WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: Geo-magnetics expert John Keyes is called in to investigate a series of unusual events and comes to the disturbing conclusion that the Earth’s core has ceased to spin. Keyes, together with the best brains in the land, the military and a spunky young shuttle pilot have only three months in which to figure out a way to get the core spinning again, or it’s curtains – first of all for all the Earth’s technology, but ultimately for the very life of the planet.
If I do happen to mention the movie Armageddon at all in the course of this review, it will only be to point out how different Amiel’s film is from Michael Bay’s noisy blockbuster. For in that film, oil drillers had to go up in a shuttle to detonate a nuclear explosion to save the world from extinction: by complete contrast in The Core, astronauts have to drill down to the centre of the Earth to, er, detonate a nuclear explosion to save the, um, world from extinction. Okay, so they’re not completely different, but they are as different as up is from down.
I am, of course, being satirical: what is really strange about The Core is how lazily it copies the tropes of recent disaster movies such as Armageddon and Deep Impact, yet presumably still expects the audience to be impressed by what it has to offer. Here, a spate of pacemaker-related deaths and pigeons coming over all Hitchcocky in London alert the authorities that something odd is happening; Joshua Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) and his friend Serge (Tcheky Karyo) are summoned to visit the military top brass, represented solely by Gen. Thomas Purcell (Richard Jenkins) – the President of the USA is here symbolised by a red telephone to save money. Leaning on unjustly famous scientist Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) for assistance, they discover that the human race only has three months to live, unless they can find a way to get the Earth’s core back in motion; and as luck would have it, eccentric scientist Dr Ed Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo) might just have the answer. With enough money, he can build a craft that will take the scientists to the Earth’s core, and he already knows that the ship should be called the Virgil. But who to pilot the ship? How about brave shuttle pilots Bob Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank)? They have, in a very silly but well-realised set-piece, recently landed a shuttle in Los Angeles, so they seem ideal for the job.
I should say here that whilst the science is clearly complete rubbish, it is at least explained rationally enough on its own terms. No, there are two fundamental problems with The Core, the first of which I have already touched on. In addition to the set-up being incredibly familiar – Paris having been torn up in Armageddon, Rome is the victim here, the Coliseum being the victim of unlikely lightning strikes – the characters are copy-and-paste stereotypes. Eckhart is hip, popular and emotional; Karyo, French, loves cheese, wine and love; Tucci is carrying a secret to the centre of the Earth; Swank is intuitively brilliant but still makes fatal mistakes; worst of all is ‘Rat’ (DJ Qualls), an ace hacker who the military call on to suppress information about disasters on the Internet, but who finds himself allied with the crew of the Virgil when it turns out that the military, not unlike in Armageddon, have a back-up plan. Not only is the character generic, annoying and lazily-written, but I found Qualls to be rather unpleasant to look at (sorry DJ). How he helps the crew is predictable; the deaths of some members of the crew are predictable; the attraction between Joshua and Beck is so predictable that even they don’t try to make it convincing. To paraphrase one of the film’s favourite catchphrases, it’s Sci-fi Cliché Class 101.
The second big issue is that the film never feels like it should. Although we have seen demonstrations that ‘Braz’’s lasers and the ship made from Unobtainium (oh dear) can cut through rock like a hot knife through butter, I would still expect to see a huge number of bumps and scrapes. But Amiel chooses to show us the ship’s journey through Earth by way of monitor screens where the ship slices through everything except black stuff (representing either emptiness or diamonds!); not only is this uninvolving, it means that for the majority of the time it feels like the Virgil is moving through space or water, not layers of the planet. While the film is occasionally a visual spectacle, it’s rarely one that you feel might be taking place beneath your feet. I should also mention that for all the dire warnings about electrical apocalypse during the film, Mission Control keep good contact with the ship and Rat’s bank of computers seem to work fine, as do the ones he tries to hack to buy the Virgil more time when all seems lost.
Add in the fact that not enough is made of the revelation that the US Military, by testing weapons, actually caused the core to stop spinning, and some truly moribund dialogue (‘God, I hate this sky,’ ‘The planet is healing itself!’), and you have the recipe for a disastrous disaster movie. It’s not good, for sure, but as a form of Armageddon-Lite this journey to the centre of the Earth is enough dumb fun to be watchable. You will probably enjoy it, but perhaps not for the reasons the film-makers intended*.
NOTES: I try to write reviews before reading other opinions. I’ve now read Roger Ebert’s review of The Core and, not unusually, it is a brilliant, affectionate dissection of a very silly film.