I don't know the last time I felt like a kid at the movies, but while watching Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D this past week, I honestly reverted to my 8-year-old self. That isn't to say the movie is necessarily as good as the movies that astonished me as a kid -- because of the subject matter, I'd think about comparing it to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, both of which came out when I was around that age, and neither to which this film holds up in terms of originality or storytelling craft. But as far as holding onto my sense of wonder, Journey is up there.
Of course, it's necessary to point out that Journey would be nothing without the digital 3-D factor. It's actually the first live-action narrative feature to be shot and released in the new format (the non-fiction concert films, U2 3D and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour were technically the first live-action 3-D features), and while it's far from perfect, it is a terrific pioneer. I shall continue favoring the look of animated 3-D films, especially those directed as well as Monster House, and I anticipate that James Cameron's Avatar will blow away all live-action 3-D films released prior to its arrival. For now, though, I'm telling you, with the utmost cinemaphilic urgency: you need to see this ASAP. Going into the thing, I almost expected the worst. The trailers display an awful lot of shots that are too deliberately in your face, shots that were obviously made and included just to exploit the 3-D technology. For example, there's a bathroom sink POV shot that looks up at Brendan Fraser as he spits downward. Yes, it looks pretty cool in 3-D, but it's totally unnecessary. And in the first few minutes of the movie, there are many more such moments, mainly because until the story gets us to the center of the earth, there's not much else with which to put the 3-D to use than a yo-yo flying through the air, seemingly coming at us. Otherwise, it's merely Brendan Fraser sitting in our laps for the first act, and nobody wants that.
My fear regarding this kind of shot, though, is that it points the new digital 3-D towards the novelty shelf. It makes the technology seem more gimmicky and faddish (ala the old analog 3-D) than alimental and innovative. Considering its significance to the exhibition industry right now, it needs to be taken a little more seriously. I don't know if I accept the idea that digital 3-D is the savior of the movie theater business, but I'm hoping it's close. I'd like it to at least be similar to the use of color cinematography between the mid '30s and mid '60s, during which time it existed almost equally beside black and white cinematography (from 1939 to 1967, with 1957 being an exception, there were separate cinematography Oscars awarded for each format).
A few weeks ago, however, I was reading a book of academic essays on the subject of blockbusters (appropriately titled "Movie Blockbusters," edited by Julian Stringer), and I came across an excellent defense for glaring exploitations of new cinema technologies. In his essay "Talking About a Revolution," Michael Allen writes:
"We can see this in the presentation of certain panoramic landscapes in The Robe or in the first sighting of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, when the narrative pauses as we, along with the onscreen characters, watch awestruck at the digitally created beasts. Both kinds of image ask us to appreciate them as the result of impressive new image-creation technologies, rather than solely as elements in the narrative drive of the films in which they appear. At such moments, the film is talking about its own process of creation, offering spectacular images as illustration of its new technological possibilities."
Fortunately, Journey gets out what Allen describes as "a moment of diegetic and technological spectacle -- when the new technology presents itself and says, in effect, look/listen to me" most offensively in the first few minutes, and most generally in its own existence. From this movie forward Hollywood may move on to less brazen features. Yet within the movie, also, we're past the worst of non-essential 3-D shots by the time the adventure narrative really kicks in. First, though, prior to the characters' descent into the titular location, there are some gorgeous Icelandic landscape shots that display the amazing depth capable with digital 3-D in real locations.
From then on, it's almost completely computer-generated settings, but there are still some real zingers. Basically, throughout the movie there are three kinds of effects shots, which I labeled as silly, neat or wow! As you might guess, most of the time the shots fall within the "neat" range. But those considered "wow!" are really "wow!" They more than make up for those I label "silly." It's not really surprising that the visuals look great considering Journey was directed by Oscar-winning effects artist Eric Brevig (Total Recall), who also had some analog 3-D experience with the Epcot attraction, Captain EO.
As I mentioned, Journey isn't perfect. Similar to other previously released digital 3-D films, there are some issues with the occasional blurring, or ghosting effect. However, my experience with this film was nothing like my experience with Beowulf, the problems of which continually removed me from the escapism I was hoping for. With Journey, I was immersed almost entirely, only conscious of my real surroundings when the audience jumped, gasped and/or laughed at (with) the pop-out 3-D effects. To reiterate, I was full of constant wonder, as if I was a kid again.
On Friday, Journey to the Center of the Earth will be released on about 1,000 3-D-capable screens. Unfortunately, because there aren't many more 3-D screens than that, New Line is releasing the movie in plain, old 2-D, as well. But there is absolutely no reason to see this movie if not in 3-D. It's terrible that studios and theatre owners haven't been able to equip more cinemas with digital projectors and 3-D-exhibition technology quick enough, but there's no use crying about that with only a few days to go before Journey's debut. Just make sure you see it ... only in theaters ... only in 3-D.