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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

I’ve worn glasses since I was eight. Back then instead of being a social curse it was considered a stylish accoutrement. If a girl could wrangle herself a pair of cat’s eye glasses with rhinestones at the edges she was part of the “in” crowd of the third grade. Trust me. I know. I stood in my backyard and stared at the sun for what seemed like hours every Saturday trying to ruin my vision so I’d need to get glasses. Eventually I’d go inside with red eyes, a bad headache, and the look of a young Amy Winehouse strung out on heroin as I stumbled about our house with big black spots before my eyes and no idea how to walk from room-to-room without bumping into the furniture. Okay, so it was a dumb idea, but in my defense, I was eight, and eight year olds do a lot of dumb things. As to whether this had the “desired” effect or not, I did end up at an ophthalmologist’s office within a few months and left wearing my first pair of glasses. Do I even need to mention that since my eyes were dilated the choice of my frames was left to my father, who brought me to the appointment? Cat’s eyes, hardly. This was a man whose aesthetic could be identified somewhere in relationship to the bulk of his ugly-ass Lazyboy™ recliner, his Magnavox™ console tv (the one big enough to hold a collection of a half-dozen 8”x10” framed autographed photographs of Playboy centerfolds, a bowl of plastic fruit, and a mantle clock), and his unwavering philosophy that spending money on children is a complete waste of time. I still see those glasses today, every time there’s a commercial on tv for the television series “Ugly Betty”, a show I simply cannot watch because when I see the titular character wearing those big, clunky black plastic frames I can’t help but remember how my hopes for popularity were dashed by those damned glasses, and how I was forced to stagger, half-blind through the halls of my school for the next four years until I was able to get a new, less offensive pair.

The only times I did wear my glasses were when I was in the dark of my favorite place ~ the movie theater. Seeing things clearly there was always important because, face it, life in the movies was way more interesting and glamorous than the crappy world we lived in in real life. The only time I had problems was when the movie was in 3-D because it was a total pain in the patootie to try to wear those weird cardboard glasses with the colored lenses either over or under my regular pair. If I didn’t wear my ‘real’ glasses the whole movie would be blurry but I’d see unidentifiable crap jumping out towards me. If I did wear my glasses I could see what it was, but then I’d be forced to spend the whole two hours futzing around, holding onto the 3-D pair because they’d be slipping and sliding down my nose or across my face, giving me paper cuts on my cheeks or the bridge of my nose.

There weren’t a lot of great 3-D movies around anyway during my teen years. In the 1950s, there
were a few good 3-D flicks like Dial M for Murder and the original House of Wax, but by the 1980s, the pickings were slim. I was stuck watching stuff like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Friday the 13th, Part III, and (I still gag to write the words) Jaws 3-D.

Now, nearly 30 years later, comes a revival of 3-D technology with the big budget Journey to the Center of the Earth. The thing is, here in Vermont, none of the theaters are equipped to show the movie in 3-D, so all the hype about the film as a “rocking 3-D adventure” means bupkis to moviegoers here. We’re destined to see the “less rocking 2-D adventure” which may be a disappointment to some.

I had seen the 1959 version with Pat Boone and James Mason at least half a dozen times over the years, though I can’t say I was necessarily paying close attention. It was usually on in the background while I was doing something else at home and it basically beat having QVC as the
white noise while I was studying or deworming the cat. With that in mind, I knew enough about the basic story so that even if this new version was skimpy on the script and long on the effects, I’d still grasp where we were going. As it is, the writing on this Journey to the Center of the Earth (by Michael D. Weiss, The Butterfly Effect 2; Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin, Nim’s Island), is much better than expected, with humor, a bit of pathos, and some genuine excitement and tension created throughout that makes it a Journey worth taking, in 2-D or 3-D.

Brendan Fraser (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) plays a sad sack Earth Sciences professor Trevor Anderson, who is in the process of losing his laboratory at the university where he teaches when his 13-year-old nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson; Bridge to Terabithia) comes to visit and brings along some of his late father’s belongings. Sean’s dad was also a scientist, and a partner of Trevor’s, who worked in the area of volcanic studies. Among his effects is a ten-year-old coded paperback book of Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ which sparks Trevor’s interest as its secret markings correspond to similar research he has been doing regarding recent volcanic activity in Iceland, and so seeming not to care about the future of his lab, Trevor takes Sean and they are on the next flight to Iceland in search of a monitoring device that Trevor and Sean’s dad had placed in the side of a mountain a decade earlier so they can try to figure out how this ten old cryptic message in the book now finishes up a current theorem Trevor has been working on based on information he had only recently gotten by satellite from the monitoring device.

Trevor hires the requisite guide, who (naturally) is not only beautiful and blonde, but speaks perfect English without a trace of an accent. Hannah (Anita Briem; tv’s “The Tudors”) seems ten times smarter than the Professor. At least she knows enough to come in to the conveniently located nearby cave when a thunderstorm rips across the side of the volcano. She also isn’t dumb enough to keep carrying that metal monitoring device when the lightning is striking all around him. As if it is chasing him right inside the cave, trying to attack the canister in Trevor’s arms, the lightning strikes one last time, causing a rock slide to seal the three inside what is actually an abandoned mine. So begins their expedition, less a planned
Journey to the Center of the Earth as it is a desperate search to find a way out of their traumatic predicament.

I know exactly how they must have felt. It’s like being eighteenth in line at Hannaford’s on a Saturday evening and every check-out line is full. You think you’ll never get out of the store and you really have to pee. Now there’s a traumatic predicament.

Hutcherson is wonderful as the teenager who has never really had a father and goes from having no interest in bonding with his uncle at this late date to loving and respecting him by the end of their adventure. He is also able to finally resolve the mystery of what became of his dad and learn to rely on his own courage, while also being free enough to show that he is still just a kid. Fraser, as always, is a variation on the same character he usually plays, which is sort of what John Wayne got away with for 40 years and for which he eventually won an Oscar, so you can’t fault Fraser for following a pattern that has proven to work. Fraser is a “poor man’s Will Smith” in big budget sci-fi adventure flicks and he always delivers, just not as well as Will Smith would have, but he’s a whole lot cheaper. And leading lady Anita Briem? She’s not given much to do to show off her sex appeal as she does on “The Tudors”, but she manages nicely as a feminine yet hardy-enough-to-hold-her-own hiker.

The 3-D version is filled with gi-normous snapping Venus
Fly Traps, drooling T-Rex dinosaurs, and flying piranha popping off the screen and into your face. Even without the 3-D the effects are still eye-popping scary and had my friend Marita jumping a couple of times as she watched. I’m too jaded to jump at anything less than Paris Hilton disrobing. I’m going to encourage you to take this Journey, glasses or not. I could tell you that it’s really deep, but that would be a terrible pun, so I won’t. Instead, just enjoy the Journey. It’s playing at the Essex Cinemas right now.

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