Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Before diving into the multi-faceted characterizations and thorny metaphysics of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, this important disclaimer: I never saw the original 2008 Journey to the Center of the Earth. Somebody please inform me if that renders me incapable of appreciating the subtle subtextual nuances.
But here's why I feel safe in evaluating the follow-up unencumbered by knowledge of the predecessor: The Hollywood sequel has evolved to the point where specifics of previous installments are irrelevant. This isn't just another tirade against the whole idea of sequels; that particular barn door has long since been left wide open. But sequels in general at least used to be about allowing viewers to reconnect with well-liked characters. Journey 2 continues a trend in action blockbusters that used to be seen only in assembly-line horror franchises: Hike up the numeral, and make everything else as generically familiar as possible.
In this case, that means the 2008 Journey's lead actor, Brendan Fraser, doesn't return for this voyage. Dwayne Johnson takes his place, playing Hank, the new stepfather of Josh Hutcherson's Sean from the original. Sean is still obsessed with the "Vernian" theories that have been a family obsession — the notion that all of Jules Verne's fantastic tales were actually non-fiction.
So when Sean intercepts a coded message that he believes to be from his grandfather, he and Hank head off to the South Pacific to charter a helicopter into an uncharted region, eventually crash-landing on a mysterious ... well, it's right there in the title.
Director Brad Peyton, a veteran of the unnecessary 3-D action sequel Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, and his screenwriters are clear about exactly how to build the formula elements into Journey 2. The comic relief is provided by Luis Guzmán as Gabato, the helicopter pilot who wanders around being scared in a high-pitched voice. The whiff of respectability is provided by Michael Caine as Sean's adventurer grandfather. Romantic interest/youth appeal comes from Vanessa Hudgens as Gabato's daughter, whose defining character trait is being uninterested in the puppy-dog attentions of Sean before being interested in them. And just so that it's not all about people running away from giant lizards, we get the strained attempts by Hank to be a much-needed male role model for Sean.
Given the high level of monotony, it probably made sense to the filmmakers to slam everything into high gear right away, taking as little time as possible to get from Sean's suburban moping to the dangerous beasties on the island. A frenetic pace provides distraction from the absence of an actual story. But it's frustrating to sit through yet another movie in which no one appears to care that adventure works best when the biggest investment isn't the special-effects budget, but the audience's investment in the people running from the digital dangers.
At the very least, Journey 2 is smart enough to get old-school pop out of its use of 3-D. That provides some uniqueness in what is otherwise an example of Hollywood's marketing machine turning sameness into a virtue. The routine that has allowed Dwayne Johnson to step into the Fast and Furious and G.I. Joe series is part of making sure that a sequel isn't just a sequel to one particular movie. You want it to feel like a sequel to every movie.