The Core (2003)

“Hello, I’m Jon Amiel and I directed The Core. Why aren’t you watching my movie? Why are you listening to me?” With this adorable and apparently humble introduction, Amiel (Copycat [1995]) confirms that his film will be a “big ride,” a journey to the center of the earth’s 9000 degrees, burning, revolving core. “Humor was very important to all of us in this film,” he says later. “Anybody can make a deadly serious film about the end of the world. It takes skill and talent to make one that has a sense of humor to it. Also, truly heroic characters always find something to laugh at even at the darkest moments.”

And so, The Core is a sometimes humorous but mostly grinding motley-crew-saving-the-world movie. In this instance, 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.” A grim prognosis and, not incidentally, a nifty set-up for the overwhelming darkness out of which those “truly heroic” characters might find their objects of humor.

Showing how this darkness results from a series of imaginative steps is the DVD’s primary purpose. It includes the typical featurettes (say, “To the Core and Back: The Making of The Core“) and “Deleted/Extended Scenes,” which are, as usual, mostly un-missed. Still, as Amiel observes, the “darlings” he lost on the cutting room floor are actually quite fine, though, as he says, it’s “more fun than to advance the story.” One that is, in fact, compelling, is a discussion, among Rat, the general, and Josh, of some moral dilemma weight, namely, how is it that people in power always decide not to tell powerless people the terrible fate that awaits them? “Shouldn’t we tell them?” wonders goodhearted Josh, coming to realize the vast stores of information that most of earth’s inhabitants will never know, as “authorities” deem it off limits.

“With a picture like The Core, everything starts out on paper as storyboards.” So pronounces Greg McMurry, Visual Effects Supervisor, which suggests that the “Deconstruction of the Visual Effects” featurette included on Paramount’s DVD release of The Core, is not going to tell you much that isn’t obvious. But, as the camera pans over all this paper, filled with images that would then be built “entirely in the computer,” the story of the film’s previsualizing and rendering becomes clearer and more complex. Turns out that the animation team (“the guys at Frantic” Films) “chased” the live action filmmakers around in order to get notes and ideas, to conjure a “three-dimensional sketchbook,” or what they call “Look Development,” less mock-ups than near-direction of scenes.

This means that The Core was conceived from jump as a combination of actors and special effects, rather than one or the other being applied afterwards. In this, it is of its moment exactly. While many films still start with actors and locations, with FX added, it won’t be long before most movies are initiated as special effects jamborees with actors (or digital simulations of same) inserted later. The result in The Core is less convincing than it might be, but the idea is admirable (unless you’re holding out for the primacy of actors in all products filmic).

The major meltdown scenario is introduced via several disasters, among them a shuttle’s return to earth, featuring astronaut/pilot Major Rebecca (Beck) Childs (Hilary Swank), in mid-space shuttle disaster (Amiel notes that while the film was completed long before the Columbia breakup, he and the crew had serious questions about releasing the film afterwards, as they had spent some time with NASA folks). As the shuttle, affected by the failing core, plunges off course, Beck demonstrates 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.

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 flight director named Stick (Alfre Woodard) looks properly horrified (as Amiel notes pointedly on the commentary track, “It’s fine to see an African American woman doing this job; hopefully one day, there really will be an African American woman doing that job”).

To underline the need for immediate action, the film indulges in a series of mini-crises around the world: pigeons lose their bearings in Trafalgar Square, plummeting into windows, people, and fountains; the Roman Coliseum fries in a 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 fun 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.

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), University of Chicago 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 looks 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). 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 raging 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 bestowed by a general played by reliably solemn (and utterly low-key when playing comedy) Richard Jenkins. (Amiel also notes during a deleted scene that he especially appreciates Tucci’s gumption when Braz destroys a demonstration board and starts throwing things at Zimsky, but the “squabbling” between these two was mostly cut, for time.)

Tagging along, that is, mostly observing the grumping by these three, are gallant pilots Beck and Bob Iverson (Bruce Greenwood), and Josh’s friend, a weapons specialist named 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 unfortunate timing — how quaint (or maybe nostalgic, or maybe wish-fulfilling) this notion of a committed U.S. and French collaboration seems today, now that the U.S. civilian administration is wanting to make up.

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 (plucky 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,” for the government). Rat’s a nerdy smart-ass whose initial dismissal by Zimsky immediately marks him as admirable (that, and, he notes that hackers “multitask like you breathe,” and that he couldn’t think as slowly as Zimsky if he tried — you go, boy!). The fact that Josh likes him also speaks in Rat’s favor, as does his minimal demand for payment: a supply of Xena tapes and Hot Pockets (a sign of his geekness that is surely unnecessary.)

Once underground, egos vie for room, tempers flare, and a bit of romance simmers between virile boy and the only girl on the ship. Lasers mounted on the ship’s nose carve out a tunnel, 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 (the precociously good-natured Amiel informs us that this is an old “scientists’ joke,” though he hopes most of us are hearing it for the first time) 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, “Leadership isn’t about ability; it’s about responsibility.” Roger that.

While the film — so silly and so strangely caught between earnestness and comedy — probably can’t be recuperated, Amiel’s commentary on the DVD — so full of affection for the soundtrack, the sound effects, and the performances — works some wonders of its own. Despite his protests at the start, the experience of watching The Core goes down more smoothly with his explanations of shot compositions, the actorly bits he likes the best, as well as the “figuring out” of camera moves and editing choices. Noting the diurnal difficulties of the equipment and costumes (the spaceman costumes had face masks that fogged up), he notes ruefully, though quite charmingly, “Any of you who are contemplating making a space movie, beware.”