Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) Tries Too Hard
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?
Mysterious Island (2005) Both Adds and Subtracts from Verne’s Story
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.
Looking for a Steampunk Movie for Valentine’s Day? Try Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (2014)
The accidental theme for me during the first week of February ended up being trippy animated Steampunk flicks. I’ll tell you all about The Adventures of Mark Twain another time, but if you are looking for something a little bit different from your average romantic schlock-fest to help you celebrate Valentine’s Day, this is the movie for you.
First of all, it is French, and in my experience French films are often both interesting and disturbing. In the spirit of The City of Lost Children it is as surreal as it is beautiful, and don’t worry, there are versions in several languages including English. It is also a musical which is based on a concept album by Dionysos and an illustrated novel created by the lead singer, Matthias Malzieu. The French iterations go by the title Jack et la mécanique du cœur (2013), which translates to “Jack and the Mechanics of the Heart”, which is a much stronger title in my opinion. Like the title, some of the lyrics in the English version come out sounding a bit funny due to the translating, but I am sure it all rhymed in French. The artwork is inspired by the work of Tim Burton, which gives the setting and the story a dark and Gothic feel that adds to the Steampunkishness.
This twisted tale is set in the 19th century and starts in Edinburgh. Jack’s mother struggles through a storm on the coldest night of the year to get to the midwife in time to deliver. Unfortunately, the frigid night has frozen Jack’s heart solid, and it is only through the ingenuity of the midwife who replaces his living heart with a clock that he survives. His mother abandons the infant in the night, and the midwife finally has the child she has been longing for. But, his mechanical heart makes him vulnerable to the strains of the outside world, and his adoptive mother fears for his safety in the face of fear, angry, and especially falling in love.
When Jack is 10, he convinces her to let him go into town and it is love at first listen when he meets a girl working as a street performer. In hopes of seeing her again, he begs to be allowed to go to school where he falls victim to the school’s chap hopping bully. (“chap hop” is a musical style that combines hip hop with being gentlemanly, first done by Professor Elemental). Jack endures years of torture before he finally flees to Spain where his love has moved to in the interim and strives to win her heart, even at the expense of his own.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) May be Full of the Fangs, But it Sure Doesn’t “Suck”
Maybe witches aren’t your thing, so you won’t be seeing Hansel and Gretel as part of your Steampunk Halloween. But everyone likes vampires, right? In 2010, author Seth Grahame-Smith penned an alternate history featuring America’s favorite president and pitted him against the forces of darkness running rampant in the South. It was made into an insanely good action movie in 2012 and it is another awesome choice for any steam-inspired monster movie marathon.
Abe’s (Benjamin Walker) sojourn into the vampiric underworld starts when he is a child, though he doesn’t know it. His mother falls victim to a mysterious disease as a result of his father standing up to the unfair treatment of free black people under his boss, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Even as a child he knows that Barts is somehow behind his mother’s death, and once he is grown he tries to take his revenge. To his shock, his bullets have no affect on Barts and Abe has to be rescued by a stranger whom he just met in the bar. The man calls himself Henry (Dominic Cooper) and tells Lincoln about how vampires escaped persecution in Europe to the American South, where they are deeply involved in the slave trade as their source of food.
Abe is only interested in his own vendetta, but agrees to be a vampire hunter under Henry’s guidance in order to gain the skills he needs to finally take down Barts. After hunting a series of vampires one by one, Lincoln decides he can make a much bigger difference in the world as a politician than by wielding his special silver-bladed axe, and his life takes the shape of the history we know for a while, including his marriage to Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), presidential election and the outbreak of the Civil War. But when the Southern politicians ally themselves with the vampires, the unkillable soldiers start to tip the scales towards a Southern victory, and Abe must confront them and the mastermind of their ascent to power (Rufus Sewell).
Whether or not you know anything about the real Abraham Lincoln, this is a really fun and entertaining film. The effects are very special, the lighting and camera work are Gothic and moody and the action scenes are dynamic and sometimes even breath-taking. This was a much better film than I expected just based on the premise, and as it turns out the author did a great job of integrating vampire lore into the politics of the mid-19th century and documented historical events. Plus, it is a great action film. There is a fight scene that takes place during a stampede of horses, and a struggle on a speeding train that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It does not have the same ratio of dark comedy to action as Van Helsing or Brothers Grimm, but there are still some good lines and ironic twists that will make you smile. I haven’t read the book, but I really enjoyed this movie and I will definitely be re-watching it to bring some “spook” to my “steam” again this year.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) is Perfect for Your Steampunk Halloween
In my last movie post about an awesome…ly bad Sherlock Holmes flick I introduced the idea of a mockbuster. I think Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters may actually deserve to crowned as mockbuster royalty. I found not one, or two, but three other films that came out during 2012-2013 that have something to do, however loosely, with the Grimm’s fairy tale. I watched the trailers for Hansel and Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft (starring real life brother and sister, wait for it, Fivel and Booboo Stewart), Hansel & Gretel (a nasty-looking horror flick by Asylum Pictures) and Hansel & Gretel Get Baked (a half comedy-half horror stoner parody) and none of them are the least bit Steampunk, so accept no substitutions.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters stars Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Clash of the Titans) and Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy), as well as one of my favorite character actors, Peter Stormare (Brothers Grimm). The original story was published in 1812, but with the delightful mish-mash of technology in this movie it is hard to place it in time.
In the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel’s evil stepmother convinces their father to abandon them in the woods because there isn’t enough food to go around. They find their way back once by leaving a trail of pebbles, but the second time their breadcrumb trail is eaten by birds and they end up at a house made of candy. They defeat the witchy homeowner and when they find their way back to their own dwelling the wicked stepmom has died of unknown causes. Luckily, the kids found gems at the witches’ abode so their money problems are over, and it ends happily ever after (except for the witch and the stepmother, of course).
In the 2013 movie’s version of events, the kids are left in the forest by their parents for an unknown reason, and they still defeat their “hostess of the grossest” but the story doesn’t end there. They discover during their struggle they should “1. never go into a house made of candy and 2. if you are going to kill a witch, set her ass on fire,” but also that they are immune to witch’s spells. They go on to become professional witch hunters and are called to the town of Augsburg to investigate a spate of disappearances. It turns out the local witches are a-brewing a plot to make themselves immune to fire, and they need 12 kids as well as another secret ingredient to do it. In order to find out what really happened to their parents, the siblings must face the Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) and defeat her before she can carry out her dastardly plot.
In my head I put this movie into the same dark-but-fun category as Van Helsing and Brothers Grimm, but it definitely has a higher gore-factor and earns its R-rating for violence. So if you are squeamish when it comes to blood, you might want to give this one a pass. Of course, that is part of what makes it a perfect movie for your Halloween fright fest 🙂
Get Ready to Celebrate Halloween all Month Long with ForWhomTheGearTurns!
That’s right folks, it’s time for a monster mash. One popular way to “punk your steam” is to add elements of the supernatural to the tales from history, offering explanations that incorporate ghouls such as vampires and werewolves rather than what the history books say, as well creating brand new narratives where monsters play a role. Also, the Victorian era saw the birth of Spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead could and often did communicate with the living. All Hallows Eve, which has now been shortened to Halloween, celebrates the creepy and costume, and Steampunk seamstresses and seamsters, make-up artists and makers the world over use it as a chance to showcase their talents and share their knowledge.
Halloween has always held a special place in my heart, and in fact I launched this blog on October 31, 2013, so October is also my countdown the my first blogging birthday. Join me all month long for reviews of Steampunk movies and books that feature monsters and witches, costume construction tips from the sessions I attended at Weekend at the Asylum, LARP-ing games to give you an excuse to dust off your costume early, and other spooky fun surrounding the history of ghost stories and the practices of Spiritualism.
Do you have a scary or supernatural Steampunk story or photos of your Halloween creations that you would like to see appear on this blog? Send them my way at ForWhomTheGearTurns@Gmail.com. I can’t guarantee that I will post everything I receive, but I would love to get some submissions from readers. Make sure that you include the name you would like your creation attributed to as part of your email.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010) is Whimsical Fun
Thanks to Josh Stanton and Andrew Knighton both for recommending this movie! This is my third French movie in the Steampunk ouevre, and before I started my quest to watch and review any movie that anyone has called Steampunk I wouldn’t have guessed there was going to be a lot to find in French. I absolutely loved all three, Lost Portals: The Chronicles of Vidoqc (dark, gritty, adult), City of Lost Children (clever, strange and entertaining) and now The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec.
Adele is a comic book hero who was created in the 1970s by Jacque Tardi. She started out as a foil for a different female lead character, but Tardi decided he liked writing Adele better and made her the star instead. The most recent graphic novel was released in 2007, and a film directed by Luc Besson followed in 2010. I know Besson best for his part in penning my personal gateway into Sci-Fi, The Fifth Element, but he has created characters like Nikita (La Femme Nikita) and has been a part of the Transporter series of films. Originally, Besson said there would be at least three Adele films, but so far no sequels have been announced.
The books were recently re-released in hardcover form and are available in English as well as the original French. The film draws heavily from volume 1, Pterror over Paris, (for the pterodactyl, get it?) which you can get on Amazon.com.
And now on to the movie. We first meet Adele on an expedition to Egypt. Her male compatriots try to ditch her but she soon proves she is the most capable one there and leads them deep into the mummy’s tomb. But Adele is not on a search for riches, she has her heart set on a certain mummy who she hopes can be revived and called upon to save the life of Adele’s catatonic sister. I know, it doesn’t sound like the most practical of plans, but Adele knows a man who has been honing his psychic abilities for just such an occasion.
While Professor Espérandieu is flexing his psychic muscles back in Paris he inadvertently connects to the dormant life inside a dinosaur egg and suddenly a baby pterodactyl is set loose into the skies above the City of Lights. The professor is accused of the “crimes” that result and he is put on death row when no one believes his ramblings about the dinosaur. Louise Bourgoin makes an absolutely charming Adele and her many attempts to free him are hilarious. Thwarted at every turn, she appeals to the President of France, but his hopes all rest on a bumbling big game hunter to bring the beastie down. The professor is still psychically linked to the pterodactyl so if it dies so does the professor, as well as all of Adele’s hopes for her saving her sister.
I totally loved this movie and I highly recommend it if you need something to put a smile on your face. Bourgoin sometimes talks a mile a minute so I am sure it would have been even funnier if I could have watched it dubbed in English instead of reading the subtitles, but I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, action and story. Ancient stuff was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century, especially ancient Egyptian stuff, so even the anachronisms felt like they were just an extension of the period, and I liked the whimsical brush used to paint even the direst of events in the plot.
Do you know of any other foreign-language movies that could be considered Steampunk? I’d love to see them!