Review: Dwayne Johnson and Michael Caine struggle with flimsy ‘Journey 2’

Even by the standards of family adventure movies, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” feels completely slapdash and indifferent, a trailer for a franchise that just happens to run feature-length.  It is scripted as if someone greenlit a first-draft treatment without bothering to flesh it out or hone any of the ideas, and the idea that we’re supposed to care about seeing these characters return in future adventures would be insulting if it weren’t so obvious that even the people onscreen aren’t invested in that actually happening.

The general idea of building a franchise of movies out of the public domain works of Jules Verne is not automatically a bad one.  Theoretically, I can see that working.  In practice, though, this does not appear to be the right way to do it.  The first film, “Journey To The Center Of The Earth,” played more like a proof-of-concept reel for 3D event movies than as a real film.  It leaned on whatever franchise weight Brendan Fraser was able to muster, with Josh Hutcherson playing his son in the film.  This sequel does not bring back the original director (Eric Brevig), the original screenwriters (Michael D. Weiss, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin), or Fraser.  Instead, they’ve refitted the movies so Hutcherson is now living with his mother (“Sex and the City” star Kristin Davis) and her new husband Hank (Dwayne Johnson).  There’s absolutely no effort made to explain Fraser’s absence or to connect this with any sort of narrative thread to the first film.  Aside from the actual on-screen title, there is no evidence that this is a sequel at all.  This is an odd move, but it sort of exemplifies the approach of the entire film.  It’s all so incredibly painless and weightless and inconsequential.

The film opens with Sean (Hutcherson) striking a sort of angry young man pose in a sequence that feels like deleted scenes from “TRON Legacy.”  Once we can see just how angrily Sean rides his motorcycle, he gets a secret coded radio message, and Hank turns out to be an ex-codebuster for the military.  It helps that it appears to be the easiest code in the history of juvenile adventure fiction.  That leads them a treasure map that depends on a rather sizable logical leap that depends on a conspiracy between publishers and authors that makes no sense whatsoever.  If you can accept that, then it’s off to the races.

The script by Mark Gunn & Brian Gunn doesn’t even try.  I’m baffled by the “characters” they wrote for Luis Guzman and Vanessa Hudgens, who show up as the father/daughter owners of an airline charter.  I love Guzman.  He’s one of those actors whose ongoing employment brings me genuine pleasure.  But Gabato is a horrendously realized character, “comic relief” of the most cynical and calculated variety.  He’s a coward, his helicopter barely works, he’s poor, he’s adorably gay for Johnson’s character, and he always does the wrong thing at the wrong time.  It’s like someone was angry at him when they wrote the part for him.  Hudgens is given equally poor material to work with, and I’m ashamed at how I reacted to her costuming choice in the film, obviously designed to pander.  Poor girl.  They put her in a shirt that almost but not quite covers her little belly and her hips that are almost covered by her teeny tiny shorts.  I visited the Hawaii location, and I can testify that it was just as distracting in person, and there’s nothing accidental about it.  There’s a sequence in the film where she has to crawl through a little tunnel into the tomb of Captain Nemo that somehow feels like a dirtier use of 3D than anything in “Flesh Gordon”.  You can almost hear the film leering at her.  Considering how blatantly this entire film seems pitched at kids, it is inappropriate.

Some of the blame for that goes to Brad Peyton.  Some of it goes to the folks at Walden, who really haven’t gotten significantly better at the business they’re in.  It seems to me that if your entire business model hinges on making a certain kind of film, then you’d learn from that process and get better at it.  And yet, even after a bunch of “Narnia” films and a few of these and attempts like “The Seeker” and “The Water Horse” and “City of Ember” and “Nim’s Island,” you would eventually start having fun with it.  Good pulp should have a sense of joy in the invention, a sense of abandon to it.  It doesn’t have to be a reinvention of the genre, but at least make me feel like you enjoy what you’re doing.

Instead, “Journey 2” just goes through the motions.  They make some obligatory references to the work of Jules Verne, to “Treasure island,” to Atlantis, to things that sound like they should be exciting or interesting, but there’s no pulse to it.  I don’t believe that it’s ever anything but actors standing around trying desperately to look like they care.  Michael Caine is given a thankless role as Sean’s absentee grandpa, showing up in order to have a phony character arc, and when even he can’t make the dialogue work, when even Dwayne Johnson with his charm turned up to “maximum” can’t add energy to a scene, then you are just plain screwed.

There are giant bees, dogfights with hungry birds, a big lizard, and an electric eel, and somehow it’s all sort of boring and fuzzy and poorly composited.  I refuse to believe that Digital Domain is at fault for the startlingly unconvincing effects work in the movie.  As I said, I went to visit the set of this film, on location in Hawaii, and it was stunning.  Beautiful.  A real environment.  And on film, you would never know it.  They do such a bad job of blending the location work with the effects work that it really does seem pointless to have ever shot location work at all.  I saw the picture projected on my favorite IMAX screen in LA, where they have one of the best 3D projectors I’ve ever seen, and I walked away thoroughly unimpressed by the visual work in the film.  I am a stone-cold sucker for that presentation in that theater, and in this case, I don’t think the film stands up to that sort of scrutiny.  And if you can’t even just sit back and enjoy the spectacle, then what point is there to a film like this?

“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” opens Friday.  I cannot imagine there will be a “Journey 3,” and if there is, I will blame each and every one of you personally.