Jules Verne explores the human sub-conscious
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) is really a journey to the center of ourselves. It’s really as simple as that. It’s an exploration of the brain and Jules Verne takes us there in colorful allegory. Aren’t you lucky?
The 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth stars James Mason, who you may know from North by Northwest or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He’s pretty much a 1950s big-time star. Unfortunately, he’s always been runner up to guys like Marlon Brando or James Stewart. The 50s were loaded with stars, so he couldn’t catch a break, even in 1954 when he was nominated for an Oscar. He lost to Marlon Brando, who earned a best actor trophy for On the Waterfront.
I’m sure you’re familiar with this famous Jules Verne tale, so there’s not much to recap. James Mason plays Professor Lindenbrook, who finds a hidden passageway to the center of the Earth in Iceland. They fight off some monsters and travel through a tunnel of love as they explore the inner most parts of the Earth. It’s a laughable plot, and not at all scientific, but imagine if it was an allegory instead of straight science. Would it mean more? Would it have a bigger impact?
Verne describes a difficult journey into the sub-conscious mind. The movie also offers the heroes many challenges, from giant lizard things to lava and falling rocks. Science has the same challenge in studying the human brain.
Once inside, our heroes learn that there is a lot of chaos and unexpected things around every corner. Much like our mind can think at lightning speed, this chaos may represent the jumbled ideas within the human mind.
Unfortunately, it takes the movie about an hour to get to the subconscious, which is more annoying than allegorical. Maybe it means we should have patience. Screw that. Anyway, the group consists of Lindenbrook, Alec McEwan, Karla, Hans, and Gertrude the duck, and they all simply climb down to the center of the Earth. Yes, you heard right, they physically climb.
The first big thing the group comes upon is a buncha rocks, but it’s much more than that. It’s a pile of “unique, inexplicable” things, as the Professor says, perhaps the most direct reference to the human mind in the whole movie. He chips away one of the gems and some water surges out of the rocks, like ideas bursting forth from within.
Elsewhere, Alec stumbles through different parts of the cave, which have many a variety of patterns and environments. There are hot, cold, tepid, and steamy areas, and rocks with many holes in them. Some plants and formations are twisted and unrecognizable as anything on Earth. This is probably memory. Our memory can be full of holes and take many shapes, especially over the years, where it can change like the shape of the rock.
Lastly, the lizards and other monsters may represent the brain’s own defenses. We do get defensive now and then, but often snap out at others, even subconsciously acting irrationally. The explorers can’t reason with monsters. In the movie, the monsters turn on each other, maybe like our brain turns on us, after a lot of effort and a lot of time awake.
The explorers do find the remnants of a lost civilization, which may represent living thought. There are buildings and columns, as well as things like books to reason with. Alec finds some tools amongst the ruins, which are deserted, abandoned and wiped away, like our fleeting thoughts.
All in all, this is a good movie, but slow as hell. It’s long. It’s really long, at over two hours. James Mason does a good job, but he’s really meant to play a villain, like in North by Northwest and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Overall, the movie is picturesque and impressive to look at, but hides away a little message, telling us that science has a long way to go in its exploration of the human mind. They’ll at least need a good chisel.