Saturday, July 19, 2008

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH in 3D




I’ve had a weakness for 3-D ever since I saw the awful BWANA DEVIL (and the much better HOUSE OF WAX) when I was a kid back in the middle 1950s. And even before that there was one of my favorite “toys,” a Viewmaster (viewer) through which one got one’s first visions of faraway places in remarkably pristine and (seen today) poignantly uncrowded three-dimensions.

In a way the current JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH IN 3-D harks back to these nostalgic times and experiences. It’s not a great movie, but then the first 3-D films of ‘50s hardly were either. But like them it does have its exciting and even thrilling moments.

This JOURNEY is a remake (sort of) of the 1959 20th Century-Fox version, which was also shot in a then-new process, CinemaScope. Like 3-D, the wide screen process was launched to lure fickle ‘50s movie goers back into theaters and away from their new and highly addictive BxW television sets.

Both versions are of course loosely based on the Jules Verne fantasy novel. Here (as in the ‘50s version) a contemporary scientist follows a passage to a strange subterranean world at the center of the earth, and in the process verifies a discovery made by an earlier pioneer who had vanished without a trace. In this case the scientist is Brendan Fraser and he takes along only his cell phone addicted nephew and a capable girl guide the two guys hook up with in Iceland.

After that it’s pretty much the same as the earlier film but with some spectacular CGI efx (instead of matte shots and giant soundstage mushrooms) and much more realistic dinosaurs.

The new film gets off to a somewhat slow and talky start and you begin wonder when the 3-D is really going to kick in. But eventually it does. However, the thing I really liked about this film is that it is essentially benign, and you don’t have to endure fifteen endless and laborious battle scenes or an interminable pirate sword fight. (I realize this may not be a plus for many contemporary viewers)

There is also little gore and no really threatening violence. And there’s even time for some truly lovely effects (such as the flock of fluttering phosphorescent “glow” birds) and some luminous underwater scenes, these a kind of color nod to the effects in the iconic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, also in early 3-D.

On the wilder side the storm sequence/chase on the underground sea with some nasty giant piranhas and their pursuing oceanic dinosaurs creates some genuinely impressive and Vernian imagery. And of course there’s the obligatory dinosaur chase and theme-park thrill ride sequence in run away mine cars.

But generally the tone is genial and tongue in cheek, a mode well served by the goofy throwaway charm of Fraser who seems to be having a good time through it all.

As did I.

I left 2.15 screening at the beautiful Arlington in Santa Barbara with the pleasant but not overwhelmed feeling I used to get after a Saturday matinee at the Senate Theater back in Harrisburg, Pa.

And when was the last time you saw a nasty but affectionately tacky man-eating plant attack and then get ripped out by the roots in a recent movie.

JOURNEY had a limited 7-day run in 3-D at the Arlington but is still playing in its dimensional version in the LA area.

By the way, some of the most thrilling 3-D efx are reserved for the first minute or so of the end credits, so stick around for those.

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