This Journey to the Center of the Earth opens with a glimpse of the world Jules Verne created in his groundbreaking 1864 science fiction novel: a modern man being chased over a desolate landscape by a very determined dinosaur. When Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) awakens from this vivid nightmare, a vision of what might have happened to his long-lost brother, he's back in his own world, filled with the daily struggles of bored geology students, and unctuous bureaucrats trying to shut down the Maxwell Anderson Center for the Study of Plate Tectonics.
Immersed in number-crunching minutiae, Trevor is a creature of the lab not fond of scientific fieldwork. But when his sullen teenage nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) comes for a visit, Trevor's forced to confront his lethargy by the memory of risk-taking Max, and they commence on an adventure that uses Verne's tale of Professor Lidenbrock (and his nephew Axel) as a roadmap.
Screenwriters Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Nim's Island) and Michael Weiss consciously try to update Verne's story while having the characters constantly refer to the wonder of the original. (Sean remembers the book from a summer reading list, and comes to regret skipping it.) While the dialogue is mostly expository — a mix of geek-speak and action movie plodding — they do inject some wit into the proceedings by envisioning the story's Icelandic mountain guide as the more than capable Hannah Asgiersson (Anita Briem).
While tracking one of Max's seismic sensors located on Iceland's Mount Snaeffels, Trevor and Sean seek out the Asgiersson Institute for Progressive Volcanology, only to find Hannah, the disillusioned daughter of a scientist who, like Max, believed that Verne's works were thinly disguised fact, not fiction. Soon, the reluctant trio is on a journey that plays out like a high-stakes trip to a subterranean amusement park, each new otherworldly encounter is part ride, part mental and physical challenge that tests their resilience and ingenuity.
What makes Journey to the Center of the Earth more than a typical summer movie trifle isn't just its revered literary source material, but the way it utilizes the latest 3-D technology to tell it. Using digital high-definition equipment, visual-effects-supervisor-turned-director Eric Brevig creates a hyper-real cinematic landscape that feels both eerie and tangible. While Fraser stretches credulity every time he declares, "I'm a scientist," Brevig creates a world that feels like you could step right into it.
To get the full depth of Verne's vision as interpreted by Brevig's eye-popping imagery, head to one of the 14 Detroit area theaters using the RealD projection process (with Buddy Holly style 3-D glasses included). The film was conceived and shot for the 3-D experience, with the edge of the screen ending just before your eyes, the images tantalizingly just out of reach, everything close enough to make you jump at the sight of hurtling projectiles. With old-school thrills dressed up in digital gear, it's back to the future all over again.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.