The DVD cover says that this is based on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. There's about eight other movies that are based on Verne's novel, all of varying degrees of unwatchability. Maybe that's why they juiced up the title a little bit.
On the other hand, maybe they were just trying to do a bit of filmic cross referencing. There was a recent (and blindingly stupid) movie called The Core, which featured a digging machine that was designed to burrow deep into the Earth's crust. Whoops hey! Just such a digging machine features in this movie's threadbare subplot.
But mostly, I think, they were just messing about a bit so that they wouldn't have exactly the same title as the Brendan Fraser film they were 'mockbusting.' Seriously, what else were they going to call it - Journey to the Center of the Earth's Navel? In England, this was titled Journey to Middle Earth which must surely have outraged the Tolkien fans.
If you go to Wikipedia, however, someone there is convinced that this movie is at least partially based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earthís Core, which also features a digging machine. Let me quote a little bit of the Wikipedia article:The film, despite being an adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, bears a close resemblance to At the Earth's Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as its subsequent film adaptation:Let me make a few comments about that. The experimental drill in the movie bears a similarity to the one in the book in that both are giant experimental drills designed to tunnel into the earth, with people riding along inside as pilots. Thatís really about it, sorry.
* The experimental drill bears some similarity to the Iron Mole featured in Burroughs' original novel, both of which tunnel through the Earth's crust into the centre of the Earth. The drill featured in this film bears some resemblance to the Iron Mole featured in the film version of Burroughs' novel.
* The character of Joseph Harnet in this film can be compared to David Innes, the protagonist of Burroughs' original novel and his Pellucidar series of novels, particularly as both are portrayed as iron-willed Americans with a strong sense of courage.
* The centre of the Earth portrayed in this film bears a close resemblance to the land of Pellucidar from Burroughs' works, particularly as both feature primitive humans dwelling at the very centre of the Earth, unaware of life on the Earth's surface until the arrival of the protagonists.
The character of Joseph Harnet in the film can be compared to David Innes in that both are bitter scientists who spend the entirety of the plot bickering in a confined space with their ex-wives in the experimental drill and spend less than five minutes in the underground world doing nothing much. Oh wait, thatís not David Innes at all! Turns out there's no comparison!
And if the Centre of the Earth as portrayed in this film features primitive humans unaware of life at the surface, then they must be ninjas, because we never ever see any of them in the movie at all. They donít even get mentioned in the Director's commentary.
So, let's just say that the Burroughs reference is a bit of a reach.
It's not altogether out of sight, however, because this movie, does feature dinosaurs. Two of them anyway. The same as Burroughs' Pellucidar. Although to be fair, Journey to the Center of the Earth in various movie and book versions also features prehistoric monsters.
And this movie features teleportation to the center of the Earth, which isnít exactly in any of Burroughs' Pellucidar novels, but does feature in some of his other works. It also features in John Eric Holmes Return to Pellucidar.
The most telling clue that this movie has any affinity with Edgar Riceís Pellucidar novels is that one of the characters is named Burroughs.
But frankly, it's thin, thin, thin. Let's put it this way, I think that the people who made, wrote, and conceived this movie weren't thinking specifically of Burroughs or Verne, but simply taking the idea of an underground lost world adventure. There's no further or deeper sign of any borrowing. At least the Brendan Fraser movie borrowed loosely from the Verne novel in terms of names and situations.
But, let's say that it's a Pellucidarean adventure in the grand old Burroughs tradition... Well, man, but it fails spectacularly.
Here's the plot - an elite military squad composed of women participating in a teleportation experiment are accidentally teleported into a giant hollow space underground. There, they encounter a Tyrannosaurus Rex, flee across a collapsing bridge over a pit of lava, encounter giant carnivorous plants, another dinosaur, have a swim at a natural waterfall, fight giant spiders, and eventually encounter a T-Rex sized spider before getting rescued. The subplot involves a divorced couple who reunite to pilot an underground drill to rescue them, suffering mechanical difficulties and encountering lava monsters before bursting out in the nick of time.
Now I ask you. How could something like that possibly go wrong?
As it turns out... Easily.
As it turns out, what goes wrong with the movie is a textbook case of compromise and circumstance leaching every bit of life out of an adventure. Actually, watching the director's commentary gives a lot of insight, as two exhausted, punch drunk young men tell...............
Let's start with the commando team. They're not really commandos. Maybe they go that way, but truthfully, they look more like co-eds than soldiers. There's none of that hard body, sweat a lot, push the edges vibe. Let's just say, none of these women look like they'd make it even half way through basic training.
And they don't act like soldiers, which I'll blame on both the actors and the scripts. It's not convincing. They don't set up perimeters, there's no point, no recon, when they run it's not an orderly retreat. They don't operate as a unit. They don't talk like soldiers, they don't dress like them. So what's the point?
Iíll be fair, in the commentary, the Director and Writer basically admit this: "Yep, they don't look like soldiers, don't act like soldiers, don't do any soldiery thing."
But then, what the hell is the point? Drop the whole 'elite military squad' and just go with Hot Chicks at the Center of the Earth. Maybe working that angle might have produced something.
Then, there's a problem, that once they get to the center of the Earth, they don't actually do much of anything. There's a couple of reasons for that.
One, according to the Directors commentary, is that originally, it was going to be a mixed team going down to the center of the Earth. Guys and girls, and there was going to be a romantic subplot, because a couple of them were going to be .... Together, you know.
Unfortunately, when it goes all girl girl, that sort of unwinds the plot a bit. Well, this isnít necessarily a bad thing. A lesbian romance at the center of the earth? Hey, a bit of genderbending might shake things up a little. They even acknowledge that in the Directors commentary. But then, a bit of a push like that, might have affected the NC-17 rating or whatever, might have scared some buyers, might have annoyed some bible thumping redneck, so the film makers just kind of backed off on that whole thing.
Which left... Pretty much nothing going on at all. So bottom line is that you've got a group of women wandering around, and there's no conflicts, no tensions, no chemistry. They're all just friends, that's about it. There's no tomboy, there's no mean girl, there's no slut. There's a brainy girl, but that's a pretty dull chick archetype. They don't bicker, there's no agenda, there's no division in the group. There's no real reason to watch people who aren't actually doing anything interesting.
Okay, but if there's nothing interesting going on inside the group, what about on the outside? Aren't there all sorts of wacky interesting stuff going on.
One of the interesting things about the Directors commentary was hearing about the locations. All right, they were doing location shooting in southern California. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It can work out quite well. Didn't work out well in this case.
The trouble is that the locations were pretty lackluster. We've got the girls walking through the fields of grass. Oh. Geez. Grass, huh? Well, that's exciting. It's late in the season, so the grass is pretty much starting to brown out. So it's not even particularly vibrant. Itís painfully dull. Even if you stick giant spiders and T-rex's in there, it's still kind of dull.
I dunno, it's one of those things. You'd figure that a gravel pit or a rock quarry would be terrible locations, but for sci fi adventures, they've always come across as pretty nifty. Thirty years of Doctor Who is proof of that. You get some pretty dynamic visual bang with a location like that.
On the other hand, some farmer's hayfield? Thatís just death on cinematic wheels, man. Just death. It's hard to make that look interesting.
Apparently, they were shooting in a nature park in California, I'm not sure, state or federal. Doesn't really matter. Apparently though, the problem is that this was a nature preserve, so they had a Park Ranger riding herd on them, to protect endangered grasses and mosses and nag them about their ecological footprint. They'd come down there to do some exotic location shooting, and they couldn't do anything more interesting than walking down the paths.
Walking down paths in botanical gardens or nature preserves? Thatís just not very interesting. They moved to another Park for a location, but darn it, the good locations got taken up by another film production.
So, what's the bottom line - uninteresting characters, in a group with no particularly interesting dynamic, who are clearly not selling what theyíre supposed to be, wandering around in dull locations, with no particular agenda.
Cavemen would have livened thing up. Anything would have livened things up.
So what's left? They meet a CGI T-Rex and they run away from it. There's not a lot of real interraction between the actors and the CGI character. They fire guns at it, it doesn't notice. I think it might have eaten one of them. But really, we've seen this before, and there's not really all that much of it.
There's an offscreen where one of the girls kills a smaller dino - basically, it saves the film makers from having to actually try and puppeteer the thing, and technically gives us our second dinosaur, but the scenes are a big Meh.
Most of the excitement, what there is of it in the movie, comes in the spider attacks. But frankly, it comes pretty late. Essentially, the girls wander into this spider nest where they get attacked by a giant man'sized spider that lays its eggs in one of them. They eventually fight their way through. It's not bad, the trouble is that by this time, we've pretty much lost all investment in the characters or the movie.
Finally, they make it to the hillside where the drilling machine shows up, and then they teleport home. Before they do, a T-Rex sized spider shows up, but it doesnít actually do anything.
Thatís the A-Plot, and it's kind of sad, because you know a lot of people worked their asses off, on screen and off, and they tried their best, and they got stuck with compromises and headaches with script and location and everything, but it all just seems so perfunctory that watching it on the screen, you don't know why anyone bothered.
People talk about production values. Twenty million dollar budget, and it looks like it's all up there on the screen. Expensive movies can blow it and look cheap and tawdry on the screen, like Star Trek 5, or low budget productions can look expensive and gorgeous.
Here, it's not so much about production value - it just looks like nobody put any effort into it, and that's not true. But that's what it looks like, and that's sad.
Oh well, let's move on to the B-Plot. This is where the name stars show up, in this case, Greg Evigan and Dee Dee Pfeifer. Iím a little astonished by the notion of these two as named stars. I mean, I'm vaguely familiar with the names, so I assume that they've done some TV or something. I'm not sure that seeing their names on a DVD cover would inspire anyone to bother renting it.
On the other hand, maybe a recognizeable 'working actor/actress name' helps to sell it to buyers in television or DVD stores. It might be as simple as the conclusion that these guys didn't work for free, so if they're in this DVD, then whoever made it probably had enough money to pay them, which meant that the movie actually has some production values and you can risk buying it without for your DVD rental chain or your late night TV channel.
So, let's see. Greg Evigan plays Josh Harnet. Which I'm sure is a deliberate attempt to cash in on Josh Hartnet's name and maybe rent a few more DVDs. Josh Harnet is the former Mr. Emily Radford played by Dee Dee Pfeifer. They were married, they broke up, it was ugly, now all that keeps them together is their giant drilling machine. This is not a sexual innuendo.
There's another family touch. Emily Radford's sister is Kristen Radford, played by Jennifer Dorogi. Kristen Radford is one of the squadron of 'hot chicks without personalities pretending to be soldiers' who end up at the center of the earth. It's just like a soap opera, but trite.
So, Emily has a special reason for wanting to rescue her sister, which forces her to stomach her ex-husband, so they can jump in his giant mole and go cruising down to the center of the Earth. Of course, once they're in the giant mole-drill, they really don't have much more to do than just sit in adjacent bucket seats and bicker.
Yeah, so the premise is an unpleasantly divorced fairly married couple driving down the road in the front seat of a car for eight hours. That's just cinematic gold. Or maybe not.
It's actually fairly unpleasant. They do their best, shaking at the appropriate times, sweating, sneaking into crawl spaces to do necessary technobabble stuff that's vital to the plot. At some point, they're chased by poorly-rendered CGI lava monsters, but that little bit of life goes nowhere.
It reminded me a lot of those old B-movies where they'd get John Carradine to come in for a day, sit in a chair and mumble for a while, and then they'd give him star billing, while the rest of the movie and all the action takes place all around and away. It doesn't remind me in a good way. But hey, it is what it is.
Apart from that, it's the usual shortcomings of Asylum films -- too many characters crowding each other, but none of them really interesting or doing anything of note. Maybe with fewer characters, we'd invest more. If you're going to have that many characters, try and strike a few sparks. As it is, they're all just there to fill up screen time and they make no real impression.
In some ways, the movie strikes me as a wash of wasted opportunities. Sure, there were limitations of budget, and there were things that they couldn't control, like Park ecology Nazis. But then again, a lot of the things that went wrong were choices -- maybe choices made for lack of time, for lack of money, for alleged salability -- but still, choices.
No one forced them to try and present a pack of valley girls as an elite commando unit, and they could have gone in another direction, even at the last minute. No one forced them to excise a romantic subplot which could have been interesting, and replace it with... nothing much. For that matter, no one forced them to shoot in a hayfield.
Sometimes, even a bad movie can overcome its badness with enthusiasm and drive, can turn its shortcomings and cheesiness into virtues, and can acquire a kind of awful watchability. This isnít one of those. It's not terrible in any particular respect. Itís just, basically uninteresting. It's ... meh.
It is what it is, it ain't very much.
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
The Pellucidar Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs
More Film Reviews by Den Valdron
Den Valdron's Fantasy Worlds of ERB
The Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs