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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The major studios were still cautious about producing big budget sci-fi. Jules Verne was a safe conservative choice. Journey to the Center of the Earth (JCE) was more adventure fiction or travel fiction than science fiction movie. Verne's novel drew from the science of geology. His literary style was prone to long expository stretches, so the "science" element was more obvious. The 20th Century Fox movie pares away most of that exposition, in favor of action. Nonetheless, geology is the science connection.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Geology professor Oliver Lindenbrook is given a hunk of lava rock by a student, Alex. It turns out to contain a message from Arne Saknussem, an explorer who disappeared years before, on an expedition to the center of the earth. Oliver writes to a swedish expert, only to find out that this expert is mounting an expedition first. Oliver travels to Iceland. Professor Göteborg is found dead, poisoned by Count Saknussem, descendant of the famous Arne, who believes the underworld belongs to him. Carla Göteborg insists on joining Oliver, Alex and Hans. The Oliver and party descend, shadowed by the Count. They find marks left by Arne. The Count fakes some marks to waylay them. Alex becomes separated from the rest. Through travels and travails, they become reunited and have reluctantly had to add the Count to the group. They find the underworld sea. They build a raft to cross it, thereby escaping the giant Dimenodons. A whirlpool at the center of the earth shipwrecks them onto a beach. In a nearby cave, the Count (who has eaten Gertrude) dies in a rock slide. This opens a passage to the ruins of Atlantis. The skeleton of Arne points to a windy shaft back to the surface. It is blocked, however, so Oliver blows it up. This causes earthquakes and lava flows. The four shelter in an asbestos altar bowl. The lava pushes the bowl up the shaft to safety. All are welcomed home as heros, though no one can prove what they saw. Alex marries Jenny. Oliver proposes to Carla.The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The A-level acting and well done musical score are a refreshing treat from a steady diet of B-level sci-fi. The sets and painting build a sense of wonder. The story, while not pure Verne, is well paced and entertaining.

Cold War Angle
The screenplay maintains Verne's 19th century point of view. It is worth noting that they avoided grafting in any Cold War modernism, unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ('54) and From Earth to the Moon ('58) in which the writers inserted a nuclear parallel.

Sub-Terranian -- The notion that the earth was hollow, or at least had large habitable zones inside it, is ancient. The Greeks imagined Hades' underworld as an alternate world which surface folk could travel to and from. Q.v. Orpheus. The notion persisted until the 1800s. Edmund Halley (of comet fame) thought the earth might be hollow. Leonhard Euler thought there were holes at the poles that connected upper and lower worlds. A Captain Symmes wrote pamphlets and promoted (vigorously) the idea of going to search for these openings. Verne took the notion and ran with it. The idea that the earth had a deep magma layer and a solid core was not proposed until the 1910s.

 Book vs. Hollywood -- The script of JCE was fairly faithful to the spirit of Verne's tale, but not slavishly so. JCE is closer to the novel than Unknown World ('51) which was loosely based on Verne's story. Fox's movie version of JCE added a Disneyesque cute animal (Gertrude the duck) and two women for romantic interest. Verne did not usually clutter his tales with romance. The writers also changed the lead character from a German (Otto Leidenbrock) of Hamburg to a Scot (Oliver Lindenbrook) of Edinburgh. Perhaps it was still a bit too soon after the Second World War to have a German protagonist.

Bottom line? JCE is not an especially science-y sci-fi, but it is very well done. The sets, the music, the acting, all make a fine performance. The story is well written and nicely avoids Verne's penchant for long stretches of exposition. JCE is a great family movie.


Phil Hubbs said...

Great little reviews and great Blogger :)
Can't seem to follow your Blog though. I have reviewed many of these old classic myself, would be interested to see what you think. I have a search bar but if you wanna find something you can just ask me :)

Phil Hubbs said...

This is me by the way hehe...http://phubb.blogspot.co.uk/
Hubbs Movie Reviews on Blogger.

Alan beck said...

Early chaos theory in here. Chip off a crystal stalactite and water rushes in.

Anonymous said...

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the best adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, but this MGM film was good too. A few of the early scenes should have been deleted, because the characters do not even go underground until 45 minutes in. Some complain about lizards playing dinosaurs, but they are passable as dimetrodons (Verne used marine reptiles in the book, because they were better known in his time). This might be the first time Atlantis was depicted as underground rather than underwater.

Decades later, Disney copied it with Atlantis the Lost Empire. Even the title was taken from another MGM film, Atlantis the Lost Continent. But it was one of their least popular films, while Journey is still considered a classic.

Anonymous said...

Opps,I mistakenly referred to this as an MGM film, but it was Fox.