A courageous scientist heads a dangerous expedition into the sweltering center of the planet Earth. Joined by his nephew and a guide, the team are constantly facing danger in their search for a hidden land and a missing man. During this quest, they encounter a savage underground primitive civilization, bloodthirsty raptors, and deadly Sauroids before racing back to the surface.
Directed by: George Miller
. Starring: Treat Williams
, Jeremy London
, Tushka Bergen
, Hugh Keays-Byrne
, Bryan Brown
, Tessa Wells
, Petra Yared
, Sarah Chadwick
, Peter Kaa
, Joe Bugner
, Alan Hardy
, Bill Charles
, John Forsyth
. Music by: Bruce Rowland
The achievements of animation in adapting this story in preceding years would continue to overshadow the resumption of live action versions in the 1980s and 1993. In early 1996, executive producer Robert Halmi, Sr., whose Hallmark Entertainment was simultaneously making a new version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA for CBS (which eventually formed the basis for a two-hour telefilm and a one-hour children's special the next year) announced a two-hour version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH for the Sci-Fi Channel, from a script by John Ireland. In the wake of the commercial success of the USA Network's four-hour mini-series of MOBY DICK (1998), the project was switched to USA, the Sci-Fi Channel's parent company, and the two-hour telefilm was expanded to four hours (including commercials) with Thomas Baum enlarging Ireland's script. Director George Miller, already attached to the project, was eager for the change, and produced with Connie Collins. Shooting began in April 1999 in Australia and New Zealand on a $12 million budget, and the miniseries premiered five months later on September 14 and 15.
The setting is given as 1868 and adapts the nationality and names of its protagonists to the cast. Instead of the German Professor Otto Lidenbrock, the hero is the American name-alike Theodore Lytton. As portrayed by 47-year-old Treat Williams, Lytton is as much an action hero as part of the world of science, thereby surmounting the unlikelihood of a man of his constitution surviving the expedition. He studied with Darwin in the Galapagos, and is a rather dominating father-figure to his initially fearful young nephew, Jonas, who is indispensable to his uncle for having a facility for languages that Lytton lacks.
Alice Hastings, a wealthy American mountaineer and member of the Carnegie family, hires Lytton to search for her husband, Casper (Bryan Brown). Casper had climbed down in a remote part of New Zealand, the Ruapehu caverns, that descend deep inside the Earth and are rumored to be an area of monsters and mystery. This new narrative strand is only one of several changes that incorporate aspects of another Verne novel, his 1867 epic, The Children of Captain Grant, much of which is set in Australia and New Zealand. Just as Mary Grant is part of the trek looking for her father, which will end in her marriage, Alice is part of the expedition in search of her husband, which will eventually bring her a new spouse.
Verne's phlegmatic Icelander Hans is replaced with the burly, kilt-wearing MacNiff. He integrates the Scotsman MacNabbs and the underhanded Ayrton from The Children of Captain Grant, and is wily enough to steer the Lytton party through the dangers of a colonial rebellion and hostile Maoris.
Unlike previous films of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the descent is in a tropical climate filled with vegetation. Wind blowing Alice's hair reveals a passage emerging on the shore of the underground sea, with the cavern roof supported by pillar-type columns of rocks, perhaps the most impressive visualization yet achieved. A shift of natural colors is used to convey an other-worldly impression, with a yellow sky and blue plants.
On the shore, Jonas glimpses and follows Ralna (Petra Yared), a remarkably agile, tattooed redhead, who leads them into a jungle were they encounter two new races. There is a primitive but more physically developed humankind, together with a reptile race, Saurians, that has developed on a parallel path, with its own language, science, and urban centers in a world where human and dinosaur coexist. Alice is abducted by the Saurians, and in the human village Lytton, Jonas, and MacNiff find Casper, living as their ruler, in a manner reminiscent of a cult leader or Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
While the subterranean world is offered as an example of a different outcome of Darwin's theories, the theme is insufficiently explored, and the second half of the miniseries is disappointing, the filmmaker's refusing to allow the journey itself to serve as the goal, as in the novel.
Miller's version further demonstrates how films of Verne's novel and Conan Doyle's Lost World, itself inspired by the Frenchman's book, have become a source of shared inspiration for filmmakers. Conan Doyle's novel was even more concerned with the rivalry of races of prehistoric man than the better-remembered perils provided by dinosaurs. During the production of this version, two new films of The Lost World were made, one a pilot for a television series shot in New Zealand, so certainly the ideas from the Conan Doyle novel were very much "in the air."
Casper dies on the return journey, and crossing the underground sea again, Jonas, Lytton, and Alice are abruptly sent to the surface by a vortex phenomenon. Lytton and Alice decide to honeymoon in Iceland, and explore fresh caverns that may offer a more direct route to the center of the Earth (which has the curious effect of making the Verne novel seem like a sequel to this film adaptation).
Jonas must recover from an unknown virus transmitted by Ralna, that leaves him with dreams of her and causes him to return to New Zealand and a life of adventure--clearly leaving the way open for a sequel. The theme of Jonas's initiatory trajectory and his gradual emergence as a hero during the course of the journey remains from the novel, despite deviating from Verne's own romantic conclusion (which the Lytton-Alice nuptials render superfluous).
Review by briantaves from the Internet Movie Database.