As a movie critic, I sometimes have to make some pretty major sacrifices.
Like this weekend, I had to sacrifice seeing the new Eddie Murphy movie, which is certain to be enjoyable terrible, for Journey to the Center of the Earth, which had a chance to be sweet. Instead, it was mildly entertaining, but mostly so silly I have to sacrifice the rest of this introduction to give me the space to properly unpack it below.
Ten years ago, geologist Brendan Fraser's brother died mysteriously on an expedition to check out some unusual volcanic activity in Iceland. When that same activity returns, Fraser bolts to Iceland to investigate, dragging with him nephew John Hutcherson and meeting up with local guide Anita Briem.
High on a mountain, a storm traps the three inside an old mineshaft. The expedition turns south in a big way when the shaft collapses, dumping the three of them into the center of the earth, a land of glowing birds and prehistoric beasts. But there's no time to sightsee: volcanic activity is heating the core up in a hurry, and if they don't find a way out, they'll be cooked alive.
Which makes for a snazzy excuse to reel off a series of daring escapes from dinosaurs, floating rocks, and hot hot heat, all of which is rendered in impressive 3-D. Depth might be the third dimension in name, but it'll always be first in my heart. Even when Journey to the Center of the Earth busts out the hoary "kid playing with a yo-yo" 3-D, a trick so old Methuselah himself complained about it through several pages of the Bible (it's near the back), it looks great. There's nothing quite like a movie that makes you feel like you're literally being visually assaulted.
Other than that, though, Journey's list of virtues is pretty thin.
It does have Fraser, whose ability to throw himself into the silliest of roles automatically improves any movie he's in. But he would have to be the Superman of acting -- able to fly into space, slam down into Hollywood, and single-handedly reverse the direction of a movie's rotation -- to do anything with this script.
Writer Michael Weiss now has one more feather in his cap to match recent classics like The Butterfly Effect 2 and I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer. Journey's characters are dull, its exposition is bludgeoning, and its plot can't decide whether to be made from paper or pure distilled ridicuhol.
On the paper-thin side, one of its subplots revolves around the idea Jules Verne's original novel wasn't fiction, but a factual account of a man's journey deep inside the earth. I don't know whether this is supposed to be some Da Vinci Code-esque thriller element or what, but I do know it adds nothing, goes nowhere, and actually makes me suspicious they just threw it in to pretend one of their production assistants did read the book at some point. (I'm not throwing stones, I haven't read it either. At least I have the excuse of illiteracy, though. In fact, I'm dictating this to a dog who wears a prosthetic nose-glove and is trained not to shed on the keyboard.)
The ridiculous side can only be tackled by the patented List of Things That Make No Sense. Think I'd forgotten about the List? Wrong! I think about the List daily. I daydream love letters to it while I'm at work. I just never get to use it because most movies avoid galaxy-sized plot holes.
Without further ado: 1) Other than providing the foundation for a theme park ride, why exactly do you need to use a speeding mine cart to get out of an abandoned mine? Careering around on an underground railroad that hasn't been used in a century may be a kickass good time, sure, but considering humans come equipped with the marvel of feet, shouldn't it strike a professor like Fraser as unnecessarily dangerous?
2) Fraser's brother, who died in the center of the earth (don't worry, that isn't a spoiler), is found buried in a damn grave. Who buried him?!! A kindly T-Rex? Tourists? A 9-year-old on his way to China? No one could have buried him, that's who, so it makes no sense he's entombed in a tidy grave rather than lying as a pile of exposed bones and tattered Eddie Bauer fleeces. 3) So the center of the earth sometimes gets so hot it boils water and cooks humans alive, yet it's filled with flora and fauna that haven't existed for tens of millions of years because they were such evolutionary chumps they were wiped out by a simple thing like a miles-wide meteor. Movies make dinosaurs out to be scary monsters, but I say they're effing chumps. Mammals rule.
Yet somehow, these dinosaurs -- who are, remember, weak as a kitten -- have survived a repeated geothermal apocalypse for 65 million+ years. Maybe it's in the book, I don't know. Still, it feels Hollywoodized, and trust me, "Hollywoodized" is not one of those flattering adjectives.
Plot holes can be overlooked if the movie's having fun. But with no character chemistry, CG that's average at best, and a minimum of humor, Journey's couple decent action scenes and 3-D jolts aren't enough to distract you from the heaping piles of mediocrity dragging it down at every turn.