Journey to the Center of the Earth

If you thought the latest Indiana Jones adventure was implausible, wait till you see “Journey to the Center of the Earth”! It makes “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” look like a documentary. It’s fun, though, and a perfectly good way for a family to spend a Saturday afternoon, particularly if that family has a lot of 8-to-12-year-old boys. I have friends with kids in that demographic, and watching the movie I thought, “Those guys will LOVE this.”

It was shot in digital 3D and is being exhibited that way in select theaters. By all means, if you see it, see it in 3D. The filmmakers indulge in some shameless gimmickry every now and then, making characters point things directly at the audience for no good reason, but for the most part the effects look fantastic. It’s a smart way to bring the story to life, even if the story in question is all spectacle and very little brain.

Brendan Fraser, getting back into wholesome action-hero mode, plays Trevor Anderson, a scientist who specializes in tectonic physics. That was the life’s work of his deceased brother, Max, whose 13-year-old son Sean (Josh Hutcherson) has now come to stay with Trevor for a few days. Trevor hasn’t seen his nephew in years and barely knows the lad. Sean, sullen and heavily into his PSP (that’s a portable video game system, old-timers), was only 2 or 3 when his dad disappeared.

Trevor finds his brother’s old paperback copy of Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Center of the Earth,” in which Max made numerous elaborate notes detailing his theories on the potential reality of some of Verne’s fanciful notions. Somehow this results in Trevor and Sean dashing off to Iceland, where they seek to explore a particular mountain. Their guide is Hannah (Anita Briem), a fetching Icelandic woman whose late father also believed Verne’s tales were more fact than fiction. She leads them up the mountain and into a cave, whereupon the three of them do indeed take a voyage, or “journey,” if you will, to what you might call the “center” of the Earth.

The story has two immediate problems with plausibility. One is how they can possibly descend hundreds of miles into the Earth’s belly, and do so quickly, without killing themselves in the process. They’d have to fall, really, and it’s usually deadly to fall more than about 100 feet, let alone millions of feet.

The other problem is getting back up again.

But never mind. It turns out that the center of the Earth, despite having no light source, is extremely well-lit, and apparently there’s at least one cell phone tower (don’t ask), and the place teems with exotic flora and fauna, some of which are potentially deadly. (Wouldn’t it suck to survive a 100-mile fall, only to be eaten by a fish?) Special-effects veteran Eric Brevig, directing his first feature, keeps things moving quickly, essentially hopping from one action sequence to the next and leaving just enough time in between to catch your breath. The pacing is good. That’s crucial in a film like this, which could otherwise become so action-packed that it grows wearisome.

What the film doesn’t do (and its screenplay, attributed to three writers, is to blame) is bother to flesh out any of its characters. And it only has three of them! It’s exceedingly rare for an action film to have such a small cast — usually there are bad guys and enemies and allies and henchmen to deal with — and you notice that smallness all the more when the three of them are so thinly drawn. And the obligatory romance between Trevor and Hannah? Come on, movie. Your heart’s not in it. It’s OK for a man and a woman to appear together in a film and NOT kiss at the end, you know.

Much of what happens is hard to swallow even for a viewer who has willingly suspended his disbelief, and moments of genuine suspense are rare. On the other hand, a few sequences do produce some giddy enjoyment, and the characters, generic though they may be, are appealing. I never disliked the film. It’s an energetic, good-natured romp, and maybe that’s enough.

B- (1 hr., 32 min.; PG, adventure and peril and stuff.)