THE CORE: It’s Not a Stupid Ship

The Core (2003) – Directed by Jon Amiel – Starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, DJ Qualls, Tchéky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood, Richard Jenkins, and Alfre Woodard.

THE CORE is a surprisingly satisfying film, although it comes off as the cinematic equivalent of the 8th inning of a Major League Baseball All-Star game, with it’s odd mix of not-quite-superstars and solid veterans playing in a game the league insists is important even though everyone is just watching because they like baseball and it’s the only game being played for three days.

It’s an odd film to watch, because it’s a science-fiction film that acts likes it’s using real science but sounds like it’s using made up words and disproved theories. There’s a scene that seems to sum up the film’s approach to science perfectly. Dr. Josh Keyes (Eckhart) has just given a briefing explaining that the Earth’s core has stopped spinning, meaning everyone on the planet is going to die. Keyes, Dr. Zimsky (Tucci), and General Purcell (Jenkins) are letting this hit them, and going over ideas on how to restart the core. (Yes, restart the core of the planet like it’s a dead engine on a ’95 Honda Civic.) Anyway, they come up with an idea and Keyes says, “It doesn’t matter! Even if you could restart the core, there’s no way to get there!”

Zimsky smiles and asks, “But what if you could?”

And awaaaaaaaaay we go!

All the science experts seem to say it’s nonsense science, but I didn’t sit down in front of my TV to get a science lesson from THE CORE – I sat down to be entertained, and THE CORE is an awesome Saturday afternoon flick for folks who want to watch a fun film with impossible science. I don’t understand why scientists seem to get so smug about the “non-science” presented in a film like this – isn’t inspiring kids to dig science awesome? Even if it’s with shoddy science? What are these complainers worried about? That the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club is going to convene after school and build a train that they only think can take them safely to the center of the planet when, in reality, it will actually crush them? THE CORE is like a sci-fi film from the 1950s or ’60s, where it’s the idea that matters far more than the realistic mechanics to execute that idea. The center of the planet has stopped spinning. What’s not to love about that?

The joy of films like this, which beautifully melds an “impossible science” idea like Fantastic Voyage with the disaster film vibe of The Day After Tomorrow (which I haven’t reviewed, but maybe we’re due for some disaster movie reviews …), is in seeing the characters figure out, and then execute the impossible. There isn’t a machine in reality like Virgil that can penetrate down through the Earth to get to the core? Who gives a damn? It’s not like there really are spaceships propelled by warp drive engines, or spaceships pretending to be police boxes that are bigger on the inside, or dogs that will perform tricks AFTER getting bribed with a snack. (I mean, it’s just totally unrealistic to see dogs being given their treats before a trick rather than after it. Some people don’t know jack about training dogs.)

All I really care about in a disaster movie is that you present me with a cool scenario and then you have your characters figure their way out of it. In THE CORE, they decide the best way to restart the core is to let off some nuclear bombs. But once they pass into the outer layer of the core they realize their calculations on this layer’s density are wrong and they don’t have enough ka-pow! to get the job done. (Honestly, they couldn’t have called this movie THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED SPINNING or something to keep me from writing “the core” 82 times in this review?) The solution they come up with is to take the bombs they have and instead of setting off one massive explosion, they’ll set off a series of explosions that will cause a ripple effect, whereby the power of one bomb becomes reinforced by the next one, creating an energy wave that-

Does it matter? It looks cool on the simulation they run and it looks cool when they detonate the bombs and it generates plenty of popcornish tension in between those two points. The filmmakers push their luck a bit on this point by having Keyes say that this plan will only work if they put the warheads in EXACTLY the right place and detonate them at EXACTLY the right time, using words that start with “milli-” so you know just how important and impossible it is, and it’s a step we don’t need. They’re driving through the planet in a giant high-speed train, after all, rocketing through layers of rocks and molten magma – I think we can still be suitably impressed if they miss their mark by a couple of feet.

THE CORE is a wonderfully cast movie but perhaps a completely miscast movie, too. There’s lots of ways to cast disaster movies – you can take the Towering Inferno all-star approach, the Twister we-hope-they-become-stars approach, the Poseidon Adventure serious-actor-surrounded-by-recognizable-faces approach, and on and on. The key, it seems, is to find the right balance between actors and effects; in other words, the key is in recognizing if its the actors or the effects that are going to be the star, and then cast your film appropriately. THE CORE’s approach is to find a bunch of really good actors, add DJ Qualls to the mix, and then have effects that are cool but not eye-dropping.

They fill the cast with people like Eckhart, Swank, Lindo, Tucci, Greenwood, Woodard, and the vaguely recognizable French guy, and then shove them inside a subway train made of unobtanium with a giant laser on the front, and drop them through the planet where the effects are cool but repetitive – there’s only so many ways you can pass through rock and magma and stay fresh. (Perhaps that’s why the film gives us a bunch of elongated scenes on Earth that we don’t need – like birds dropping out of the sky or crazy lightning ravaging a city. It’s an attempt to deliver more of a visual punch.) The highlight is undoubtedly the room of purple crystal that they crash into, and the magma flow that starts dripping, then pouring down on them from the hole they just punched, but you’re just not going to have a lot of opportunities for them to get out and look around inside the planet. With the lack of showstopping fireworks from the diving train, maybe the film would have been better with a less-realistic, more ridiculous cast. All of the actors look like they really could be what their roles demand but they don’t provide enough interpersonal fireworks to help prop up the CGI.

Don’t misunderstand – I appreciate the fact that they’re using Eckhart, Swank, and Lindo instead of Cruise, Diaz, and Jackson, and for me it makes it a better film (which is ultimately what I care about) but I can see how that lack of star power (and lack of star personality) hurt the film at the box office and contributes to the film suffering from a bit of cinematic bloatedness. (But then, it’s a disaster movie and disaster movies love to be bloated.) By having actors instead of stars, and by having actors who are more introverted than extroverted, you need to offer a bit more in the effects department to bolster a film. For instance, Bruce Greenwood and Hilary Swank play the two astronauts and they are every bit as serious as you would expect astronauts to be, but Greenwood and Swank both work better when they’re playing off a bigger personality, and THE CORE doesn’t give them someone to make their reassuring calmness play as effectively as it could. Lindo and Tucci are old colleagues turned rivals, but even with Tucci trying to be over-the-top, the antagonism produced between them are more like tiffs in the teacher’s lounge over coffee filters instead of “you sold me out” anger. Maybe if they had bigger personalities, or a bigger set of conflicts inside the ship, we could have had a tighter, more focused movie instead of the 135 minute film that contains a set-up that takes a bit too long to get going and a conclusion that takes a bit too long to stop.

What comes in between, however, is a highly enjoyable Saturday afternoon throwback film. From the moment Dr. Keyes is brought in to Washington the second time right through to the series of explosions that restart the Earth’s core, THE CORE is a thrilling sci-fi disaster flick.