Note: The following review applies only to the 3D version of the film “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. To see the movie any other way would be pointless..
Observing the career of Brendan Fraser is a study in frustration. Though he has a multi-million-dollar franchise to his credit – the “Mummy” films – and though he’s been proven bankable as a star of comedy family action films, such as Dudley Do-Right and George of the Jungle, playing a human cartoon makes Fraser seem desperate more often than not. He’s a good looking, buff guy, but without any danger or sharp edges; sort of like the boyfriend you know your father will like, but who doesn’t really do it for you. What’s missing from his persona is the dark, ironic twist to the smiles of Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller.
“Journey to the Center of the Earth” is, much more so than the Mummy films, a perfect match for Fraser. Rather than making us miss what the actor lacks, it matches and capitalizes on his goofy boyishness; and on the other hand, that he’s watching out for a sullen teenager adds an anchoring level of responsibility and maturity. Many an actor has gotten lost in a special effects movie, but here, the whole production rests comfortably on Fraser’s broad shoulders. The movie hits the sweet spot, a film for tweens that uses a technique so new, it’s bound to appeal even to the jaded.
All the easy 3D gimmicks are employed here, made effective by crisp computer graphics: the antennae of a trilobite, seeming to poke right out of the screen at you; a floating dandelion seed that many in my audience actually reached for, trying to touch it; a roller coaster ride in an out-of-control mine cart that makes your stomach lurch. The loose story (the joke is that Jules Verne’s book was fact, not science fiction) lends itself perfectly to a string of escapes and derring-do, each one showcasing a different aspect of what the 3D technology does well. This is not your father’s 3D, with the red and blue gel glasses that turned everything to mud.
Our actual experience, while watching a film in “stereo,” is worth contemplating. Objects, even faces, don’t come into sharp focus. It’s not that they look blurry; it’s just that you can’t really concentrate on the details without a lot of effort. Instead, as if gazing at one of those “Magic Eye” pictures, your eye tends to report an impression of objects while busily tracing their outlines, in order to establish how they are positioned vis-à-vis each other. This is an immersive process; in terms of the film, you feel like “Journey” is happening to you, like you’re the fourth adventurer along for the ride.
So what does this mean for the future of the movies? It can only herald good things. Because what we’re all tired of is the excessive use of computer graphics, which have divorced the movies from any meaningful reality. 3D is nothing less than the missing link. Because we can’t look too closely, fantasy worlds created by digital artists finally feel convincing. Looking at the production pipeline, I feel confident in stating that beginning in earnest in 2009, all the big effects movies are going to gravitate towards stereo. (Innovative and truly artistic uses of the medium will come much later; and I hope some day somebody is going to realize how great this technique would be for a horror movie.)
I hope 3D will make traditional cinema a viable alternative again, in which you can again interrogate an image that an honest-to-god director of photography has captured for you with his lens. We’ll all be better off when Hollywood image makers stop trying to sell us on the rationalization that CG looks real. It doesn’t. Not ever. “Journey to the Center of the Earth” makes no bones about its artificiality, and that’s what’s adorable about it. It proves definitively that there’s room out there for two vastly different, parallel streams of entertainment. And it’s just about the perfect diversion on a hot summer night.