Movie review: "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is a largely forgettable update of the Jules Verne story, with loads of imagination and 3-D excitement but no personality.
For most of this reviewer’s life, the title “Journey to the Center of the Earth” has conjured fond childhood memories of a handsome 1959 science-fiction feature about a descent to our planet’s core via an Icelandic volcano.
The engrossing film’s classy story (adapted from the Jules Verne novel by Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, co-authors of Ernst Lubitsch’s “Ninotchka”) also boasted Bernard Herrmann’s typically taut and spooky score, glossy art direction, thrilling visual effects and a fun cast (James Mason, Arlene Dahl and Pat Boone).
Nothing about the new, sort-of update of “Journey” threatens to eclipse happy memories of that earlier film. Even with its claim to be the first movie entirely shot in a digital 3-D process, and with a number of imaginative, suspenseful scenes that will translate well into video-game fodder, the 2008 “Journey” is finally a personality-free, one-thing-after-another middling adventure.
Well, it does have something the other movie doesn’t have: a lot of annoying yelling (“Whoah-ahh-oohh-aahh!”).
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Set in the present, “Journey,” the directorial debut of visual-effects artist Eric Brevig (“The Island”), stars Brendan Fraser as Trevor, a fringe-science professor whose unconventional work at a university is on the verge of being shut down. Just as he is about to embark on research — following up on the legacy of his long-missing brother — Trevor ends up in charge of his grumpy nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson).
The two end up in Iceland, joined by Hannah (Anita Briem), a guide who gets trapped with them inside a cave in which they drop (and drop and drop, to the sound of much whoah-ahh-oohh-aahh-ing) thousands of miles to the planet’s rather exotic middle. The gimmicky 3-D provides visual oomph to all that falling, but it becomes more fun when the trio is later chased by a dinosaur, attacked by flying fish-beasts and sailing across a black sea eerily situated in the last place on Earth one would expect it.
The latter is a nod to the sort of 19th-century science and supernatural fiction that imagined the unexplored and unknown with hypnotic force, beyond the veil of ordinary life. That tone takes hold of a viewer more than other 3-D friendly scenes in the film, such as Sean’s suspenseful hopscotch over a bridge of rock fragments magnetically suspended on high.
Fraser, once again, proves a reliably affable lead in a gimmick-heavy movie (“Monkeybone,” “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”). Hutcherson and Briem pull their weight, too. But the absence of star charisma in “Journey” denies the audience some focus in a movie that keeps changing backdrops and is ultimately no more than the sum of its wild-eyed parts.