We Steampunk fans enjoy a nice mash-up of literary references like in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it takes an exceptional writer to make it all fit together in a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth shoe horns this notion between overwrought action and family drama in a pretty unsatisfactory way.
A few years have passed since the events of the first film, and Sean (Josh Hutcherson) has a new stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson). His relationship with the former Navy code breaker is rocky, but when Hank helps Sean decipher a message from his wayward grandfather (Michael Caine) they find some common ground. The message reveals that the island in Verne’s novel is not only real, but is the same island described in Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels, and resides somewhere off the coast of the Philippines. (I actually winced when Hank rips the map pages out of the three books in order to fit them into a single island. Have some respect, dude!)
Once they reach Palau, they find that the only people willing to take them to their coordinates (which turn out to be caught in a perpetual hurricane) are a helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman) and his daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). The four of them crash land on a lush island populated by giant insects and Lilliputian pachyderms, and must fend off a dinosaur-scale iguana within minutes of landing. After a brief respite at grandpa’s house, they journey into the jungle past a volcano spouting gold (a reference to the mountain of gold in Treasure Island), see the remnants of the lost city of Atlantis that Verne described in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and discover that the island is rapidly sinking once again. Without any means of contacting the outside world during the storm, their only hope is Nemo’s Nautilus, which is still hidden somewhere on the island.
Okay, so you know how I like crappy movies? Even I had some trouble with this one. The action is overblown and basically unending and the dialog was hit and miss. I almost stopped watching the film completely when I got to a scene which centered on “The Rock” popping his pectorals and saying it was the best way to get women. GAG! Also, the “science” didn’t really work. For instance, I am willing to play along with their use of island dwarfism/gigantism, especially as the much-lauded 1961 Mysterious Island features giant critters as well, but if the island is trapped in a perpetual storm and periodically sinks to the depths of the ocean, where did the animals even come from???
It’s pretty much only worth a viewing if you like making snarky comments about what you are watching (which is a regular pastime in the Darqueling household) and can take it all with a grain of salt. Also, the effects are pretty awesome so the visuals are cool. But if you are looking for a good story that has much of anything to do with Verne’s book, skip it.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) Pays Homage to the Original Without Just Retelling the Story
I just went back and counted how many TV and movie reviews I have posted since I started this site. Over the last 18 months I have told you about over 20 different films and shows, and to tell you the truth I didn’t even know there were that many to talk about when I started. Plus, I have a list of another dozen or so that are still forthcoming! With the exception of a few, my reviews have mostly been focused on stories that took place during Victorian times, but there are also films that make references to things from that era that occur at later dates. They may lack the Steampunk aesthetic that we know and love, but I think they deserve a nod for their “punking” of the classics.
The big-budget Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of these films, and should not be confused with the mockbuster by the same name that came out the same year. As a fan of the Mummy movies, there was no way I was going to miss Brendan Fraser in another adventure story. It served as the big screen directorial debut for Eric Brevig, someone whose work you have probably seen without knowing it because he worked on the visual effects for tons of movies such as Wild, Wild West, Men in Black, and several M. Night Shyamalan films. I only just finished reading the book, but as I was doing so I was able to draw a lot of parallels between the text and this contemporary reinterpretation.
The world of this story hinges on one central fact: Verne was writing the truth. According to the story, there is a secret society of learned folks called Vernians who are trying to find their way to the places described in the novels. Brendan Fraser’s character, Trevor Andersen, is not a Vernian but a volcanologist who has devoted his life to the study of volcanic tubes. His brother, Max, was also studying this fringe branch of geology, but he went missing on the path described by Verne leading to the center of the earth.
All that is known to his brother and his son Sean (Josh Hutcherson), is that he disappeared during field research in Iceland, but when an old copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth covered in his cryptic field notes (a direct reference to the discovery of the coded message in the professor’s volume in the novel) is discovered among Max’s belongings, Trevor and Sean rush to his lab to investigate the similarities to his own readings. Upon finding that the equipment placed on Sneffels has come back to life after years of dormancy, the uncle and nephew team head to Iceland to retrieve it.
They enlist a tough as nails mountain guide who recognizes the scribbles in Max’s book as belonging to a Vernian because her own father had also been a believer until his death a few years earlier. They hire her to take them up the mountain to get the scientific instruments, but none of them believe in the reality of the story until a landslide traps them in a cave and they have no choice but to descend into the bowels of the earth in hopes of finding a way out. After a side trip into an old mine and surviving a preposterously long fall down one of the aforementioned volcanic tubes they find themselves on the shore of the same sea recorded in Verne’s story. They attempt to voyage across the sea as their predecessors did, and like them fall prey to sea creatures and a terrible storm to find themselves on a distant shore and in danger from the rapidly rising temperatures in the granite chamber.
Oh yeah, and dinosaurs. Did I forget to mention the dinosaurs?
This is a lighthearted, fun movie that borrows some great parts from the original story, and adds some bits of its own. I remember when it came out it was at the forefront of the “we must make every movie 3D!!!!” phase of film-making which has thankfully calmed down in recent times, and some of the added scenes feel like they were definitely conceived with that in mind rather than say, moving the plot forward. But still, it is enjoyable and a nice way to waste 93 minutes if you’ve got the time. A lot of reviewers I read have nothing nice to say about Josh Hutcherson, but I liked him as the moody teen companion to his stodgy uncle.
I also appreciated that the biggest bad-ass in the group was obviously the female mountain guide, portrayed by native Icelander Anita Briem. She was only really in danger like one time because she was carrying all the heavy stuff and it almost drowned her. She’s the one that gets them through the physical challenges and keeps her cool in face of danger, not unlike her counterpart in the Verne novel.
What do you think? Should movies stick strictly to the original story, or is there room for this kind of interpretive punking?
I caught this quirky two-parter for the first time close to when it first aired in 2005. I wasn’t familiar with the Mysterious Island book, but the premise sounded fun and I was familiar with several of the actors. During my research I found several people who say their favorite rendition is from 1961, but I haven’t had a chance to see that one yet. So during March I will bring you reviews of adaptations in 2005 and 2012.
Quick book synopsis: During the American Civil War, five people escape a POW camp in Virginia by stealing a reconnaissance balloon. They end up crash landing on a tiny island off the coast of New Zealand. Their chances of survival seem bleak, especially with bloodthirsty pirates afoot, but thanks to a mysterious benefactor they create a cozy home for themselves. It turns out that their “host” is none other than Captain Nemo, who has retired the Nautilus and now lives with a single servant on the island. (Note- the chronology of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as it relates to this book is problematic. The American Civil War ended in 1865, but 20,000 Leagues takes place in 1866, which means the war would have been over before the events of The Mysterious Island.)
Now onto the movie. It originally aired on the Hallmark Channel in two, 90-minute parts. This makes it a big commitment for a single evening. In this version, the lead role of the engineer and Union soldier is played by Kyle MacLachlan (Sex in the City, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and in place of two of the soldier-types they substitute a comely widow (Gabrielle Anwar) and her teenage daughter. They also decided that building up the mystery surrounding Nemo (Patrick Stewart) wasn’t worth their time, so giant CG animals are added to the mix. The pirates, lead by Vinnie Jones (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) also get a more central role in the plot.
Though this is technically not a mockbuster because it did not accompany any big-budget release with a similar name, I would file this under that heading in terms of quality. The graphics were probably pretty good 10 years ago when it came out, but look pretty choppy and fake by today’s standards. I actually dug the addition of the monsterous creatures because it added action to what would be a pretty boring film, but my inner geek has to complain for just a second. I am perfectly fine with suspending my disbelief enough to buy into the explanation that the animals got really big because there was radioactive material on the island, I can live with that. But the uber ant was like 20 times bigger than the XL rat. Proportions people! Ok, I am done now.
So, yeah, if you like giant insects and a plot dripping with pirate-itude, then by all means, check this one out (both parts are embedded below). If you are trying to get your hands on a faithful portrayal of Verne’s vision, maybe try to find the 1961 version instead.
I wanted to make my Steampunk movie and TV reviews more accessible, as well as make a place to recommend titles that I haven’t had a chance yet to review. So check out the new static page with my recommendations for movies, TV and short films by clicking on Steampunk Movies and TV in the menu.
I have also put enough art on the web now that I created a gallery of my creations. You can see the gallery in slideshow or tiled mosaic form by clicking on the Original Artwork link in the menu.
So, usually when I do a movie review I start by writing a synopsis, but this film was so kooky I actually had trouble following the plot while I was watching. And I was even watching it dubbed in English rather than the original French! It reminded me in some ways of Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidoqc, but Vidoqc was made later so the sets and special effects were even better.
But, and this is a strong but, that does not mean that it is not worth seeing. There are some absolutely fabulous scenes and moments, like watching a pair Siamese twins cooking who are so in sync one tastes the food and the other seasons it. There are definitely times I said “huh?” but just as many times that I laughed or said “wow!” instead. A combination huh?/wow! was when I realized the main character, a Lenny-like circus strongman on the hunt for his little brother, was played by Ron Perlman who also played Hellboy. Small world! I have no idea what he was doing in a French movie in the 90’s, and when I looked up his career on IMDB I found out he was also in the 1996 production of The Island of Doctor Moreau that I have been trying to get on Netflix to no avail.
So here is a short synopsis, and then I encourage you to see for yourself. One, which is the only name the strongman ever goes by, has his 4-year-old adopted brother stolen in the night by strange men who are blind without their clockwork eyes. One meets a band of street urchins and befriends a little girl named Miette. Keep in mind while you are watching that the strongman is dumb but innocent and kindly. So the times that he touches Miette that might make you raise your eyebrow (he rubs her foot at one point for example) he is really like a big sad puppy dog giving her a slobber and know that nothing weird ever happens.
The child-stealers (a la the Gobblers in the Golden Compass) are taking the children to be part of an experiment. There was a scientist who was manipulating genes and growing humans in his laboratory, but he has gone and left his creations behind. The de facto leader of the creations is Krank, who suffers from a defect because the experiment that made him left him incomplete: he cannot dream. And his inability to dream has accelerated his aging process, so he is using his “father’s” machines to steal dreams from others. But alas, the children are so afraid that they give him only nightmares. Until he meets One’s little brother, that is…
Other characters include a set of at least 8 identical twins/clones, the aforementioned Siamese twins who want Miette dead, an assassin who uses fleas to deploy a deadly poison and a talking brain in a fish tank.
The Hellboy movies are in that category of films that skirt Steampunk without it being the main focus. In both Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) you can find steamy fodder for your punked out imaginings. Plus, those filed-down horns sure look like goggles!
Some fun facts and context
۞ Hellboy first came onto the comic book scene in 1993. Since then there have been dozens of comics and collections, as well as two major motion pictures, two video games and two animated short films called Hellboy: Sword of Storms and Hellboy: Blood and Iron. You can watch both animated films in their entirety under the gallery of photos below.
۞ I also found a bonus “animated comic” in the special features of Hellboy 2 called the “Zinco Epilogue” where (in my opinion) the creepiest villain of all time, Kroenen, is shown being revived by a man called Mr. Zinco and his team of scientists.
۞ The world of Hellboy was created by Mike Mignola, who wrote another awesome Steampunk book, The Amazing Screw-On Head (2002) which tells the tale of an American Civil War-era spy. In 2006, a pilot was aired on scifi.com in a contest to see if it would be made into a show, but it didn’t make the cut. The 22-minute pilot was released on DVD in 2007, but you can watch it by clicking here.
۞ But it was the dark and spooky director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) who brought these characters to life on the silver screen. With the assist by Peter Briggs of Alien vs. Predator fame, Del Toro wrote both feature length movies and was a creative producer on the animated films. You can see a kindred spirit to the style of Pan’s Labyrinth in the visage of death in Hellboy 2.
۞ “Hellboy” is the name that was given to the little red demon discovered by Alliance soldiers when he was “born” in the wake of WWII in 1944. It is revealed during Hellboy (2004) that his “true” name is Anung un Rama which loosely means “and upon his brow is set a crown of flame.” During the movie, a many-times-resurrected Rasputin (Karl Roden) forces Hellboy to accept his role in the rise of the Ogdru Jahad, a phylum of Cthulu-like monsters that would make H.P. Lovecraft proud. One of Hellboy’s special features is a giant arm made of stone, which can act as the key to open the Ogdru Jahad’s crystal prison in another realm. Luckily for humanity, Hellboy stops (most of) the creatures from entering our world and thwarts Rasputin’s nefarious plot.
۞ This supernatural detective love cats and enjoys big guns and fine cigars. He was raised like an ordinary boy by Professor “Broom” Bruttenholm, a founding member of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Hellboy’s aging process is described as “reverse dog years,” so Broom knows that Hellboy will outlive him and worries about his future. Prof. Broom is played by John Hurt, who also lends his voice to the animated films. It took me awhile to realize that I was I was looking at the actor who played Mr. Ollivander from the Harry Potter films, as well as the villain from another wonderful comic-turned-movie, V for Vendetta.
۞ Hellboy is joined in both movies by his buddy and fellow freak, Abraham Sapiens. Abe is a fish-person a la the creature from the Black Lagoon, and was actually portrayed by multiple actors. Doug Jones is the one who had to crawl into the prolific prosthetics, but the voice of Abe in the first movie was actually done by actor David Hyde Pierce who goes uncredited.
۞ Hellboy’s lady love is Liz Sherman, a reluctant pyrokinetic agent for the BPRD. In the movies and animated shorts she is played by Selma Blair. Belief in psychic abilities and clairvoyance (ie, communicating with spirits from the “other side”) reached their pinnacle of popularity during the Victorian era. If you are looking for an absolutely amazing non-fiction book about what happens after we die, check out Mary Roach’s hilarious and poignant Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. You can read a description here.
So where is the Steampunk in all of this?
In the first movie, Hellboy has an enemy named Karl Ruprecht Kroenen. In the comics he is just another Nazi in a gas mask, but Del Toro creates a truly creepy new backstory about a man obsessed with surgeries. His fetish has left him without things most of us take for granted, like eye lids, lips, etc. (you know, the little things.) In return, his research has also given him preternaturally long life do to a body filled with saw dust and clockwork. I have a feeling it is this guy’s cringe-worthy visage that boosts the movie from a PG to a PG-13. [Shudders]
But it is a Victorian-era villain who directs the action. Grigori Rasputin (played by Karl Roden) was born in 1869, and was living high on the proverbial hog off the Russian nobility during the early 1900s as a royal physician. According to the movie, he has been resurrected in 1944 and is there at the beginning of Hellboy’s life. His terrible plot continues to unravel 60 years later (give or take a resurrection and some minions) he attempts to use Hellboy to bring the world to its knees.
If we move on to the enemies and allies of Hellby 2: The Golden Army, we need not look any further than the title. The Golden Army was built by a goblin blacksmith to end the war between humans and supernatural beings like trolls, fairies and elves. The King of the elfs, Balor, tries to make it so the army can never be awakened, but thousands of years later and in the hills of Ireland the clockwork army lays dormant. Don’t be fooled by their egg-like appearance, these “seventy times seventy soldiers” pack a wallop as big as Hellboy and they put themselves back together seemingly without end.
There is a gorgeous animated prologue to the movie that tells the whole story and you can watch it below.
Luckily for Hellboy, he does have some Steampunk fighting on his side, too. Johann Krauss is an agent for the BPRD, but he and Hellboy do not cross paths in the comics. According to the books, Krauss suffered an accident in 2002, but in the second installment of Del Toro’s Hellboy movies his suit definitely looks like it is from the turn of the 20th century. He no longer has a body, so the suit contains his ectoplasm, another popular trope in the Spiritualist movements of the early 1900s.
Check out more videos and photos from the movies below, as well as steamy homages to Hellboy and his buddies I found online.
This is the prologue from the second Hellboy movie. It tells the origin of the Golden Army and it has tons of machinery and gears.
I honestly can’t remember any other time this has happened to me, but I think the movie is actually BETTER than the books it is based on! It takes the best elements of Volume 1 a smidge from Volume 2, but the plot is totally different from either in the end.
Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery) if the first recruit after armed men attack him in Africa. Though he is on shaky ground with queen and country he answers the call and finds himself in London face-to-face with a mysterious agent for the crown known only as “M” (Richard Roxburgh). He meets the other members so far assembled like Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Mina Harker (aka Mina Murray, played by Peta Wilson) and Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), who is this version of the League’s Invisible Man.
They set off together to bring a reluctant Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) into the fold, where they are ambushed by The Phantom and his men. Luckily, Tom Sawyer (Shane West) of the CIA had infiltrated the henchmen and saves our heroes with his sharp shooting. After Quartermain and Sawyer capture Mr. Hyde/Dr. Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) in Paris the League is complete, and M sends them to Venice to save a group diplomats at a peace summit. The plot thickens when they find out there is a traitor in their midst, and the string of explosions bringing Venice down around them is only the beginning.
This movie is really fun and I love watching it. The effects are special and the action is well-paced. It doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground and besides Nemo’s car it doesn’t really have as many gadgets as one might like to see in their Steampunk, but I love seeing a world where all of these literary heroes (and anti-heroes) get to team up.
There are a few very important differences from the books to the film, some of which were brilliant and some were disappointing. First, Dr. Jekyll gets to play a much larger role in the movie than in the books, and with the addition of Gray and Sawyer the League feels bigger and more complete. Mina is given both a larger and smaller role at the same time, because in the books she is the clear leader of the League but in the movie she is not only a scientist but force to be reckoned with on the battlefield. I think she was subsumed as leader mostly because of the desire for a Sean Connery type to play the part of Quartermain. The League didn’t have quite enough “flash” to it for the big screen, so they needed a more dynamic male lead to be opposite Mina (especially if they had hopes to pursue a romantic storyline in a sequel). There aren’t that many silver fox action heroes out there, so I think they took advantage of having the right actor for that kind of part rather than keeping to the book’s portrayal of Allan as a skinny, wrinkly drug addict.
All in all, I would say the changes that they made helped the movie to feel full and rich in a short amount of time when they didn’t have two books to work with.
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm released the first volume of their collection of folktales “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (Children’s and House Tales) in 1812. The first edition included 70 different stories, but after numerous editions the count eventually reached somewhere over 200 (different sources said different things in my research, but mostly between 209-211). If you are looking for the specific fairy tale references, check my Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale Guide.
If you have never read any of the original Grimm fairy tales they are an interesting read. I took a class in college called “Twice Told Tales” and we spent about half of a semester just studying the story of Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen in the Grimm’s first edition, but actually published first in the 17th century in French by Charles Perault as La Petit Chaperon Rouge). It was fascinating to see what details changed or were added over the centuries (Spoiler: in the original Red is an accidental cannibal and she dies in the end), and believe me when I tell you that any picture-book version you read as a kid was very watered down. I would only recommend reading the originals to children if you want them to have nightmares. You can access English translations of many early fairy tale compilations through the University of Pittsburgh here.
So, now on to the film. I am a big fan of Terry Gilliam (who wrote and directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among other things) and he definitely does not disappoint in this, his first PG13 movie. He actually rewrote much of the Brothers Grimm screenplay, but did not receive credit. If you like to be awed by visual effects and have your heart warmed by a good story, check out another Gilliam creation, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Like Van Helsing, Brothers Grimm was filmed in the Czech Republic, both on sound stages and on location.
The story opens with a young Wilhelm Grimm comforting his mother and ailing sister with the promise that his brother Jacob would return soon after selling the family cow. Jacob (who is erroneously portrayed in the film as the younger brother) brings back a handful of beans rather than the much needed cash.
Next, we see the brothers as adults. Wilhelm is played by Matt Damon and Jacob by the late, great Heath Ledger. (Fun fact, they were originally cast in opposite roles because Gilliam wanted Johnny Depp to play Jacob but thought Depp wouldn’t be a big enough box office draw. This was before Pirates of the Caribbean came out, remember.) The city of Karlstadt is in need heroes to fight a witch that is terrorizing their town and the Grimm brothers arrive to save the day. Too bad for the townsfolk that the witch is a hoax and the brothers are scam artists. Jacob has spent his life collecting folk tales, but Wilhelm is an avid skeptic and is only out to make a buck (or Deutschmark, or whatever).
Soon, the brothers are forcibly recruited by an Italian torturer named Cavaldi (a surprisingly funny character played by Peter Stormare) who is employed by the French. During the Napoleonic Wars, Germany was occupied by French forces, who are led by General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce) in the movie. He tell the brothers of a town called Marbaden and the 10 children who have disappeared. The peasants believe that the children have been taken by a supernatural force living in the dark forest near their homes, but Delatombe believes it is another con artist like the Grimms. He sends them to expose the fake and help bring in an Age of Reason to the foolish bumpkins.
When they arrive in Marbaden (accompanied by Cavaldi and a cavalcade of French soldiers) they are told that in order to enter the foreboding forest they need a guide. The only person who can help them is “the cursed one,” Angelika (who is a super bad-ass huntswoman played by Lena Headey). They call her this because her father and sisters have all gone missing and let’s face it, probably because she wears pants and hunts with a bow, and this is the beginning of the 19th century after all.
Reluctantly, she takes the men deep into the woods which is populated by trees that can move and reveals to them a tall tower with no doors and but a single window at the top. To save the missing children (and their own skins from the French) they must defeat the immortal witch/evil queen (Monica Belluci) who lives there and hope for a happily ever after.
I totally love this movie. Steampunk fans that feel the genre is defined by technology will be disappointed because most of this movie takes place in small, rural villages, but the time period is on the early verge for the genre and fairy tales were certainly read to children in Victorian nurseries. The chemistry between the characters and their development is really compelling (you even end up rooting for the torturer in the end, which is no mean feat!) and the sets and costumes make you feel like you’ve been transported back to the early 1800’s. I don’t usually get nightmares from movies, but there is a scene with a horse that is terrifying, so think hard before watching it with kids under 10 (it is rated PG13 for a reason). The crooked houses and spooky forest set the stage for this fun and sometimes downright frightening film.
Check out some more pics from the film and concept art below, and feel free to leave a comment if you’ve seen this movie or read any really gruesome fairy tales.