Next year at least 11 different 3-D pictures will compete for the pleasure of the company of your eyeballs. By the time James Cameron's "Avatar" opens in December 2009, a spotty, unreliable cinematic tradition may well have reached critical mass and found new ways to amaze and entice a mass audience. Or else the trend will fizzle and the studios will await the next technological breakthrough in digital 3-D projection, the one that'll really put that lion in your lap and that lover in your arms, as the posters for "Bwana Devil" so eloquently phrased it 56 years ago.
Meantime, as a little tide-over, we have a reassuringly cheesy and wholly enjoyable new version of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" starring Brendan Fraser and a lot of stuff aimed directly at your head.
I can't tell you how this film looks in 2-D, which is how the majority of the nation's customers will partake of it. I saw it in 3-D. I liked it. It's dopey, but I liked it. And it's not out to 3-D you to death, the way Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf" (a far more ambitious project) couldn't stop aiming all that stuff directly at your head every second of every scene. Spears, axes, Angelina Jolie's digitized nekkidity—it was a lot to take in.
You want a lot from 3-D, of course, and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" certainly complies. What's it about, besides journeying to the center of the Earth? It's about flying toothy piranhas leaping directly out of a vast underground ocean into your face. It's about the star of the "Mummy" franchise (neither of the first two recent "Mummy" outings were as entertaining as this picture, by the way) goobing toothpaste spittle down a bathroom drain, i.e., into your face, with the viewer's perspective being that of the drain. At one point someone zings a tape measure into your face, the way that busker aimed a paddle ball straight at your noggin in "House of Wax," the most popular of all the 3-D attractions from the early 1950s.
The 1959 version of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," the one starring James Mason and Pat Boone, wasn't filmed in 3-D; that one had to make do with "the incomparable magic of CinemaScope," as Mason intoned in the '59 film's trailer. The new "Journey" has even less to do with Jules Verne than the Pat Boone one did. It may have more to do with Jules Munshin than Jules Verne.
The new one isn't much more than a series of theme-park attractions—the three-track mine-shaft roller-coaster ride being the most blatant, and zippy it is too—dressed up as a film. No pretension or visual ambition here. Eric Brevig, making his feature film directorial debut, comes out of the visual effects and second-unit realms. It's too early to tell if he has real talent or simply a lot of technical facility. I suspect it's both. The new "Journey" moves along (minus credits, it runs less than 90 minutes, bam-bam-bam), and it has a fairly lighthearted spirit, considering all the flying fishy carnivores and the T. rex attack and the overall bam-bam-bam.
Fraser's scientist, Trevor Anderson, travels to Iceland with his surly nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson). There they hook up with the daughter of a devoted "Vernean," played by the Iceland-born actress (a good one) Anita Briem. The three make their way down into a volcano, and soon enough they fall down, down, down, and despite what we know about the center of the Earth—the part about it being 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is awfully hot—there they go, intrepidly braving one new green-screen and soundstage challenge after another, toward the center of the Earth, where the flying fishies and floating boulders and neon bluebirds of happiness roam, along with the dinosaurs.
You don't believe a second of it, but it's easy to enjoy, partly because of the casting of all three leads (and there's hardly anyone else in the thing). Hutcherson, who was in "The Polar Express," "Zathura" and "Firehouse Dog," among others, is turning into a shrewd, effective young actor. Briem plays everything with forthright honesty, and she's charming, without resorting either to ninnydom or Icelanda-vamp. Throughout, Fraser's innate sense of the ridiculous serves him well. You can take him just seriously enough as an action hero to make all his wry, corner-of-the-mouth wisecracks sufferable. No one working in movies today brings more silly brio to green-screen CGI work. No one looks happier punching out a digital man-eating plant in 3-D.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Journey to the Center of the Earth."