in Criterion Month

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)

It’s another 4th of July and of course for the sixth year in a row I am the one reviewing a movie on this increasingly cursed holiday. As is the case most years, the movie I am reviewing is not terribly American, even though an edited and dubbed version was released in the U.S., while the film’s title does evoke the journey our Supreme Court justices apparently want to take our basic human rights on (hey-o!). Anyways, I was compelled to check out another one of Karel Zeman’s movies after reviewing the singular Fabulous Baron Munchausen a couple years ago. Though Journey to the Beginning of Time may not be quite as visually inventive as that film (but let’s be honest, few are), it still feels crucial in establishing Zeman’s output of dazzling feature films in the ’50s and ’60s while also presenting a refreshingly thoughtful take on effects-driven science fiction.

A lot of this thoughtfulness is rooted in the fact that the movie is not all that interested in contrived plot or conflict, and is more interested in science. We immediately get this sense in the film’s opening moments, when a studious young boy named Petr (played by Josef Lukáš) is recounting the wondrous journey he went on with his three friends. We see through diagrams and drawings the prehistoric discoveries his friends sought out in their journey as they linearly went back through time through the ice age, to the age of the dinosaur, to when trilobites were the most sophisticated beings on earth. From there we’re introduced to Petr’s friends as we see them sailing down a river that takes them back in time (the specifics of which are left vague), and encounter their first prehistoric animal in the form of a stop-motion woolly mammoth, while from there the creatures they encounter on the side of the river just become more and more awe-inspiring.

It’s apparent that Karel Zeman is a big Jules Verne fan, as the title of the film is clearly a nod to Journey to the Center of the Earth, while Zeman originally was thinking of making the film’s prehistoric journey hew a little closer to that novel. Additionally, there’s a mix of the fantastical and the practical in Journey, as Zeman lets us marvel at the ambition of his special effects while also presenting these creatures as they were believed to have existed while our young explorers provide plenty of scientific context as we encounter them. While the mix of stop-motion, traditional animation, and matte paintings is unmistakably a product of its time, the movie’s restraint in not turning these beasts into mere objects of terror like the average ’50s sci-fi B-movie gives Journey a surprisingly serene and almost documentary-like feel. This science-based approach is also bolstered even further due to using the paleo-art of famed Czech painter Zdeněk Burian as a guide for many of the dino scenes.

It’s hard to say that all of the special effects work seamlessly (there’s an encounter involving a leopard that mixes stop-motion and stock footage that’s particularly clumsy), but for the most part, they do. There’s just the right mix of wonder at the sight of these beasts as well as the occasional reminder that they could stomp the shit out of a small child at any given moment. It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg has mentioned this movie in regards to Jurassic Park, as Journey to the Beginning of Time embodies a lot of the wonder present in that first installment that’s been missing in subsequent ones, while there’s even a scene of our explorers investigating a sick stegosaurus that feels quite familiar.

In terms of exploring Karel Zeman’s filmography, it looks like maybe my next step should’ve been watching Journey to the Beginning of Time‘s follow-up, Invention for Destruction. This 1958 film saw him straight-up adapting a Jules Verne novel while developing the distinct combination of 2-D animation and practical sets that would define Baron Munchausen. But what can I say? I was a dinosaur kid and couldn’t resist seeing an early depiction of those magnificent creatures. Regardless, as the film that established Zeman as one of cinema’s most imaginative directors, Journey to the Beginning of Time still feels essential, and is made all the more impressive when this amount of imagination was key in overcoming the film’s modest budget.

Well, guess it’s time to go eat some hot dogs and burgers, preferably not made out of dinosaur meat.