Volcanoes, Monsters, and Teenagers

TO my surprise, the old science-fiction classic "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was on TV recently, and I had the chance to watch it with two 13-year-old girls - my daughter, Becky, and her friend Melissa. As a young teenage boy when the movie first came out in 1959, I had been singularly impressed: adventure, romance, dazzling special effects - what more could a kid want? The excitement of climbing into a volcano to reach the earth's magnetic core and being threatened by villains, natural disasters , and a slew of scaly monsters had me believing that I, too, would one day pursue a life of science and exploration.

"Hey, girls, there's a great movie on today."

They are skeptical - teenagers. "What's it about?"

"It's sci-fi," I tell them, mustering my enthusiasm.

"Like `Star Wars' and `Aliens'? Like `The Thing'?"

"Er ... sort of."

"Is it scary?"

"Very - it's about volcanoes and monsters."

Volcanoes? Monsters? More skepticism, shrugs, snide looks. After all, Dad's an adult, and what can a fan of, among other things, Bob Dylan, Sherlock Holmes, "All Things Considered," asparagus, sun screen, rubber basketballs, rare books, and Bing Crosby Christmas carols possibly know?

Nothing, that's what.

And, as it turns out, to some extent they're right. For what do we find in the film? College students (all male) singing to their professors ... in Latin. Pat Boone periodically breaking out in song (accompanied by an accordian). Long dresses and hats worn by the woman explorer (at least she's got the sense to wear hiking boots). Hokey special effects (cardboard rocks, crystal rooms, and man-eating salamanders). A bumbleheaded villain. A learned duck. Bathroom humor. Organ music. Very little suspense. A leisurely pace. Predictable ending - gads! If anything, the 30-plus-year-old movie set in Iceland circa 1880, like the old-fashioned diction and syntax of the Jules Verne novel of the same name, has aged poorly. Even that may be an understatement.

I find I'm watching the movie with three sets of eyes: as an impressionable teenager way back when, elbowing my friends in the front row of a darkened theater; as my adult self comfortably seated before an ample-sized color TV screen; and as a 1990s teen - my daughter and her friend. Despite the movie's obvious shortcomings, it's easy for me to understand its impact on me as a child. At the very least it fed my imagination, made me want to strike out on my own, discover new worlds, test my mettle. In the

late 1950s, there was little to compare "Journey" with (maybe "Forbidden Planet"). Back then the special effects would have no doubt been dubbed sophisticated, the story grand.

What are Becky and Melissa's impressions?

"It's pretty fake, Dad."

"Are those the monsters?"

"Oh, I saw that rock-thing in `Raiders of the Lost Ark'."

"Who'd bring a musical instrument underground?"

"I know what's going to happen..."

Yes, they do, even when their attention is interrupted by phone calls from friends, trips to the fridge and back (scones and cream cheese, apple sauce, skim milk), handiwork on the cuffs of their jeans (pulling the stitches out one at a time), and leafing through "Glamour," "Teen," and a batch of new catalogs that appear each day by the armload in the mail.

Like many kids their age, they have a lot to say, particularly about how women are portrayed. Arlene Dahl (she of the dresses and hats) has to blackmail James Mason to let her be a part of the expedition, acts as designated cook and stenographer, must be told to remove her girdle for her own protection, and needs men to save her from being eaten (those salamanders again).

None of this is lost on the girls. They dislike Dahl's high voice ("Help! Help!"), the subservient roles she plays, her silly clothes, her falling back once or twice on being female to get her out of a tight spot, and the insults she endures, which include male-female banter serving as comic release. Says Mason, "To burden myself with a female is sheer stupidity." To which Dahl replies, "I resent that word; I may have been a disturbance to a man, never a burden." Of course they end up getting married.

"Why doesn't she just go off on her own?" the girls ask.

OK, the movie's hokey, dated, even boring. But I wonder: As 13-year-old girls in 1959, would they have been moved in similar ways as I was, picturing myself as a young explorer, the worlds of science and adventure unquestionably open to me? Had I been a girl then, would my imagination and dreams of derring-do have been so readily tapped? Or would I have merely assumed worlds such as these closed to me and others of my gender? Closed but for a special few and, even then, under some duress?

About the past I can only guess.

But what do these young teens say now?

"Does the movie make you want to be an explorer?" I ask them. "Climb inside a volcano? Discover the unknown?"

Answer: "Sure, Dad, why not?" So natural. Some things unquestionably have changed for the better.

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