, and a cracking lava field that extends right up to the audience's collective chin is both eerie and wondrous. Traditionalists, raised on 3-D Three Stooges shorts that included hypodermic needles dangling right before their eyes, are also served, thanks to a basin-level shot of Trevor gargling.
The script, from Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, is simplistic as can be with its cliched squabbling-family dynamics offering little more than a hook for the 3-D technicians to hang their hats on. But for most audiences, this one included, that was plenty.
(Buyer beware: Journey to the Center of the Earth is being shown in 3-D only in theaters that offer digital projection. That means most theaters will be showing it in traditional 2-D, taking away a good 80 percent of the movie's appeal. Be sure they hand you a pair of funny glasses as you walk into the theater. If not, maybe another viewing of Iron Man is in order.)
See more photos and watch a preview of Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D at baltimoresun.com/journey
Journey to the Center of the Earth
(New Line Cinema) Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem. Directed by Eric Brevig. Rated PG for scary, intense moments. Time 93 minutes.