“Journey to the Center of the Earth” isn’t a straight-jacket adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, but a vague photocopy that eschews daring adventure for cheap, plastic thrills, tarted up with a sickly glaze of 3-D to help prop up the anemic screenplay. It’s a gimmick-driven movie and it’s shocking how much the final product lacks the source material’s intrinsic magic.
Taking care of his distracted nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), scientific researcher Trevor (Brendan Fraser) is stunned to discover clues to the whereabouts of his lost brother in a copy of the book “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Taking Sean with him to Iceland for further study, Trevor meets up with Hannah (Anita Briem), a tracker and daughter of a dead scientist who held faith in a land located beneath the planet’s crust. Trekking through the mountains to further unravel the mystery, the trio stumbles upon the doorway to the center of the Earth, and once arrived in this dangerous place, they plan immediately for their escape before they become permanent residents.
“Journey” is a passive experience at the movies; a woeful synthetic creation that’s powered by sophisticated thrill-ride mechanics and Crayola screenwriting aspirations. Director Eric Brevig is a longtime special-effects master with a host of Oscars and ornamental accolades under his belt, but he’s at a loss when it comes down to nurturing even a tuft of human interface. “Journey” relentlessly dishes out the action and offers the bespectacled audience plenty of goopy, grabby 3-D jolts, but it all resembles a run of the mill video game. Brevig can’t shake the material loose from its unbridled artificiality.
It’s one thing to use CGI to further layer fantasy worlds beyond the reach of the human hand, it’s another to bathe a motion picture in computer embellishment to cut corners. “Journey” strikes me as the latter. While the 3-D keeps the overall image muted and muddy, it’s perhaps a better alternative to actually accepting Brevig’s vision: a smothering, limited buffet of overactive CGI and cold studio environments that provide little to no depth. It’s not that the computer work is shoddy, but more that Brevig doesn’t grasp how to direct the actors to respond naturally to the astonishing sights they should be seeing. There’s a frustrating disconnect between reaction and bejeweled visual in “Journey” that’s distracting, and the more the film pumps in cartoonish action set-pieces (flying fish attacking a raft, a T-Rex encounter, a mine cart race), the more phony “Journey” becomes, further accented by the piercingly earnest performances, which grow more and more aggravating with each passing minute.
If Jules Verne could extract the wonder of visiting alien landscapes while remaining on Earth, “Journey” slowly sucks away that awe by twisting everything into lifeless arcade aesthetics. The film does have a few genuinely effective moments, but you have to keep your eyes peeled to find them underneath the ungodly amount of visual malarkey thrown at the screen to keep the impatient invested.