Journey to the Center of the Earth / First Men in the Moon Blu-rays Review: In & Out

Previously at Cinema Sentries, I had touched upon the subject of people bad trips, courtesy of two recent Blu-ray releases from Twilight Time, Roger Donaldson’s The Bounty (1984) and Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997). Here, I am continuing that thread, albeit with two adventures of a much more pleasant nature. Like my earlier article, wherein one film was set at sea and the other on land, this cinematic coupling presents viewers with a contrast: that of the exploration of inner-space and the conquest of outer space. Additionally, this pairing of moving pictures presents a similarly dissimilar echoing of science fiction literary giants, as one title is derived from the mind of Jules Verne, while the other comes to us from the vast imagination of H.G. Wells.

Our first adventure, 1959’s big-budget box office spectacular, Journey to the Center of the Earth, had previously been released on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in 2012. Now, three years later, the indie label one-ups their initial limited edition offering with a new master of the classic in 4k scan from the film’s original camera negative. But we’ll get to that in a bit, folks. First off, the plot: people go on a journey to the center of the Earth. There, that’s it in a nutshell. Here, the great James Mason – whom any good Eddie Izzard will instantly recognize as the voice of God – stumbles upon an amazing discovery: Pat Boone’s acting career. Even more incredulous than that is the plumb bob with a crypted message on it he finds in a piece of volcanic rock brought to his attention by the aforementioned genius behind one of the greatest albums ever made, In a Metal Mood.

As it turns out, an explorer had discovered a secret passage into the very depths of the planet. Thus, sensing adventure, excitement, and really wild things (thank you, Douglas Adams), the unlikely winning combination of James Mason and Pat Boone set off to Iceland in order to follow in the footsteps of a vanished adventurer. But this trip is hardly a Sunday drive through the outskirts of Birmingham: this is a voyage into the innermost unknowns of the planet – and it doesn’t help matters that rival explorers are jumping into the Earth’s bowels like chronically-depressed lemmings over this discovery, either – including the very descendant (Thayer David) of the long-vanished explorer whose message beget the whole bloody affair. A raft made out of giant mushrooms that would make the professor from Gilligan’s Island green with envy and a couple of corny Pat Boone tunes (read: Pat Boone tunes) only add to the fun.

Speaking of being green with envy, anyone who may have recently shelled out entirely too much for the old (out of print) edition of the film on Blu-ray will be kicking themselves for not snatching this new release up instead. Truly, this is one of the most marvelous transfers to hit HD home video in, well, ever. Not only is there more image information present (preserving the original theatrical aspect ratio a whole heck of a lot better than before) in this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer, but the overall presentation of the main feature is nothing short of pure bliss to behold. Accompanying the feature presentation is a selection of soundtracks, from a new DTS-HD MA 5.1 mixdown of the original 4-Channel Stereo, to a DTS-HD MA 2.0 (also present on the old release), along with English (SDH) subtitles for those of you who truly want to memorize Pat Boone’s lyrics.

Extras include an isolate score of Bernard Herrmann’s magnifico music in DTS-HD MA 2.0, a new audio commentary with actress Diane Baker, Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith, and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman. The film’s original theatrical trailer and liner notes from Twilight Time’s resident mistress of the written word, film historian Julie Kirgo, round up this swell must-have. Unlike most Twilight Time releases, which are limited to three-thousand units per title, the new 4k master of Journey to the Center of the Earth had 5,000 copies produced.

Right. We’ve covered inner-space. Now what lies out there, in that great big playground regularly reserved for the various Captain Kirks, Darth Vaders, HAL-9000s, Dave Listers, and so on and so forth of the universe? Yes, it’s the space that is of the outer nature, boys and girls – and it also happens to be the destination for the First Men in the Moon! Here we witness an adaptation of an H.G. Wells story as performed by one Ray Harryhausen: that legendary stop-motion animator of yesteryear who was inspired by the work of Willis H. O’Brien when he was a boy, and who, in-turn, motivated many young contemporary artists to settle for learning how to make shitty CGI instead of employing actual tangible special effects. But that’s mostly because no one will buy anything that doesn’t look utterly “believable” in today’s overly cynical and downright spoiled age of motion picture entertainment.

And in the case of First Men in the Moon, it’s downright noticeable – particularly when you view the film in High-Definition. Still, I’ll take this over a computer-made car crashing through an Abu Dhabi skyscraper in a cash-grabbing exploit the death of a man who couldn’t obey the speed limit in a showcar any ol’ day (what, too soon still?). Beginning with the a peek at the sophisticated future of the mid-1960s, First Men in the Moon finds a group of international astronauts landing on the moon – only to become befuddled when they discover a vintage Union Jack and signed affidavit claiming the lunar surface and everything beneath it for Great Britain. And as to just what lies beneath soon becomes part of a race back on Earth when a trace leads a panicked group of space administrators to Edward Judd, made up practically beyond recognition in what can only be delicately described as “old fart makeup.”

And it is here that the Judd spins his incredible yarn: back near the end of the 19th Century, he, his fiancee (Martha Hyer, on-hand to sell the film to Americans, no doubt) and his crackpot inventor of a neighbor – as played with an indeterminate amount of delirious fervor by the great Lionel Jeffries (who was also in another recent review item of mine, All at Sea) – used the latter’s super secret gravity-defying invention to embark on a trip to the moon. There, the trio discover a vast matte painting above, but a huge system of tunnels below, inhabited by funky critters straight out of Quatermass and the Pit, gigantic flesh-eating lunar caterpillar creatures (or “cows,” as they refer to them as for some ungodly reason), and even more strange sights brought to life by Mr. Harryhausen’s patented Dynamation technique. Peter Finch and John Forbes-Robertson are two of several familiar faces featured in bit parts.

Much like the new 4k scan of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the similar but altogether different First Men in the Moon arrives on Blu-ray with an equally gorgeous transfer that looks so clear, I hardly recognized it when compared to my hazy memory of first seeing the flick on a fuzzy ol’ VHS when it first hit home video. The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC presentation is accompanied by a DTS-HD MA 5.1 English audio soundtrack, which delivers most beautifully, and also comes with English (SDH) subtitles should anyone require them. Laurie Johnson’s music score is highlighted in a secondary audio track, as brought to us in DTS-HD MA 2.0. A third audio option is an informative, never-before-heard commentary recorded in 2012 before Ray Harryhausen’s departure for another world the following year, wherein he was joined by one of his many admirers, FX artist Randall William Cook.

The aforementioned Mr. Cook returns to introduce the feature presentation, and gives us a loving look into the history of Mr. Harryhausen’s career, before he transcends into the film itself. A vintage featurette on the making-of the film – which includes some classic behind-the-scenes looks – is also included, and has been remastered in 1080p High-Definition. Two trailers – one a teaser, the other a full-length preview – are also on-hand, and the whole dynamic disc is wrapped up for special delivery to the moon and back with liner notes by Julie Kirgo. Like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twilight Time’s limited edition offering of First Men in the Moon is given the 5,000 copies treatment.

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Luigi Bastardo

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