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The Core   C

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Jon Amiel
Writers: Cooper Layne, John Rogers
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, DJ Qualls, Tcheky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood, Alfre Woodard.

Review by Rob Vaux

The heroes are learned men, their obstacle based on geophysical principles. But don't let that fool you. The Core is so gloriously goofy, so open and friendly about its sheer ludicrousness, that its nominal adherence to scientific principles becomes part of the gag. An old-fashioned disaster movie of a kind unseen since the days of Irwin Allen, it presents a jaw-dropping scenario in which a misfit band of scientists journey to the center of the Earth in order to restart the stalled molten core with a nuclear explosion. Is it bad? Oh yes. But it's the best kind of bad: a wonderful exuberant bad that only well-meaning-yet-misguided moviemakers can provide. It's the sort of bad that makes you thrilled to be alive.

And it's hard to dislike, no matter how many reasons it gives you. It flirts with images that might seem inappropriate in these turbulent times: cities laid waste, bridges melting, a crash of the space shuttle. Other films have been shelved for much less. But The Core has little use for what we understand to be reality, and as such its flirtations never connect with the big bad world outside the theater. It opens with a mad pigeon attack in Trafalgar Square (the universal symbol for "lighten the hell up") and never looks back.

The pigeons go nuts because the magnetic waves in the Earth's atmosphere are all screwed up. The core has stopped spinning, as Aaron Eckhart's absent-minded professor explains, and unless we can fire it up again, we'll all be roasted alive by solar radiation. Luckily, there's a convenient mad physicist (Delroy Lindo) out in the desert with a really cool ray gun that cuts through mountains and the blueprints for a ship that can drill straight to China. All they have to do is burrow down to the core and jump-start it like an old Chevy. Three months and one government endowment later, they're off, complete with a spunky NASA pilot (Hilary Swank) at the wheel and a sneering know-it-all (Stanley Tucci) for the audience to hate. The only thing missing is an army of mole people.

The (unintentional?) absurdity is the film's saving grace, because once the ball gets rolling it falls into an awfully familiar pattern. Though The Core finds interesting things for its heroes to do amid the tons and tons of molten rock, the obstacles are all depressingly routine, their solutions implemented after generating just enough suspense to hold our attention. Naturally, each new challenge claims a secondary character, whittling the cast down to the easily identified leads. But director John Amiel spices it up with some interesting (though not necessarily brilliant) special effects, and every 15 or 20 minutes, we're hit with a new round of pseudo-physics intended to explain why the next few scenes are necessary.

Giggling fits become unavoidable. Nothing quite compares with Oscar-caliber actors saying things like, "This looks bad, we should check it out," and for all their earnestness it's hard to believe that they're not in on the joke. Yet even when you roll your eyes in disbelief The Core always stays friendly, seeming to honor a B-movie tradition rather than just going through the motions. And it actually manages a few reasonably good segments, such as an early scene when 32 people in one Boston square simply drop dead or a speech by Swank's shuttle commander (Bruce Greenwood) about leadership and mistakes. None of it's enough to save the film of course, or even give it the pretense of respectability, but "bad" is not the same as "worthless." The Core can be silly fun for those in the right mood (or sufficiently inebriated), and fans of '50s sci-fi may find something to treasure. Again, I find myself staring at the grim specter of Flipside's grading system, struggling to make it adequately encapsulate this movie. It's simply too ridiculous to recommend, and yet it doesn't merit a true condemnation. I certainly bear it no ill will. It made me smile in that secret way that only fools and little children can conjure. With movies like The Core, that's the best we can probably hope for.

Review published 03.31.2003.

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