It’s hard to imagine a movie with worse timing than The Core. For one thing, it’s a motley-crew-saving-the-world movie, with exploding buildings imagery that probably seems less fun now than it might have a few months ago. Here the explosions emerge from inside the world itself. The earth’s core has stopped rotating, which means 1) the protective electromagnetic field will fail, and 2) “everybody on earth will be dead within a year.” Jeepers.
As if this cosmic meltdown scenario isn’t bad enough, the introduction of a crucial character — astronaut/pilot Major Rebecca (Beck) Childs (Hilary Swank) — depends on a space shuttle disaster. This is designed to demonstrate her most excellent skills and instincts, as she actually comes up with the perfecto coordinates to save the ship from disaster, allowing it to land — after much flaming and careening — safely in downtown Los Angeles. This is quite the fancy stunt, and no doubt, when the film was conceived (screenplay by Cooper Layne and John Rogers), it seemed neat.
Now, however, the sequence includes some alarmingly resonant images — the ship’s exterior in flames while streaking through the blue sky; urgent glance exchanged among crew members; and a sudden loss of radar contact with NASA, whereupon a ground controller named Stick (Alfre Woodard) looks properly horrified. It’s not a little creepy, and, depending on how you look at it, a wholly bold or wholly insensitive gambit. (The film’s promotional staff, at least, took note, and pulled the trailer featuring the shuttle trouble.)
Once this bumpy patch is over, however, The Core settles quickly into the most mundane of plot and character developments. A series of mini-crises around the world indicates the calamity looming before oblivious earthlings: pigeons lose their bearings in Trafalgar Square, plummeting into windows, people, and fountains; the Roman Coliseum fries in an zap-zap electrical storm; the Golden Gate Bridge is cut in half by a super-searing-hot sunbeam (or something) that gets in through a sliver of a hole in the ozone layer.
Each of these scenes is both hilariously overstated and dreadfully rendered, evoking the good old days of ’70s Disaster Pix. To be fair, such corniness does give The Core something of a Grade C drive-in movie look, as diverse no-names throw themselves dutifully into cinematic panics. Repeated shots of screaming faces, hurtling bodies, and frantic limb-waving, from low and deliriously canted angles, remind that poor schlubs respond badly to the unexpected. At the same time, the crises ostensibly generating such hysteria appear as listless CGI effects, with sets looking, on occasion, like they’ve been scavenged from Godzilla, King of All Monsters! (It’s perhaps worth noting here that the film, originally slated for a 1 November 2002 release, was pushed back five months so the effects crew could add “more scenes of destruction,” with emphasis apparently on “more,” not better.)
Such imminent catastrophe plainly calls for drastic action, namely, the assembly of an intrepid, occasionally internally contentious team to burrow into the earth and jumpstart core rotation. While this storyline may be creaky (Disney made a movie of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth back in 1959), the 21st century team is fashionably multi-culti, while also predictably typed.
Reluctant Hero is Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), physics professor extraordinaire. He happens upon the problem by accident one day, does some quick calculations, assisted by some even quicker research by his devoted RAs, and comes up with the doomsday scenario. Eckhart (best known as Julia Roberts’ generous biker beau in Erin Brockovich, best respected for his admirably raw work with Neil LaBute) manages to look cheery and virile at the same time, which goes some way toward smoothing over Josh’s not-quite-explained behavior shifts.
The primary thorn in Josh’s side is his should-be partner, celebrity geophysicist and Carl Sagan wannabe Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci, who so needs to stop playing the clueless snoot). Self-involved and prissy, Zimsky annoys everyone, especially former colleague Edward Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo), from whom he stole precious, name-making research 20 years ago. A prototypical angry black man ever since, Braz has been living out in the desert, designing a terra-burrowing ship, and is more than happy to complete the project with the government’s check for $50 billion (this bestowed by a general played by reliably solemn Richard Jenkins).
Tagging along, that is, mostly observing the grumping by these three, are gallant pilots Beck and Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood), and weapons specialist Sergei Leveque (Tchéky Karyo). He’s in charge of the nuclear bombs that will, presumably, restart the core. (At last! Weapons of mass destruction will be put to “constructive” use.) He’s also French, underlining yet again The Core‘s poor timing — how quaint (or maybe nostalgic) this notion of a committed U.S. and French collabo seems today.
The project is put together in a matter of months, reduced to a few yay-team montage minutes on screen, in order to get all the primaries underground as soon as possible. All, that is, except the stalwart Stick and a hacker named Rat (DJ Qualls), conscripted to ensure that news of what’s going on doesn’t hit the internet (i.e., he’s supposed to “hack the planet”). Rat’s a nerdy smart-ass whose dismissal by Zimsky immediately marks him as admirable; that Josh likes him also speaks in his favor, as does his minimal demand for payment: a supply of Xena tapes and Hot Pockets. Sadly, the film omits cutaways to Xena, which surely would have lifted all spirits.
Once underground, egos vie, tempers flare, and a bit of romance simmers between virile boy and the only the girl in the room. Lasers mounted on the ship’s nose carve out a tunnel as the enabled by some sort of laser beams that carve a tunnel for the ship as it goes. The ship itself is composed of a material that inventor Braz cleverly calls Unobtainium, which supposedly grows stronger with heat. Following a series of difficulties and deaths (some accidental, some painfully noble), the ship reaches its destination, as it must, and team members learn important lessons, like, say, “Leadership isn’t about ability; it’s about responsibility.” Roger that. You might say the same for moviemaking: just because you can imagine a plot and a set of effects doesn’t mean you have to impose it on the rest of us.