The Center of Old Hollywood Spectacle
Jules Verne’s once charmingly sophisticated science fiction novel twists into this classy, often lavish late ’50s production capturing the thrill of exploration, a thrill notably lost in many modern contexts. It’s a race, it’s egos, it’s exciting. There are underground oceans, mushroom farms, sparkling crystals, and faux dinosaurs. Journey to the Center of the Earth is grandiose spectacle the way it used to be made – and certainly rich in patience.
Pat Boone, James Mason, Arlene Dahl; the cast is timeless. Their interactions are memorable. Dahl has important vigor, a recently widowed woman with a touch of feminine fire to extinguish the dated perceptions of a female on such a doubtful journey. Mason is a self-assured scientist, Boone his singing assistant. There are moments where the film is a step away from a musical. Fox knew their audience.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is planted in 1880. Citizenship is irrelevant. Scots mix-in with a tugged along Icelander and the trek is mixed up by a sniveling German (Thayer David). 1880 or not, the production year has relevance. Of course the German is a malicious villain.
The movie is a race, a slow and dirty one. Such a discovery, that the Earth’s core has not only been discovered but once traveled to, riles up scientists. Multiple brainy geologists forgo niceties in a rush to be first. Excitement is often palpable.
Once there, studio sets take over. Matte paintings prove gorgeous. Journey to the Center of the Earth finds progression in change. Diamond encrusted walls give way to pits of salt. Fiendish rivers try to drown the small troop and misty rock walls could be a death trap. It’s perilous.
Charisma saves it; that frenzy of enthusiasm is catching.
Charisma saves it; that frenzy of enthusiasm is catching.
It’s also plodding. Pacing is not one of the film’s grander qualities. The journey runs nearly one year on foot; it feels as such. Attention to detail and design are appreciable if lacking in their ability to offer a visual reprieve from the appropriately dark cinematography. Outside of Dahl, personalities and conflicts are mundane.
By its close, Journey to the Center of the Earth cheapens itself, casting lizards and treating them cruelly rather than using the financial weight of a major studio to create something with memorable creativity. That this would be nominated or rewarded for Best Visual Effects (losing to Ben Hur) is disconcerting given its actions.
Certainly, victories here are messy. While controlled and undoubtedly less ‘loud’ than many of the follow-up adaptions, Journey to the Center of the Earth is problematic, even bothersome. Charisma saves it; that frenzy of enthusiasm is catching. Never is it concerned with logic or accuracy. Journey to the Center of the Earth is tethered to no science reality other than its own. The embedded imagination is bright. If we’ve lost anything to time, it is this style of cinematic ingenuity. All of it is too real now.
A majority of the film is (obviously) contained to underground caverns. Light is rare. This creates some struggles within the imagery, battling for fidelity and crispness in locations which so rarely offer it. Opening scenes, peering in on establishing shots, are vivid. Perfection even. Detail looking down streets resolves a cart of apples at a distance – every individual apple. Interiors above the Earth are immaculate.
This of course carries as the trek is underway in some respects. More than ever, the artificial nature of the cave walls is evident. Paint on the enormous mushrooms is quite noticeable, but to no detriment of the feature itself. Costumes are resolved too. James Mason’s plaid overcoat could have been tricky. Here, it is without technical fault. Grain is excellently resolved, quite light actually. A mild pass of noise reduction may have been applied. Any ill-effects, if even noticeable, are minor.
Shadows are critical to Journey. Mostly they’re on point. Depth, while slightly losing a battle to age, has been maintained. A few shots slip off into gray. The rest present a reasonable black. Colors are well managed with bold hues excelling, lending the film a vintage Earth-tone focused quality. Final shots, with guards draped in red and Dahl in pastel are exquisite. The Earth’s center is plentiful too, given plenty of blues, purples, and reds.
Mastering work brings out resolution. The print is flawless, too. This same source dampens some of the excitement by design though. High frequency detail feels choked by lighting schemes set up some 55+ years ago. It is at this point to note that Journey is presented accurately. Whether it appears crystalline (as with Twilight Time release slate equal, First Men in the Moon is not important. It’s gorgeous in its own way.
Audio, by comparison, is awkward. The main mix is DTS-HD, pulled from 4-Track Stereo. While thundering to open – Bernard Herrmann never did wrong – with awe-inspiring low-end support and clarity, dialog is where things become tricky. There is clear extension into the stereos away from the center. Words travel, but do so with a lack of focus. They remain in the center as much as they do the sides creating this instant echo effect which is neither natural nor appealing.
Other effects are fine, a touch weak as expected given the period, but fine. Wind howls and water rushes creating a full field of audio. Ambiance is consistently applied when outside of action scenes.
Diane Baker joins two historians, Steven Smith and Nick Redman, for commentary duties. Hermann’s awesome score is available as an isolated track (DTS-HD) with the original trailer following at the rear.
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.