Thursday, April 12, 2012

Random Movie Report #103: At the Earth's Core

At the Earth's Core DVD cover and Amazon link

In the wake of John Carter's unjust reception, I find myself taking a look at another attempt at bringing the fantastic literature of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the screen. At the Earth's Core is a film carried by its weirdness; it would be a bog standard adventure movie if not for just how strange everything it presents is. It's realized on a fairly low budget, so the presentation is inconsistent at best, but the overall experience is memorable.

David Innes (Doug McClure) has given funding to Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) for the creation of a giant mechanical drill that can tunnel through a mountainside in a matter of hours. Hopping inside the vehicle for its first test, the two men find it's a bit too powerful, as it veers out of control and starts drilling to the center of the Earth. Fortunately, they wind up not at the molten core, but in Pellucidar, a strange underground world inhabited by prehistoric monsters and primitive humans. Innes and Perry fall in with a group of people captured by the Sagoths, brutish slaves of the Mahar, telepathic flying dinosaurs. Innes, in the midst of falling for a beautiful native named Dia (Caroline Munro), decides with Perry to help free the humans from Mahar tyranny, which involves finding a way to destroy their fiery fortress.

The last film produced by British studio Amicus, At the Earth's Core tries its best to make a grand adventure from limited resources. On the one hand, the monsters are a little shoddy looking, and without stop-motion we're confined to stiff-looking puppets and men in suits. On the other, this doesn't mean that they skimp on the stiff-looking puppets and men in suits; at no point do you get the feeling they're holding back out of embarrassment. I've always felt that the quality of special effects, while important, wasn't nearly as crucial as their aesthetic attractiveness- if something looks cool, it also looking fake isn't the biggest drawback.

The film definitely has an appealing aesthetic, one that was probably looking a little dated in 1976 but has aged well. Pellucidar is a truly alien environment, with a perpetually pink sky (there's no day or night, since the radiance comes from the core itself), overgrown vegetation, fiery mountains, exotic castles, etc. While the Mahar vaguely resemble flying dinosaurs, the giant horned beasts that roam the countryside are entirely unique, something like bipedal boars. The Mahar fortress is all sulphuric stone and chasms of lava. The lavish design helps transcend the low budget.

McClure is something of a blank slate as the square-jawed hero, fitting the bill but not doing anything more. Fortunately, Peter Cushing is as charming and energetic an actor as he always is, and the script provides him with a few great lines. As standard as the story is, it does maintain a good energy, not letting some of the hokier subplots bog it down much.

If not the fullest realization of Edgar Rice Burroughs' work, At the Earth's Core still shows off the author's imagination and manages to capture the spirit of pulp adventure at a time when the film industry had largely moved away from the genre. It's not quite as impressive as Andrew Stanton's epic, but it's a suitable final bow for Amicus and a solid 90 minutes' entertainment. If you can handle cheesy monster suits and some whacked out plot elements (like a firebreathing frog that explodes for reasons I've forgotten), it's worth the time.

Based on the story by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Screenplay by Milton Subotsky
Directed by Kevin Connor

Grade: B

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