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Sunday 13 July 2008

"Rocks for Jocks:
A Review of Journey to the Center of the Earth"

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Eric Brevig

Written by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin; based on the novel by Jules Verne (uncredited) and the 1959 film screenplay by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett (uncredited)

Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, and Seth Meyers

Official site: Official Journey to the Center of the Earth New Movie Trailers

While it falls short of the status of a classic science fiction film, Journey to the Center of the Earth is at least better than we had any right to expect, a lively and enjoyable popcorn movie that only occasionally insults the intelligence of filmgoers. The chief complaint from purists would be that the film utterly lacks the rich scientific and historical resonances of Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), as his characters' travels into the interior of the Earth function as a fascinating form of time travel into Earth's distant and recent past. But the filmmakers have the perfect defense: for while the novel serves as an important plot device in their film, repeatedly observed and referenced by its protagonists, nowhere in the credits is there any claim that the movie is actually based upon that novel, and how can one complain that a movie has failed to live up to the high quality of a novel that it isn't based on?

However, while the absence of Verne's name in the credits might be defended on the grounds that the filmmakers never had any intention of actually adapting his story, there might have been some mention of Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett's screenplay for the 1959 film starring James Mason and Pat Boone, for some aspects of this film seem indebted to its most prominent predecessor's colorful and playful approach to Verne's novel. As specific evidence, while the geology professor in Verne's novel is named Lidenbrook, I thought I heard someone in the film call Verne's protagonist Lindenbrook, which was actually the slightly different name used for Mason's professor in the 1959 film, and a concluding reference to Atlantis might have been inspired by the 1959 film's scenes of the underground ruins of Atlantis. More significantly, while Verne did include enormous sea monsters and mastodons in his underground realm, he unaccountably failed to provide any dinosaurs, an omission which Reisch and Brackett enthusiastically corrected and which surely inspired the writers of this film, Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett, and Mark Levin, to prominently feature a tyrannosaurus rex in their own adventure.

To be sure, in their own fashion, the screenwriters are following Verne's pattern. As in the novel, the leader of the expedition into the Earth's interior is a geology professor, although both Verne's pedantic Lidenbrook and Mason's crotchety Lindenbrook are light years away from Brendan Fraser's geeky Trevor Anderson (indeed, the very blandness of his new name conveys how the character's gravitas and eccentricities have here been played down in a presumed effort to please the crowd). As in the novel, he is accompanied by his nephew, although one appealingly younger than Lidenbrook's adult assistant, a thirteen-year-old Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson), temporarily dumped upon Anderson by his brother's widow. As in the novel, the two are joined in their quest by an Icelandic guide, although Verne's stolid Hans has somehow become a beautiful young woman named Hannah (Anita Briem, an actual native of Iceland) — arguably a better way to add a woman to the story than the 1959 film's introduction of Arlene Dahl's matronly Carla Göttberg as Lindenbrook's unwanted companion. And as in the novel, the trio travels to the Icelandic volcano Snaeffels, following clues regarding a possible passageway to the center of the Earth, and they descend from there to eventually find, among other things, a forest of giant mushrooms and an enormous underground ocean.

Yet there are only fleeting glimpses of Verne's broader interests in Earth's geological and biological history. True, the film begins with an iconic image of ancient life — a fossilized trilobite, quickly supplanted by a living specimen — but trilobites later function in the film only as a joke, when Anderson parentally nags Sean to "eat your trilobite." And true, there is that dinosaur, as well as plesiosauruses borrowed from Verne's novel. But the other creatures encountered by Anderson and his colleagues — flying piranha fish, gigantic Venus flytraps, glowing birds, etc. — seem unconnected to either Earth's actual or Earth's imagined past; they are only random novelties to entertain audiences and provide stimulating challenges for the film's team of special effects artists.

The only past era that the film seems interested in returning to, strangely enough, is America before the 1960s, that purportedly idyllic era of simple pleasures and strong family relationships. Thus, in an early sign of Sean's impending transformation from alienated loner to surrogate son, he abandons the PSP he was obsessively preoccupied with to start playing with his father's yo-yo (which Anderson tellingly describes as "your father's PSP"). Anderson rides a bicycle to work; beneath the Earth, they find evidence that Sean's father, while there, lived inside of a tree, that is, in a treehouse; to convey his delight with an idyllic underground landscape, Anderson, in the manner of children playing in a field, blows on an enormous dandelion puffball and sends its particles flying in the air; and when Sean unaccountably gets a cell phone call from his mother while they are fighting off those piranha, he tells his mother that he and his uncle are on "a fishing trip." But overshadowing these other attractively bucolic images from America's past are the film's recurring references to the all-American game of baseball: amidst the messy clutter of Anderson's home, Sean notices a baseball trophy; when he opens a box of his brother's possessions, the first thing Anderson pulls out is his old baseball glove; in the film's most moving scene, Anderson reads a passage from his brother's diary in which he regrets that his underground sojourn has prevented him from giving his three-old-son a baseball glove as a birthday present; and in an ultimate act of "male bonding" (a term actually used in the film), Anderson and Sean defeat those flying piranha by picking up sticks, holding and swinging them like baseball bats, and treating the piranha like fastballs by hitting them far away from the raft — "line drives," as Anderson calls them. Bizarrely, a film derived from a novel by a nineteenth-century French author thus rivals Field of Dreams (1990) in its naked affection for the game of baseball. (One irony in all this celebration of Americana, of course, is that star and executive producer Brendan Fraser is Canadian, the film concludes with Sean and his mother moving to Canada, and the film's credits suggest that, except for some location filming in Iceland, the film was shot entirely in Canada. This doesn't, though, prevent the filmmakers from working in an anti-Canadian joke, when Sean remarks that "We get to be Canadians — thrilling, eh?")

Any discussion of a science fiction film might also reasonably raise the issue of its overall scientific accuracy, and by the standards of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, as already suggested, the film doesn't do all that badly. That is, in an early scene of the film, Anderson briefly but accurately explains the theory of continental drift, and as far as this non-expert can tell, he is always correct in identifying the names and attributes of various minerals (although a mention of "schist" does unfortunately provoke some predictable adolescent humor). One would like to imagine that, in the time-honored tradition of science fiction, the filmmakers were aiming their story at youngsters with a keen interest in geology (indeed, there is even a scene where young Sean is passionately hugging a rock, though that is only because it is floating upside down). Still, the film as a whole remains a geologist's nightmare, as it is stoutly defending a theory that has long been discredited — namely, that there might somehow exist deep within the Earth regions with moderate temperatures that could support terrestrial life. Rather, all evidence decisively indicates that no matter where you are on Earth, the deeper you go, the hotter it gets, and it rather quickly gets too hot for humans and other organisms to endure. Granted that the film must maintain otherwise in order to keep its plot in motion, there might have at least been provided some pseudoscientific figleaf to make it all seem barely plausible — perhaps, some gobbledygook about the posited existence of a shaft from the North Pole that pumps in frigid Arctic air to keep the temperature in the region of the underground ocean down to a balmy 90 degrees. In addition, while lightning bolts do convey enormous amounts of electrical energy, I doubt that such a bolt could really provoke a massive landslide causing sixty to seventy tons of rocks to block a cave entrance. One might also denounce the film's flagrant disregard for environmental science; I mean, sure, it's exciting to see a tyrannosaurus rex rampaging across barren terrain, but the film in no way ever presents anything resembling the sort of ecosystem that would be needed to keep a population of large carnivores alive for the past 65 million years. Those giant Venus flytraps provoke similar questions: since these plants obviously cannot rely upon the periodic arrival of humans from the surface for sustenance, they would have to depend upon a steady diet of giant flies, though these are never observed in the film.

There is, however, one egregious scene in the film when both scientific and narrative logic are spectacularly thrown out the window simply to provide the excitement of a thrill ride. When Anderson, Sean, and Hannah come upon an abandoned mine's tracks and a few small vehicles perched upon them, Hannah immediately instructs her colleagues to jump into the vehicles and take a ride down the rails. Now, I cannot believe that Hannah, who before and after this scene is invariably careful and competent, would so thoughtlessly recommend a journey into the dark on sixty-year-old tracks. I cannot believe that the miners who constructed those tracks would make them randomly veer up and down, left in right, in enormous empty spaces so as to closely resemble a roller coaster. I cannot believe that if moving vehicles approached a large gap in the tracks, they could fly over the gap and land precisely on the tracks on the other side. Now, a very similar sequence was admittedly quite enjoyable as a level in the Donkey Kong Country video game, but one has slightly higher expectations when a professor of geology, rather than a cartoon ape, is taking the ride. (Another scene incongruously recalling a video game has Sean crossing a chasm by jumping on a series of floating magnetic rocks.)

If such silly scenes suggest that the filmmakers feel almost contemptuous of their audience, that suspicion would be reinforced by the recurring motif of characters spitting on their viewers. Early in the movie, after Anderson gargles, we get a toilet's-eye view of him spitting out the mouthwash at us; later, when a thirsty Sean drinks some sea water, he spits it out at us; and when a dinosaur is drooling over the prospect of devouring Sean, it deposits a big glob of green spit on us. To be sure, anyone making a movie in 3D (a topic to be soon discussed) must be constantly looking for innovative ways to use the technology, but one wonders if director Eric Brevig was fully cognizant of the cultural implications of spitting on someone, and of being spit on. What would Brevig think, for example, if Roger Ebert expressed his opinion about this film by walking up to Brevig and spitting on him?

Yet this film also, at times, seems to display enormous respect for its audience. When Anderson, Sean, and Hannah reach the underground ocean, for example, they begin to rely upon Verne's novel as a sort of guidebook: observing the giant mushrooms, they compare them to a nearly-identical illustration in the book, and when they wonder how they will be able to cross the ocean, another illustration provides the answer — a raft, which they immediately proceed to build. One discerns a brief attempt to effectively recast Verne's adventure as a sophisticated work of recursive fiction or metaliterature, a version of A Journey to the Center of the Earth in which Lidenbrook and his nephew, before departing, are visited by Jules Verne, who hands them a copy of A Journey to the Center of the Earth and tells them to rely upon its advice during their journey. It is because Anderson and Hannah have read the book, one might suggest in this vein, that they are usually able to handle their underground emergencies, while Sean, who has not read the book, is always in greater danger. Indeed, he realizes this when, in one moment of desperation, he cries out, "I really wish I read that book!" The irony recognized by knowledgeable viewers is that by the time Sean issues this lament, the problems he is facing — how to jump over magnetic rocks and how to outrun a charging tyrannosaurus rex — are nowhere to be found in "that book." Another tiny detail in the film reflects great thought: when Sean tells Anderson during their first meeting that his favorite beverage is Mountain Dew, one imagines that this is only the result of some deal with a soft drink company and a probable prelude to some product placement; yet near the end of the film, when Sean is dying of thirst, a friendly glowing bird guides him to a rocky cliff where fresh water is trickling out, which he eagerly drinks. Quite literally, at that moment, he is drinking mountain dew. And, as an unusually ingenious way to set up a possible sequel, Anderson concludes the film by handing Sean another one of his father's books: Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), another noteworthy nineteenth-century book supporting a theory generally rejected by the scientific community — namely, that there exist somewhere under the ocean the sunken ruins of the ancient civilization of Atlantis first described by Plato.

For most filmgoers, the chief attraction of Journey to the Center of the Earth will be its use of the repeatedly introduced, and repeatedly abandoned, 3D format (although it has also been released "flat" in a version, presumably otherwise identical, that I have not seen); but the 3D effects, in my view, were very much a mixed blessing. At times, the use of 3D is only annoying: simply because a technology that allows directors to effectively poke audience members in the eye doesn't mean that they have to keep doing it, but it seems a requirement of the genre to include exactly such a scene every ten minutes or so, as if to remind inattentive filmgoers that they are watching a 3D movie (here, the intrusions include that yoyo, an extendable ruler, a trilobite's antenna, and a flying piranha in your face). At times, the use of 3D is of no importance; characters and objects may appear a bit detached from their surroundings, but the scene would work just as well without 3D. At times, the use of 3D is subtle and evocative: a barely glimpsed, overhanging tree branch between the characters and the audience, or a stray object floating in the air. And on one occasion, the use of 3D is breathtaking: when the adventurers plunge into the water and must vigorously swim to the surface, they are stunningly observed swimming right out of the screen. My preliminary conclusion: creatures bound to a planetary surface by gravity are essentially living in a two-dimensional world, and hence two-dimensional images are an adequate way to present their activities. However, when creatures are basically in a weightless environment — swimming underwater, or floating in the vacuum of space — they are in a three-dimensional world, and hence require three-dimensional images to fully convey their situation. Thus, the only film that effectively utilized the now-extinct 3D format of Cinerama remains Stanley Kubrick's epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); it was interesting to note during the previews that the next 3D film to appear will be the animated tale of three flies who join the Apollo 11 lunar mission, Fly Me to the Moon (2008); and speaking of Atlantis, using 3D in some sample footage might represent the only way to finally get the long-dormant Aquaman franchise green-lighted. (By the way, as another detail representing some intelligence at work, the film pays tribute to the history of 3D when Anderson extracts another object from his brother's box that he doesn't recognize: a nineteenth-century stereoscope, that era's device for observing three-dimensional images.)

Might I briefly be allowed to vent about a pet peeve? As anyone who has attended college knows, college classes do not end with the loud ringing of a bell; that only occurs in high school classes. Yet a college lecture in this film, as in countless other films about college, concludes in precisely this fashion. Have filmmakers never gone to college? Do they imagine that they are making films only for people who have never attended college? Or do stereotypical notions of absent-minded professors prevent them from imagining that professors are actually capable of ending a lecture on time by keeping an eye on a watch or a clock?

According to the Internet Movie Database, this film qualifies as cinema's tenth Verne-inspired journey to the center of the Earth, and it surely will not be the last; for Verne in a sense popularized what might be regarded as one of two basic narratives of science fiction — and the direct antithesis of its more familiar trope. That is, in contrast to the powerful dream of travel into space (a journey into the future, the conquest of agoraphobia, a climb up the trees where we once dwelt, an ascent into heaven), Verne presents travel beneath the ground (a journey into the past, the conquest of claustrophobia, a retreat to the caves where we once cowered, a descent into hell). Oddly enough, the two narratives merge in the final sequence of this film, when the characters' rapid ascent to the surface through a volcanic tube is expressly likened to a rocket launch, with their faces contorted by the pressure of upward movement and a concluding short flight into the atmosphere before a crash landing on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Whatever his shortcomings as an author, Jules Verne always took his characters into these and other unknown realms, which must explain why he is still inspiring filmmakers more than eighty years after his death; and whatever its shortcomings as a film, Journey to the Center of the Earth is still one of the best adaptations of his works.

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