Entering theaters in the last weeks of the decade, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fifties sci-fi picture with credentials that set it apart from most of its matinee peers. It is an epic-length movie with gorgeous, jewel-like sets, a brilliant score by cinema’s top composer, Bernard Herrmann, and A-lister James Mason leading the cast. It was a massive box-office hit, nominated for three Oscars, a major influence on filmmakers from Irwin Allen to Steven Spielberg (who lifted more than one of its scenes for Raiders of the Lost Ark), and is still critically lauded today.
As much as there is to recommend this adaptation of Jules Verne’s scientifically off-the-wall trip to the Earth’s core, it has issues that leave it wanting in comparison to cousins like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Mason is certainly among the great actors of his generation, but he’s not exactly an effective action hero, nor is his assistant, Pat Boone, who breaks from the action every once in a while for some bland crooning. Like First Men in the Moon, which I recently reviewed here on Psychobabble, Journey to the Center of the Earth dawdles way to too long before getting to its otherworldly destination. Unlike that H.G. Wells adaptation, there’s at least a bit of intrigue to sustain interest during the film’s first fifty minutes on the Earth’s surface. Also unlike First Men, its effects don’t quite work. The climactic madness of Verne’s book is that the Earth’s core is populated with dinosaurs. Instead of cool, stop-motion creatures, we get some very real iguanas with pasted-on fins and lizards painted red. Monstrous roaring effects do make them fairly horrible and over-cranked photography make their movements appear adequately lumbering, but this kind of thing really only works in a movie like Shrinking Man in which enlarged animals are not standing in for other creatures. Plus the facts that the animals are clearly being mistreated and killed make these centerpiece scenes impossible to enjoy on any level. In his audio commentary, historian Steven C. Smith says, “We don’t want to know how this was done” before one of the poor things is riddled with arrows and gnawed on by other iguanas. Easy for him to say.
Journey to the Center of the Earth returns to Twilight Time blu-ray looking excellent without a single scratch, speck, or shoddy element worth mentioning. The grain may be a tad on the heavy side in a few special effects shots, but the picture is still sharp and the colors still vivid. Herrmann’s score, which recalls some of the work he was currently doing for “The Twilight Zone”, gets its own audio track, while another is reserved for Smith, actress Diane Baker (who actually has very little screen time as Mason’s niece), and Twilight Time’s resident mediator Nick Redman. Get it on Screen Archives.com here.