When I saw an early chunk of footage from Journey to the Center of the Earth at Wonder-Con, star Brendan Frasier was there to tell us what the movie is about. "They fall into a giant hole, and then they have to get back out. That's it," he said with a grin. His goofy, no-nonsense attitude pervades the whole film, and that's what makes it great fun. There are no deep themes, just deep holes; and there are no psychological complexities or scientific realism, just floating rocks and giant meat-eating plants. Journey is the first film you'll see in theaters that uses James "Titanic" Cameron's new digital 3D system, so a big part of the pleasure here is just watching stuff fly at your face. But can you base an entire movie on amusement park sensations alone? The answer is yes, but only if you deploy Journey's unexpected secret weapon: good writing.
You don't go to a movie where people fight dinosaurs and fall through giant lava tubes deep into the Earth expecting to find yourself in a tightly-wrapped little story with deliciously good quips. Probably you're there for the 3D roller coaster rides (there is one of those) and water slides (one of those too). But what sneaks up on you as you watch this movie is how intelligently put together it is: Not too long, always snappy, it doesn't mire itself in meaning or tacked-on emotional subplots (though there actually is a touching subplot about fatherhood).
Frasier specializes in himbo-with-a-heart-of-gold roles — he's one of a very few actors who can actually pull off being hunky and smart at the same time. And that's just what he has to do in this tale of Trevor, a tectonophysicist (i.e., a guy who studies earthquakes) whose dry research takes him into an amazing lost world. I think what makes this flick the perfect vehicle for Frasier, who actually worked quite a bit on the script, is its goofy science humor. With his nephew Sean in tow, Trevor sets off to find his missing tectonophysicist brother (Sean's dad), who it turns out was secretly a Vernian. Yes, a Vernian. In this flick, there is a secret cabal of scientists who believe that Jules Verne's science fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth was actually ALL TRUE. There's a great moment when Trevor shoves the original Verne book right into your face, in full 3D mode, just to emphasize the freakiness of it all.
Things just get sillier and more fun from there. Trevor and Sean go to Iceland's Ásgeirsson Institute for Progressive Vulcanicity, which is probably the best name I have ever heard for any research institution. There, they meet up with ass-kicking mountain guide Hannah, who winds up helping them escape from scrapes with sea monsters and lava flows and other pesky aspects of life beneath the planet's crust.
Once we do make it to the strange land of giant mushrooms, dinosaurs, and glowing birds that rests improbably in an "air bubble" inside a lava flow inside the Earth's core, the film gives us exactly what we want. Long shots of the bizarre landscape, crazy rides on ancient mine trains, and a zany fistfight with meat-eating plants. Again, I think it's crucial here to emphasize that the writing is part of what makes this work. Eye candy is great, but too many filmmakers get so carried away with showing off their effects that the story never takes us anywhere. Here, director Eric Brevig knows when we're done with caring about dino effects, and want to see something else.
In Journey, with a few short brushstrokes, we get a meaty quest tale with characters who (delightfully) never take themselves entirely seriously. When the action slows, we get a new strange hurdle, like sea monsters or a bunch of rocks floating in a "magnetic field." And in between the zaniness, there's a genuinely warm connection that develops between Trevor and Sean, who are both mourning the loss of the same man: Trevor's brother and Sean's father. Still, we don't linger on that for too long. There are a couple of brief scenes that are a bit weepy, but mostly we get a lot of fun mega-science style problem solving.
And can I just say that this movie managed to deliver some of the greatest mega-science moments ever? Seriously, riding a T-Rex skull through the earth on top of a giant geyser on top of a giant volcano? I could watch that again and again. Plus, I love a movie with a scientist hero, whose goal in life isn't to plunder treasure but just to get people interested in tectonophysics.