Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson
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Hollywood wisdom through the ages has always been that no technological innovation the transition from silent film to sound, black-and-white to color, hand-drawn animation to digital images could ever make a bad movie into a good one.
Yet the three-dimensional breakthroughs employed in "Journey to the Center of the Earth" come close.
In just two dimensions, Brendan Fraser's subterranean adventure to the planet's midsection probably would play as what it is at its core: A lame bit of hokum that's less a story than a theme-park ride.
With crisp images and depth that make you feel you could reach out and stick your hand into the middle of the action, the movie projected in digital 3-D form actually makes that theme-park ride kind of fun.
The trouble is, there are nowhere near enough theaters yet equipped to project digital 3-D flicks in Hollywood's nationwide pattern of 3,000-plus cinemas, so most of the places it'll play will be in two dimensions.
Images of carnivorous fish leaping from an underground ocean right at the camera still may look cool in 2-D. But a shot from the perspective of a sink drain as Fraser spits out his toothbrush backwash into the lens effective and funny in 3-D most likely will just look weird when the extra dimension is taken away.
In his directing debut, veteran visual-effects supervisor Eric Brevig makes the most of the 3-D technology that uses two side-by-side digital cameras to simulate the perspective provided by the right and left eyes. Moviegoers must wear glasses, but they're of higher caliber than the flimsy cardboard ones used for old-time 3-D flicks.
Audiences already have been treated to similar effects in recent Hannah Montana and U2 concert movies, imagery actually floating off the screen so movie fans practically felt as if they were banging elbows with the live crowds.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth" follows their lead in providing an almost tangible world that makes the eye-straining, headache-inducing 3-D movies of past decades look like the cheesy gimmick they were.
This is not Jules Verne's sci-fi classic retold, though the movie does use his book as a template for a modern trek down below.
Essentially a three-character story, the movie casts Fraser as absent-minded geologist Trevor Anderson, who forgets his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) is coming for a visit.
Trevor's brother, the boy's dad, mysteriously vanished years earlier on a field expedition in Iceland. Just as Sean arrives, Trevor stumbles on clues left by his brother that lead him to believe Verne's fantasy novel actually was based on a real journey to the earth's center. So he takes the boy along to Iceland to follow his brother's footsteps.
They meet up with local guide Hannah (Anita Briem), and the threesome almost instantly finds themselves tumbling and racing through the planet's interior, encountering glowing birds, ravenous sea creatures and a pasty-faced dinosaur aiming to snack on them.
While there are gimmicky shots designed to make audiences jerk in their seats as things come at them in 3-D mode, Brevig restrains the impulse to use the technology for too many cheap jolts.
Generally, the 3-D images are fashioned to make fans feel as though they're sitting inside the movie rather than being assaulted by moving objects within it.
The simple-minded screenplay credited to Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin amounts to little more than amiable but empty patter that almost could have been dreamed up on the spot to fill the gaps between the nonstop action sequences.
This is a movie made solely as a thrill ride. But be warned: The ride may not be too thrilling if you see it in conventional 2-D cinema, so try to catch the 3-D version.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth," released by the Warner Bros. unit New Line Cinema, is rated PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments. Running time: 93 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.