So, the big techies in the film world would have it that the super-realistic "Real D" 3-D technology is a paradigmatic leap in the art of cinema like sound, color and widescreen were. Okay, let's stick with that. If the coming of great 3-D is as big a deal as the coming of sound was, then we're in the "gimmick phase" still, and Journey to the Center of the Earth is our very own The Broadway Melody: a crappy exercise in mediocrity that comes up with nary a single interesting idea to show off the new toy, but just tries to dazzle the audience, with a lifetime of hearing people talk seeing things in 3-D, by showing nothing but scene after scene of people talking things being in front of other things, because while that might be about as boring as anything could conceivably be, well goddammit, it's not the kind of boring that you were able to see in regular old flat movies!

Since Journey is a watershed film (the first live-action narrative film originated in the new 3-D, after the concert docs U2 3D and Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus - the latter, God save us all, will be the first Hi-Def home video released in 3-D), it seems only right to use it as a stick to bludgeon the shortcomings of the technology it pimps out. No, wait, I meant "to use it as a case study in the abilities of the new tech", that's it. Oh, why bother? I've made no effort to hide the fact that I simply don't like the idea of 3-D movies.* And it just so happens that Journey showcases just about every reason why I don't.

Have you ever been to Walt Disney World? Did you see MuppetVision 3-D? Do you remember the bit where Kermit says "We promise not to stoop to any cheap 3-D tricks", and Fozzie comes out and asks, "Did you say, 'cheap 3-D tricks'?" and then blows one of those paper party noisemakers at the audience? 17 years ago, Jim Henson and company were already smarter than the blokes who made Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is nothing but a string of cheap 3-D tricks, though calling them "cheap" isn't really fair. Most of them are in fact very splashy 3-D CGI effects, albeit rather shaky CGI that looks all the worse because of its tendency to jump out at the audience. The practical effects aren't really a whole lot better; the film actually manages to incorporate two "spit at the camera" gags, when just one was already more bodily fluid zooming towards me than I particularly wanted when I bought my ticket.

The big setpiece that doesn't involve such gimcrackery is a mine-cart ride early on, that can't hold a candle to its grandpa in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; it suggests all of the dimensionality of riding on a roller coaster with none of the speed and wind and nausea and adrenaline. Making Journey the first summer movie that is both: a) truly comparable to a roller coaster ride; and b) significantly worse than a roller coaster ride. It's telling that the one moment that works perfectly is a sequence in which the 3-D effects are completely sidelined; the film's teenage hero jumps across floating magnetic rocks that slide around as he lands on them. Nothing about the sequence benefits even in the slightest from dimensionality (even the abyss he's floating above looks more like a matte painting than a real abyss), and it's absolutely the most thrilling moment in the film.

I freely admit, that in the right hands, 3-D cinematography might yet make for something brilliant and significant (arguably, it has: Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon, made in 1954 during the first 3-D fad, has at least two shots where the extra dimension is used in a significant way that deepens the story). It wouldn't surprise me if such a thing happens sometime in 2009; if not at the hands of John Lasseter's Pixar wizards, than certainly with James Cameron's Avatar in December (though I really do hate to admit that latter part). Meanwhile, we have first-time director, long-time visual effects artist Eric Brevig to shepherd Journey, and damned if that isn't painfully obvious in the way the film privileges effects over story, character, and composition.

Before I completely abandon this rant, one last point, a very important one I believe: being the first feature narrative made with the new tech, Journey gets to demonstrate one of its insurmountable limitations. The way that 3-D works is through parallax; there are two different but nearly-identical images on screen, overlapping each other so that once you put on the filtering glasses, each eye only sees one image, and sends that image to your brain. Which is what your eyes do all the time, anyway; stereoscopic vision is the result of each eye seeing a marginally different perspective, and your brain averaging the difference, so to speak, to indicate dimensionality.

In a 3-D movie, which is dimensionality being simulated on a flat surface, there is a trap that has already been fixed with the dome-shaped OMNIMAX system, but surely can't be helped on a multiplex screen: at the very far right and left sides of the screen, one of the images by default must extend a little bit further than the other (you can sort of see this if you open your eyes alternately, though the edges of your field of vision aren't in focus, so it's not something you'd ever notice) . If you travel close enough to the edge of the frame, it is necessary that one of the cameras will record a specific point that the other camera will not. And that point is not in 3-D. Meaning that for every single frame of the movie, the far edges abruptly flatten out; it's much worse on close objects. The edge of the frame does terrifying things to your perception, I learned. A man could go mad, he spent too much time at the edge.

Worse by far is what happens when somebody stands up in front of the screen, and walks to the bathroom. That tears some kind of dimensional hole in the fabric of the film itself, not unlike the effect, described by H.P. Lovecraft, that the city R'lyeh has on minds evolved in a normal four-dimensional universe. I would fain talk no more of what happens when somebody walks in front of the screen.

Oh, yeah, so Journey to the Center of the Earth is a film where Brendan Fraser plays a crackpot vulcanologist whose brother went missing because he was chasing the world described in Jules Verne's novel. That man's son, played by Josh Hutcherson, is along for the ride, because Fraser is a jaw-droppingly terrible guardian, and a sexy Icelandic mountain guide (Anita Briem) is there to be sexy and Icelandic. The film tells unspeakable lies about geology (in ways both large and very small), because of the long-standing tradition that in a kids' movie, you don't have to give a damn about treating the audience with even a scrap of respect. None of this matters; the only possible reason to see the film is because you are one of the three huge Brendan Fraser fans on the planet, or because you want to see things jumping at you in 3-D. I have nothing but sympathy for those people who saw this in regular theatres, where it must have had absolutely no reason for being whatsoever.

5/10 (Yes, 5/10. Harsh though I was, the film's chief sin is being godawful dull)