Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1999)



Notes: Hallmark Entertainment. 139 minutes.
Dr. Theodore Lytton: Treat Williams
Jeremy London: Jonas
Alice Hastings: Tushko Bergen
McNiff: Hugh Keays-Byrne
Ralna: Petra Yared
Casper Hastings: Bryan Brown
Helen: Tessa Wells

Produced: George Miller and Connie Collins
Directed: George Miller
Teleplay: Thomas Baum
Executive Producers: Robert Halmi, Jr, David V. Picker, Kris Noble
Music: Bruce Rowland

Summary: We open on a boxing match in Boston, 1875. When the police raid, the winner, Lytton, and his nephew Jonas run to give a Darwinian lecture on geology. His heresy prompts the calling of a cop and he bids another hasty exit. At dinner, Alice Hastings recognizes his difficulty in raising funds and shows him a coded captain’s log, supposedly from Captain Cook, from among the papers of her husband who has been missing for seven years. The “Saknussemm theory” suggests the possibility of passages deep into the earth. She’ll fund the expedition to find her husband.

Jonas and Lytton work on decoding the text and come up with a reference to Toronga, a volcano off of New Zealand which legend has as leading to the center of the earth — they could witness the geological record of the genesis of the planet. Jonas knows languages, so he’ll have to postpone his wedding to Helen, but will address his journal entries to her. In New Zealand, a rugged McNiff, wanted by the law, retrieves Lytton’s pickpocketed wallet and claims they’ll need him because of the Maori uprising, which involves cannibalism. Mrs. Hastings shows up, insisting that she’ll be going. Lytton insists that she “will not be coddled.” They group approaches a “vortex” in the sea, but are taken prisoner. McNiff finds out from them, as they take guns for their war, that Casper Hastings went with two men underneath the earth and that monsters got him. A Maori purification ceremony suggests that Alice may be eaten, but a battle breaks out and the party escape.

Lytton drops a bundle down a pit and gauges the drop to be 3/4 mile. They descend. Jonas reports heat and water scarcity. After seeing a trilobyte fossil, they find they are on the path of Casper Hastings. A gasoline explosion has them slugging back gin and considering turning back. But McNiff finds water before a cave-in brings a boulder close upon Lytton. Alice saves him and her hair blows. The wind comes from a subterranean sea, not salt-water, with a false sky created by electrical phenomena at the cavern’s heights. Alice sees a dancing plant, but this turns out to be the tail of an early Jurassic dinosaur. Lytton thought it was “strictly vegetarian,” but instructs McNiff to shoot it between the eyes.

Evidence suggests the death of Casper, and Alice and Lytton get it on. Jonas is disgusted, but McNiff says Lytton is smitten: “Cheer up, scholar, it’s not the end of the world; in fact, ‘it’ is what makes the world go ’round.” A weird girl is watching Jonas, who takes off in pursuit of her until she disappears in the blue jungle. Jonas has never been stared at like that before.

They see a saurian track with a primate claw and assume evolution proceeded beyond dinosaurs. Jonas hears what sound like birdcalls but have a syntax. We “can’t assume that they’re hostile,” says Lytton, “[They could be] detached, watchful, vigilant, studying us, observing us.” McNiff is skeptical: “But on the other hand, they could be on safari.”

Sauroids, bipedal saurians with heat vision, kidnap Mrs. Hastings and trap the others in a cage. McNiff shoots one and Lytton fights another until it is speared by a humanoid. This tribe carries the head of a dinosaur kill and we all enter a city’s gates, seeing Aztec-like huts and the girl Jonas chased earlier. She speaks English, having learned from the “schoolmaster,” who turns out to be Casper Hastings in a feathery cape. A public dance accompanies the head-roast and Hastings laments that they are at war again since the search party has shattered a fragile truce: the tribe “forgot the taste of raptor flesh until you came along.” The Sauroids may dissect Alice since they have a rudimentary science unlike this batch of humanoids whom Casper supposedly improved. McNiff enjoys the female attention as he slices the first piece of head and drinks ale.

The Sauroids are a day away. Lytton and Hastings smoke an analgesis and discuss polygamy. Meanwhile Jonas talks with the girl, Ralna, who is vague about her family background. The dino tastes like chicken, Jonas drinks, everyone cheers, and he and Ralna go off for sex, after which he confesses guilt for having a betrothed.

Another humanoid tribe, ruled by a woman and made up of those banished by Hastings, includes Ralna’s betrothed, who is told of her affair with Jonas. Alice is rescued from the Sauroids, during which Jonas is scratched by one of the guards. Casper stakes his claim to his wife, saying that good marriages are based on fear. He tells her of his search for gold being superseded by his discovery of a magical plant. He needs the seeds of this elixir-plant from the hostile tribe. Jonas has been completely healed by this plant, and after Casper is captured in a raid on the hostile tribe and being prepared for pterodactyl sacrifice, Jonas sneaks towards the prison-hut, fakes unconsciousness from gas-spears, and busts out with Casper, killing Ralna’s fiance in the process.

McNiff will stay in this underworld Eden; the rest leave, with Alice grousing at Casper. Ralna follows behind and helps the others attach a rope up a sheer cliff. Sauroids are in pursuit, so when Casper’s bag of plant seeds falls off the cliff and he returns for it, the werelizards kill him. After some rafting and dynamiting on the way back, Ralna senses an earthquake. She and Jonas are separated during a cave-in.

The vortex sucks the three back to the surface of the sea where they find that the Maori village has been decimated. The guns were defective and the chief lays dying. The magic plant heals him, but we find that for all the hoopla, the plant withers and dies on the surface of the earth very quickly. Jonas is desperate to see Helen, but dreams of Ralna. The Cambridge Geological Society scoffs at Lytton’s recounting, and Jonas passes out on stage. When he awakens many days later, Lytton and Alice announce their engagement and plans to travel to Iceland where reportedly the caves are deeper. Helen kvetches about Jonas’ diary breaking off. At another speech of Lytton’s, the audience is impatient for the “patient,” Jonas to appear. A message arrives that he has gone back to New Zealand, obviously in search of Ralna.

Commentary: I’ve seen worse Journeys to the Respective Centers of Earths, and it’s increasingly unclear why they are made. Granted, Verne’s book does not make for sufficient drama on its own, but then why go to all the effort for a film which makes it look as if we’re just going through the motions and we don’t even know what motions they are. The story here is a pastiche of Verne’s geology with motifs from Arthur Conan Doyle’s and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure tales.

There aren’t many dinosaurs, and the Sauroids, while not mere Sid and Marty Kroft fare, are nevertheless reminiscent of ’70s tv. That the primitive woman is named Ralna is disturbing for those of us who watch the PBS syndicated reruns of Lawrence Welk each Saturday night.