Saturday, July 5, 2008
THE FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1976) d. Juan Piquer Simon
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Once upon a time, film (theatrical and television-based) took us to undiscovered countries and told us fantastical tales of what was found there. Most of the time, these motion pictures were based on the writings of the incredible Jules Verne, the inestimable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the incomparable Edgar Rice Burroughs and as a result, the stories were rooted in wonderful traditions of science fiction. While there had been theatrical releases and serials prior to the 1950s, the great success of the 1959 release of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH spawned a whole new generation of imitators based on the masters’ works. Most of the movies took one of two routes to Unimaginable Destinations, following the Doyle or Burroughs model of THE LOST WORLD (1960) and THE LAND TIME FORGOT (1975) or they followed the Verne or Burroughs model of AT EARTH’S CORE (1976) and the lesser known THE FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1976), released in the U.S. under the title WHERE TIME BEGAN. THE FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH hearkens back to a film-making time when anything still seemed possible in our world and reality hadn’t yet strangled fiction.
Set in Hamburg, Germany in 1898, THE FABULOUS JOURNEY is the story of Professor Otto Lindenbrock, his pretty, young niece Glauben and her soldier-fiancé Axel. Professor Lindenbrock discovers an astounding journal in a book store that at first seems to be fiction, but turns out to be the actual writings of explorer Arne Saknussemm, who evidently discovered a path deep into the Earth’s crust which could shed light on the nature of the Earth’s core. After traveling to Iceland, Professor Lindenbrock enlists the aid of a strong and seasoned local named Hans and from there, the party descends into the crater and the cone of the volcano Saknussemm accessed. Along the way, the explorers meet a mysterious scientist named Olsen, already in the underground caverns and carrying a strange device. The expanded group sees incredible subterranean grottos, finds inland seas, thrills to the sights of sea monsters, giant tortoises, a colossal ape, dinosaurs, huge mushroom forests and even gets involved in paradoxical time travel before they are able to extract themselves from their journey and return home.
THE FABULOUS JOURNEY has many things to like about it, not the least of which is it is a Spanish production shot on location in some wonderfully exotic Iberian and Atlantic island locales. Starring an international cast of screen veterans like England’s venerable Kenneth More (SINK THE BISMARCK and NIGHT TO REMEMBER) who plays Professor Lindenbrock, American Jack Taylor (HORROR OF THE ZOMBIES and VAMPIRE’S NIGHT ORGY) who plays Olsen and Spaniard Frank Brana (POD PEOPLE and PIECES) who plays Hans, and mixed with Spanish newcomers Pep Munne (Axel) and Ivonne Sentis (Glauben), THE FABULOUS JOURNEY benefits from one of the better dubbing jobs I have ever heard. It was clearly released with an international audience in mind and as such, Americans use to the usually inconsistent dubbing of the past will be delighted with the predominantly English accents of the dubbing actors, even though three of the characters are supposed to be German. THE FABULOUS JOURNEY looks great and is splashed with bright colors and clear images. As a youth, I was a sucker for these kinds of films, but between our old televisions picking up the UHF transmissions on rabbit ears of murky TV prints from 1960s and 1970s independent stations, most of my viewing experiences were exciting but visually unimpressive. THE FABULOUS JOURNEY looks like it should have for the most part, and every scene of imaginary creatures and fantastical places is as crisp as it should be, just as the sound is properly restored to the best degree possible.
While THE FABULOUS JOURNEY’s story is a little choppy at times and goes in unexpected directions and arrives at unclear places, this is part of its charm. Retelling Jules Verne’s classic tale in such a way that you aren’t thoroughly copying it and the films that came later is a difficult prospect, so the traditional must be mixed with the bizarre and the result is splendid. I especially enjoyed the addition of a “King Kong” look-like, as well as the addition of the paradoxical time travel plot device. The time travel element is tangential and mind-bending, but it separates THE FABULOUS JOURNEY from its predecessors and contemporaries. The performances are not terribly complex or incredibly original, rather the characters react to what they experience in fairly simplistic ways. Most of the characters are shocked, amazed, perplexed, occasionally frightened, and Glauben screams every now and then, but THE FABULOUS JOURNEY isn’t about award-winning cinema, it is all about the wild ride.
Sadly, THE FABULOUS JOURNEY has a very lean extras component. There isn’t even a “bonus features” menu, just a couple of pleasant additions to the main menu. There is a form of the theatrical trailer as well as an “alternate opening sequence”. It is likely that the expense of tracking down and then accessing the European cast and crew is beyond the financial means of Code Red DVD, and it is too bad. One of the things I have enjoyed the most about Code Red’s releases has been their interviews with directors and producers and the splendid anecdotes those persons add to our knowledge of film history. In this case the lack of bonus features can perhaps be forgiven. Possibly Jack Taylor still lives abroad or was uninterested in being involved with any reminiscences. The tragedy of not adding or researching any kinds of film extras is that as each year passes, the chances of adding such lore to the historical record becomes less likely.
THE FABULOUS JOURNEY is all about an idea that has virtually vanished from society today. Once upon a time, people still believed that undiscovered places and creatures were still out there in our world. After the amazing leaps forward in technology spurred by the Space Race of the 1960s and 1970s, the unknown still to be found on Earth steadily disappeared and a little of the mystery of life vanished with it. We lost something irreplaceable and as a result, we are a more jaded and cynical people today, unbelievers and skeptics to the point where there is little joy or imagination left to us. Possibly that is why Hollywood feels the need to remake every movie or TV show under the sun. THE FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is not only a trip beneath the Earth’s surface, it is a journey back to a time when the boundaries of existence still seemed limitless and the light of day still had the freshness of morning and youth.