Was anyone out there really interested in a sequel to the inane 3D version of Journey to the Center of the Earth? Are there hordes of Brendan Fraser fans – feverishly clutching their Furry Vengeance t-shirts – clamoring madly for more tales of the Vernians and badly rendered CG special effects? A quick check of Box Office Mojo affirms that the film made money, but so what? When it first appeared, 3D was still more gimmick than “artistic choice” and now that our multiplexes have been swallowed alive by the phenomenon, the film’s uncanny imitation of a bad theme-park ride looks all the more threadbare. But Hollywood’s current white-knuckle terror at all things original has increased its creative cannibalism to a fever pitch, and if 3D is already involved in the mix, so much the better.
As a result, we’re being treated to a sequel: a nonsensical barrage of pointless special effects and excruciating performances that make Kate Beckinsale’s somnambulistic turn in Underworld Awakening look like Meryl Streep. It cares nothing for its story or setting beyond their ability to keep undemanding six-year-olds from fussing too loudly. Its characters operate according to no known human traits and exhibit motivations designed solely to get them to the next set piece. Concepts appear and are abandoned with ruthless efficiency; threats rise and are dispatched with the glum drudgery of a janitor cleaning up puke in the toilet. The effects wouldn’t pass muster on a Syfy miniseries, and even the 3D reeks of wasted opportunities.
Having said all that, I will grudgingly give Mysterious Island credit for encouraging kids to read. The central premise – that Jules Verne wrote fact instead of fiction and that a secret society of explorers is dedicated to uncovering his locations – draws due attention to his books, as well as other literary works like Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. The heroes are all ostensibly smart and use their brains to solve their problems: a welcome development in a cultural environment which seems to view educational fortitude as tantamount to devouring kittens whole.
On the other hand, for a film that professes to admire intelligence, it possesses distressingly little of its own. Plot holes and face-slapping logic questions crowd the screen for our attention and, what’s worse, lend a strangely grim undertone to the proceedings. You need to accept a certain amount of hokum in this scenario, with its giant bees and permanent storms that no one’s heard about before, but Mysterious Island asks us to overlook logic holes big enough to swallow the Rock’s pumping pecs whole. The island itself – referred to by Verne, Stevenson and Swift, we are assured – sinks to the bottom of the sea every century or so, then reappears again after a time. This conceit exists as an easy countdown, forcing the heroes to find a way off the island; without it, the plot has not impetus since the island provides only transitory enemies at best. But by asserting it, the film stumbles straight into a conceptual abyss: should the island sink, the fantastic ecosystem we’re currently ooing and ahhing over will fucking drown. Following that logic, the same ecosystem spontaneously reasserts itself once the island rises again to dazzle a new crowd of visiting Vernian explorers. The fact that this makes absolutely no sense pales before the imagined vision of the film’s adorable miniature elephants gasping for air on the ocean floor. “Dumbo is fish food kids; enjoy the ride home!”
The Mysterious Island never troubles itself with such notions because its world doesn’t exist as a living entity. It’s a tourist attraction, there for the edification and amusement of its heroes who function as blank audience cyphers. Plucky teen Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) returns from the first film, with Dwayne Johnson’s exasperated stepfather filling in for Brendan Fraser’s exasperated uncle. They’re joined by Sean’s explorer grandfather (Michael Caine, reminding us after a lengthy pause that there’s absolutely nothing he won’t do for a check), their wacky ethnic charter pilot (Luis Guzman, touching bottom) and his jailbait daughter (Vanessa Hudgens, whose blossoming chest receives sweaty-palmed faux-nonchalant attention from the filmmakers). The Rock brings some extra wattage to his smile, but that charm only goes so far as the lifeless dialogue sucks every shred of personality from the entire cast. Caine and Johnson – the two big stars – sink like stones amid their two-dimensional bickering, which would fail to pass muster at your average rural dinner theater. They all mouth Walden-media-approved platitudes about loving your family and hanging onto your dreams, while the vacillating threats around them inform us only of the exact points where the budget ran out.
It all adds up to a thoroughly depressing experience, not only for the film’s copious failings, but for the way it seems almost willfully ignorant of them. It professes to love books only to gleefully engage in their casual destruction (I challenge bibliophiles not to shriek with horror in the first few scenes); it claims to deliver adventure, but robs it of the barest narrative context to help us enjoy it; and it wants to honor families by skipping even the vaguest notion of how actual people interact with their relations. That brings us back to the original question: why bother with the prospect of a sequel if a broken vending machine generates more excitement than this? Hollywood answered that question over a century ago, the first time the words “Part II” crossed someone’s lips. The Mysterious Island, to its eternal detriment, adds just another brick to that wall.