As any self-respecting sci-fi fan can tell you, this genre’s history began with Jules Verne; as did the trope of explaining in great detail – sometimes painfully so – precisely how the characters are going to perform the upcoming flight of fantasy. Undoubtedly, today’s CGI-centric audiences will find this classroom-lecture approach to be on the stuffy side. With good reason! However, the Blu-ray’s appeal is intended for viewers who grew up with (and cherish) such anamorphic epics as JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. Underneath its bloated-yet-fluffy plot and variegated hues lurks an irresistible childhood fantasy. In other words… no degree of CGI is capable of replacing charm.
Journey retains its 19th century milieu. It begins with the stalwart Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, LOLITA) pondering the origins of a meteorite fragment, which eventually points the way to an Icelandic volcano (fortunately dormant) and down to the center of the you-know-what. Verne’s original text only featured the Prof and two male companions: his novice student and a sturdy mountain climbing guide (Pat Boone and Peter Ronson). Some liberties were taken with the novel, but they are insignificant: the student was a nephew, the protagonists were German, and a certain antagonist was entirely made up for the feature.
The splashy Cinemascope Hollywood version also grafts some feminine window dressing to the party. Being that the acceptable standard for women’s roles in 1954 fantasy fare was simply the “love interest,” Arlene Dahl and Diane Baker dutifully accomplish that thankless goal. Dahl plays the widow of Lindbrook’s rival. Though she and the Professor spar throughout the story, it’s the price he must pay in order to use her spelunking gear (inherited from the rival).
It takes the better part of an hour for our intrepid explorers to pack their underwear, take a hike through the wilderness and finally descend into the Earth’s bowels. A top-heavy first act is comprised of bright costumes and Boone wooing Baker (with a perpetual puppy-dog expression.) But then the fun really begins.
Known science, in Verne’s time or in 1959, precludes any semblance to reality here. It’s a journey of the imagination. Though a combination of natural underground locations in Carslbad Caverns and elaborately decorated studio, the group discovers a hollow Earth – startlingly alive with its own ocean, giant magic mushrooms, the Lost City of Atlantis… and hungry dinosaurs! (Edgar Rice Boroughs liberally borrowed from this concept for his own “At the Earth’s Core” series, but Verne got there first.)
The episodic nature of the material narrowly allows for conventional characters: the dauntless explorer, the faithful sidekick, etc. Pat Boone does his “wholesome” bit (averting eyes when Baker skinny dips). If mention is made as to why Boone’s accent is American instead of Scottish/English as the story requires, it completely escaped this reviewer.
Baker, the cheesecake to Boone’s cheese, alternates between batting her eyes and screaming at the appropriate moments. That’s all she’s required to do. With his iconic portrayal of another Verne protagonist (Captain Nemo; of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) behind him, James Mason proves to be an excellent choice for the lead. As expected, he rises above the material, coloring Professor Lindbrook with more nuance than either Verne or the screenwriter committed to paper. Despite his learned background, the Professor maintains an almost child-like curiosity for the wonders of hollow Earth. He can also be a touchy S.O.B. As the widow Dahl is closer to the Professor’s age. Their budding romance is occasionally sparked with African Queen-Bogart/Hepburn styled barbs. Dahl generally avoids being annoying… which in itself is more than enough of a challenge.
But the real scenery chewing is reserved for slithery Thayer David as Count Saknussem – the man who murdered Dahl’s husband to keep the secret of hollow Earth for himself. A decade later Thayer would be munching on even more scenery in a variety of villainous roles on TV’s infamous horror-soap, “Dark Shadows”. By today’s standards, the film could’ve done with less romance and more sinister sabotage on Thayer’s part.
The explosive grand finale is no less impractical than events which preceded it, but the emphasis is played to a humorous effect which won’t be spoiled here.
The real star of the show is the spectacle of widescreen Cinemascope, the sets, and the visual effects. Rather than going with a beat-up theatrical print for this transfer, a new print has been struck from the internegative. Tech-savvy readers know that three black and white negatives, filtered with the correct primary colors (cyan/magenta/blue) produce the most vibrant, lustrous image. It’s the next best thing to the original camera negative, and all that’s available now.
Illuminated by glowing gases which cling to the cavernous ceiling “sky,” Leo Tover’s underground cinematography is highly theatrical – and highly appropriate for the kind of fare which eschews science for sheer adventure. When the largest sets couldn’t provide enough scope, they were enhanced by L.B. Abbott’s splendid matte paintings. Only the dinosaur FX feel like a cheat. Producer Charles Brackett opted for that old Irwin Allen fallback routine; miniature tabletops populated by lizards with extra fins glued on their backs. These scenes beg for the involvement of world-renowned FX wizard Ray Harryhausen… Sadly, the master of stop-motion only worked on his own projects. (See FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, also reviewed this month.)
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time (in an edition limited to 5000 copies) with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in a 2.34:1 aspect ratio. The transfer looks quite nice for a 56 year-old film, though it’s easy to spot an FX sequence coming up due to the unavoidable shift in grain due to rudimentary compositing techniques. There’s a terrific lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 audio track and the exceptional bone-rattling organ score by composer Bernard Herrmann (whose efforts date back to a little ditty called CITIZEN CANE) can be isolated as a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and is worth the price of the Blu-ray alone. Other extras on the disc include two theatrical trailers (one in Spanish). (Steve Austin)
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