"The only real mystery about Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is how it even got made," is a sentence that could very easily intro any review of Journey 2. It's an easy, softball insult to toss its way, but if you spend half a second thinking about it, the truth is there's no mystery at all to Journey 2's existence. After all, the first film, Journey to the Center of the Earth, made hundreds of millions of dollars purely on the strength of Brendan Fraser's broad shoulders and the movie's use of 3D before Avatar went and made 3D into a thing. Why wouldn't a sequel be greenlit? And why should a studio worry about things like Brendan Fraser exiting the picture when they can just replace his beefy frame with the even beefier Dwayne Johnson? All they needed to make this blatant cash-grab happen was another Jules Verne novel to plunder, a healthy dose of cheap-looking special effects in an exotic locale, a sass-talking Michael Caine, and Vanessa Hudgens in booty shorts, and boom. Movie.
In Mysterious Island, petulant, obnoxious teenager Sean Anderson (played again by Josh Hutcherson) has grown up a few years into petulant, obnoxious teenager Sean Anderson. With Fraser gone for reasons unexplained in the film, Johnson has stepped in as Anderson's stepfather, a Navy vet with inexplicable talents in codebreaking and pec-popping (more on that later). When Sean somehow receives a random radio signal with a code that purportedly came from his adventurer grandfather (Caine, at his most irritating), signaling that he had found the Mysterious Island of Jules Verne's novel.
Of course he has, because Verne's texts are the sole reason this series exists to begin with. The whole idea here is that all of Verne's novels are based on real adventures had by the likes of Captain Nemo and Verne himself. Sure, that's bizarre enough on its own, but the script by brothers Mark and Brian Gunn (presumably no relation to James) can't resist tossing in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jonathan Swift into the mix either. Apparently Treasure Island and Gulliver's Travels are about the same Mysterious Island of Verne's novel. Truly, no author is safe from this franchise. I can't wait until the seventh film in the series, when they get around to plundering Michael Crichton's later novels.
Anyhow, in order to get to the island, The Rock and the kid have to fly to Palau (which takes shockingly little convincing for Sean's mother) and hook up with a chintzy helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman) and his daughter (Hudgens). They fly to the coordinates, run into a hurricane, crash horribly, and somehow end up on the beach with barely a scratch on them.
Practically every scene in Journey 2 from here until the end begins with some combination of the five principal actors looking up and staring wide-eyed at something. In that sense, director Brad Peyton (who previously assaulted our senses with the last Cats & Dogs movie) acts as more of a tour guide than an actual storyteller. Imagine Avatar if the entire movie were centered around the human characters just staring at crazy shit for 90 minutes. Then dial back the special effects by about $200 million. That's what Journey 2 effectively offers.
It's not that there's no action, but what action there is comes across as so badly green-screened that it's absolutely impossible to engage with it outside of just pointing and laughing at how ridiculous it all looks. Every scene in the movie either features outdoor location shots from LOST outfitted with terrible CG or really bad soundstage green-screen setups featuring our actors pretending to stare in awe at things while surrounded by ferns likely purchased at the garden department of the local Home Depot.
It's no wonder then that Journey 2 is in a gigantic hurry at all times to get you to the next setpiece. After all, if you spent too much time staring at said setpieces, you might notice that the special effects look even worse than a certain ancient (by current film progression standards) sci-fi film re-opening this very weekend. (And for those who are reading this past the period when that allusion would be relevant, I'm talking about The Phantom Menace.)
The story and characters certainly don't make up for the lack of visual interest. Hutcherson's not a bad actor, but Sean Anderson is a terrible, annoying character who never quite gets around to redeeming himself so much as he does just stop saying dickish things. Caine's even worse, constantly baiting Johnson's character for no apparent reason until, once again, he just kind of stops. Johnson tries his damnedest to wring some kind of humor out of the non-existent jokes afforded his character, but never quite finds a way to make it anything other than embarrassing, especially as he's running that "pec-pop of love" gag from the film's trailers into the ground. As if we needed further acknowledgment that he's solely in this movie for his muscular build. As for Guzman, he's repeatedly humiliated as the film's ostensible comic relief, taking giant bird shit to the face while presumably wondering if the vacation of filming in Hawaii was really worth it. Hudgens is pretty much there for Hutcherson to ogle, and eventually fall in love with, because of course he does.
As for the plot, it moves efficiently and coherently, despite not making a lick of sense. The sole source of tension is the fact that apparently the island sinks into the ocean every 140 years or so, due to plate tectonics and volcanoes and whatever. When it does this, it apparently explodes into a fiery mess of crushed rocks and drowned ancient cities--oh, did I mention the screenwriters somehow found a way to shoehorn Atlantis into all of this? Because they totally did.
The real question that kept circling through my mind while watching all of this was, "Wait, if the island sinks every 140 years, how is any of this any of this? How are there tiny elephants and giant bees and humongous lizards running around if the island's only been above water for less than a century and a half? Is evolution on this island just really fucking fast?" I realize now that perhaps I was over-thinking things, given that the last film in this franchise featured a boy and his dad journeying to the center of the goddamn earth because of reasons. Clearly nobody involved in this production was thinking to terribly hard about any of what they were doing, which of course explains why Journey 2 is so unflinchingly terrible.