During the first few years of the 21st century, new versions of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH continued to be announced but remained unproduced. Finally, in 2007, a new big budget version was made, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3-D, and as so often happens, simultaneously a lower budget rendition of the same story was made to cash in on the former's anticipated popularity. In this case, the filmmakers did not return to the novel, but as with the 2005 version of MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, chose to instead remake an earlier adaptation.
Robert Halmi, Sr. dusted off the script of his 1999 version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, compressing it back to a 90 minute telefilm for RHI entertainment that appeared on the ION network on January 27, 2008. William Bray adapted the 1999 Tom Baum teleplay, this time helmed by T.J. Scott (probably best remembered for some of the most imaginatively directed episodes in the HERCULES and XENA series). The principal characterizations and motives remained the same, only compressed and more tightly paced.
The setting remains around the 1870s but is transplanted to San Francisco and Alaska (still known as "Seward's Folly" and with vestiges of Russian influence). These locales and a center of the Earth that resembles it were all a result of the Vancouver location shooting determining production design. However, the switch to an American background also gives the adaptation more of a natural, domestic, and less of an exotic feeldistinct from previous versions, which is a strength, but also familiar types of scenery, such as a western-style Alaskan town and costume. While director Scott makes the most of the backgrounds, the fact that the center of the earth looks almost exactly like the world above makes the narrative ultimately less convincing. Far more memorable were the unusual visuals achieved by the 1999 version.
From the first scene it is clear that this is little more than a retelling of the earlier film, with the basic characters and situation remained as before. Neither Rick Schroeder or Steven Grayhm, respectively, are as appropriate for their roles as were Treat Williams and Jeremy London in 1999. By contrast, the female lead this time is incarnated this time much more vigorously and convincingly by Victoria Pratt. She has a decade of female action roles to her credit and is also the wife of director Scott, and they have a long list of collaborations together. She has a map leading to a mine shaft which goes to the center of the Earth, down which her husband had descended four years earlier and never returned. As before, part of her motive is to redeem her role in a marriage gone sour.
Central to the rapid unfolding of the story is the reliance on the first person narration ostensibly from the diary kept by young Abel, who dedicates it to his fiancée, angry at his departure on the journey. Most intriguing is the change in the Hans character from the novel; the new version offers a Russian outlaw, Sergei, whose brother had descended with the husband. This provides an appropriate shift of character that merges with the new locale, and also, unlike all previous versions, a compelling reason for the "guide" to descend with the others. Sergei is also vital in helping the expedition reach the lake where, according to the map, on a single July day of the year the sunlight will point out the location of the mine.
There is an attenuated telling of the journey to the underground lake. The only marker among the caves is one at the beginning, in Russian, telling them the correct initial cave to take. On the way, the remains of Sergei's brother are found.
By the shore, trees freshly felled with an axe indicate an earlier traveler, and they decide to also make the journey by raft. Prehistoric birds and a pleisiosaur attack the raft, creatures described as extinct since the ice age. The use of effects is brief and has little impact on the story. Subsequently the film veers in new directions, as in the 1999 version, leaving Verne's novel behind.
An encounter at the shore with a wrecked raft leads to natives who resemble Native Americans, leads, predictably, to finding the husband (Peter Fonda, a modest improvement over the 1999 film's Bryan Brown), who has taken advantage of superstition and made himself king. Some warriors are resisting Edward's rule, and when they unite in opposition, Edward leads the way to a cave reputed to be the way out. Unlike the 1999 version, he is allowed redemption by sacrificing himself to save the others by staying behind to guarantee a dynamite charge that will block the cave. Water overcomes the foursome until finally they are sent to the surface of a lake in a waterspout. They decide to save the tribe from further exploitation by the above-ground world and Abel will keep his diary secret, or in fact, sayas he does in the final sentencethat it is merely a piece of fiction. Meanwhile, Jonas and Martha have realized their attraction for each other.
In this version, the more rapid pacing does not allow the viewer to be quite as aware of the hokeyness of the subplot with the tribes as in the 1999 version. Still, the principal question remains why the producers thought the script of the 1999 version was good enough to deserve a remake. Likely, as in the choice of the Vancouver location, it was simply a matter of the most budget-conscious way to proceed. Still it remains a valid question for audiences to ask.
Review by briantaves from the Internet Movie Database.