Come with us on a journey through crust and silicate to the inner core
Jules Verne is perhaps one of the unsung heroes of the science fiction genre. Though his novels are considered to be adventure; and certainly, Around the World in 80 Days is more rooted in reality than his two other famous works. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a story about a voyage into the dark deep abyss of the sea and what people found there, while Journey to the Center of the Earth is just that a quest down through the stygian caves beneath the Earth’s surface. Verne’s relation to film is almost as complex as his relation to science fiction, and since 1902 there have been countless adaptations of his novels. The most famous of these are two films made in the 1950s starring James Mason, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea released in 1954 and the subject of this review, Journey to the Center of the Earth, released theatrically in 1959 and on Blu-ray by Eureka in 2017.
The film adaptation follows the book somewhat; set in 1880, Professor Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (Mason) makes a startling discovery. A rock given to him by his students reveals that the earth may not be as solid as previously thought. In it, he finds a note from a scientist called Arne Saknussemm explaining the long-dead explorer’s shocking discovery and Lindenbrook quickly amasses an expedition with a student, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone). However, there are rivals racing to reach the discovery of a lifetime, the Swedish Professor Goteborg (Ivan Triesault) and Count Saknussemm (Thayer Daniel), the mysterious and villainous heir to Arne Saknussemm who is trying to keep trespassers away from what he views as his birthright.
Firstly, the film looks stunning. I have a particular affinity to the films shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope. Journey to the Center of the Earth is such a film with a rich colour scheme and despite the cramped spaces the scale of the movie cannot be questioned, due in part to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Eureka have taken great care in remastering and restoring this film to be displayed in 1080p from a revived 4K print of a film which is almost 60 years old. This means that every single fantastical set pops, from the odd crystalline caves to the lattice work and the ancient ruins on the subterranean sea. It is a true marvel to watch our main characters wander through these otherworldly vistas – that is when we get to them, which isn’t until halfway through the film.
The film also sounds amazing and this is partially due to the restoration by Eureka which presents the soundtrack in a stereo PCM soundtrack as well as a 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio. The other person responsible for a great sounding film is the one and only Bernard Herrmann, who provides a soundtrack that may not be as iconic as his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but lends a certain grandiose adventure to proceedings. What this disc does that is quite interesting is that it includes an option to have an isolated music and sound effect track so you can really appreciate the score and foley.
This is not the most exciting adventure film. Jules Verne writes travel logs and as such they describe settings as characters witness them. While this can sometimes be very entertaining, especially early on in the film, it begins to drag especially if there are no villains or dangers for our characters to face. This adaptation adds an antagonist in the guise of Count Saknussemm, a moustache twirling selfish snob hellbent on domination of the subterranean world as sole occupant and ruler. He is a joy to watch threatening our cast of explorers. However, he is quite underused much like the odd landscapes only making an appearance quite late on in the film.
Another problem I can see some people having with Journey to the Center of the Earth is the style of acting and the dated special effects. This film employs the use of real lizards superimposed on the film as giant monsters. Being made during the 1950s, the acting is questionable. There’s never a doubt in my mind that these people who we are supposed to believe are explorers and academics were actually James Mason, Pat Boone and Arlene Dahl running around a backlot in Hollywood. Though they do put on a great show in this unbelievable adventure. It is certainly not going to trick anyone into making them believe that our intrepid Hollywood stars are actually making their way through these subterranean caves, but it certainly is campy fun that should keep your winter afternoon entertained as you revel in the melodramatic acting, hokey singing and cardboard-looking sets.
Beyond the feature presentation, Eureka has seen fit to provide a decent amount of extra content that will provide a deeper insight into the production history of the film. It features commentary from star Diane Baker and film historians Steven C. Smith and Nick Redman. There is also an interview with Kim Newman, respected film expert, who provides interesting context to Jules Verne’s writing and the film’s relation to science fiction. Finally, though not as in-depth as other features, there is also a comparison of the different film negatives and how they differ and have been improved. The disc itself is well made with ne’er an error to distract from the film itself, and the inclusion of subtitles that are clear and easy to read is always a welcome addition for anyone with hearing impairment.
Overall, I personally would recommend Journey to the Center of the Earth, both to those with a historical interest in science fiction cinema or fans of Jules Verne. It provides enough fun throughout to raise it above other cheap B-movies. It is definitely something that I – as a fan of cheesy fantasy films from the 1950s and 1960s – enjoy and those with similar tastes may agree, though those who cannot get past the way this film has aged and animal lovers may want to steer clear.
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