Brendan Fraser’s career is an odd one. He’s still best known for his outings in the Indiana Jones-inspired Mummy franchise, to which he will be returning next month for the third direct sequel, not counting the spin-offs The Scorpion King and The Scorpion King 2. He’s also cropped up in serious Oscar-winners like 2004’s Crash and 2002’s The Quiet American, and he’s done arthouse flicks including last year’s The Air I Breathe. Yet, Fraser still makes most of his money doing comic turns in family movies such as 1997’s George of the Jungle and 1999’s Dudley Do-Right. The watchword of his career is eclectic and as such it’s very easy to underestimate his abilities. He may even be one of the most underrated actors of his generation, for the ability to combine action, comedy and serious ‘thesping’ is a rare one.
Here we have a return to the action side of the spectrum, albeit in that family-friendly sort of way that Fraser seems to do so well. It’s an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 19th century science fiction classic novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
The most famous big screen version of the book was way back in 1959 with James Mason in the lead (though there was also a decent American TV version with Peter Fonda made last year). The storyline is familiar stuff; it involves the discovery of a cave that leads to a bizarre hidden world under the earth’s surface.
Naturally enough, the exploration of strange new worlds is precisely the sort of thing that Hollywood studios with fancy special effects teams are always keen to pursue as they provide the perfect excuse to show off their imaginations. Movies with computer-generated characters are all well and good, but what the effects teams really want to be let loose on is the imagining of whole new worlds.
Here they’ve decided to go one better and do the entire movie in 3D. Yes, it’s a gimmick, but it’s still novel enough to have a certain appeal. Not least, because this is the first film to be exclusively released in the new RealD 3D format, a kind of 3D moviemaking that doesn’t require the audience to wear those silly glasses with the blue and red lenses. Instead, you get to wear silly glasses of a different type – ones that don’t distort the colour of the film at the same time as making the images leap from the screen. It’s an impressive effect.
Gimmicks are all well and good for the kids this film is primarily targeting, but does the storyline have any merit? Yes, it’s based on one of the all-time science fiction classics, but it has been modernised with children very firmly in mind. Fraser is the action-hero father figure, with two children (one male, one female to try and get both sexes interested) tagging along for the ride. None of the tedious excuse of a Victorian scientific expedition to Iceland, as in the original, this is 90 minutes of solid three-dimensional action.
The 90 minute run time should tell you all you need to know. The filmmakers are fully aware that this is a throwaway popcorn flick. There are no pretentions to high art, just an attempt to make the sort of film that we all would have loved when we were kids. It blatantly rips off scores of earlier action movies (a mine cart ride straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and a shark attack on a boat right out of Jaws only the most obvious), but does them all in 3D. In its presentation and approach this is as much cartoon as live action movie and it keeps up the raucous pace to match.
Adults may well find the whole thing a bit too much. The relentless action and 3D effects are a tad disorienting at times, but the kids will love it. Movies are often dubbed rollercoaster rides by lazy critics, but this one actually feels like a ride at a theme park. Let’s face it, if you’re a kid, that’s likely to make it the most fun film of the summer.