Core blimey!

Though its premise seems to be Armageddon in reverse – the planet’s would-be saviours must burrow right into the Earth to prevent apocalypse – The Core harks back to a much earlier end-of-the-world disaster-thon: 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Because rather than freakish galactic bad luck, the blame for our perils lies squarely at the feet of mankind itself, or at least those hawkish factions who used to be called the Military-Industrial Complex. Fearing that America’s (unspecified) enemies are developing some kind of mega-weapon designed to trigger cataclysmic earthquakes on US territory, Uncle Sam’s boffins come up with an identical device in accordance with the old Reaganite principle of Mutually Assured Destruction.

Nobody seems sure whether this key McGuffin project is spelled Destiny or Destini. But, needless to say, testing the seismic uber-whatsit has unfortunate repercussions. The molten iron goo around the Earth’s core stops revolving, threatening the planet’s protective electromagnetic shield. The ensuing, photogenic mishaps range from pigeons going crazy in Trafalgar Square to the burning of Rome and the melting of (one-time supposed Al-Qaeda target) the Golden Gate Bridge in what is pointedly described as “the most devastasting and baffling event in our nation’s history.” The only solution is to detonate nuclear devices around the core itself — weapons of mass destruction will save the planet!. But getting down there poses some apparently insurmountable problems…

At this point The Core turns into Fantastic Voyage (1966), with a plucky crew hurtling through the Earth’s mantle of glowing golden glop in Virgil, a near-indestructible vessel that looks and acts like a giant drill-bit. On board: youthful astronaut and ace navigator Childs (Hilary Swank), her commanding-officer Iverson (Bruce Greenwood), feuding academics Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) and Zimsky (Stanley Tucci), token foreigner Sergei (Tcheky Karyo) and the ship’s inventor Brazleton (Delroy Lindo). Meanwhile in Houston, NASA project-supervisor Stick (Alfre Woodard) gnaws her manicured nails.

“What if the core was made of cheese?” the imperious Zimsky sarcastically asks at one point when his expertise is questioned — but as for the movie, there’s no “what if” about it. This is 100 percent sci-fi gorgonzola from start to finish – then again, there’s nothing wrong with a little fromage every now and again, especially if it’s served in such an undemanding and digestible form. Just as Childs narrowly negotiates the Virgil through all manner of obstacles, Amiel likewise skilfully steers The Core down a tricky middle course between the ever-looming twin hazards of camp (Evolution) and pomp (Armageddon; Deep Impact).

The slumming cast keep commendably deadpan faces as they deliver the slabs of jargon-loaded exposition that pad out Cooper Layne and John Rogers’ script – each major plot-point of which is even more ludicrous than the last (we’re informed that Virgil is made of a miracle substance informally known as ‘Unobtainium’, though ‘Unbelievium’ would be much closer to the mark.) While entertaining enough, the shameless and relentlessly escalating absurdities prevent any proper build-up of tension, as does the script’s slavish adherence to established genre rules.

The characters are picked off one-by-one in strict billing order, while the fact that we’re always aware the real problem is going to be getting the Virgil out of the core rather than in removes any doubt about the success of the mission itself.

But even at a patience-stretching 103 minutes, The Core is never boring – if nothing else, it’s always good to see the finger of blame pointed so squarely at the US military and their co-opted scientists, with a distinctly seventies eco-vibe detectable throughout.

“We killed the planet!” someone yelps. A school of friendly whales even crops up at a couple of crucial junctures, setting up a final scene in which Eckhart’s idealistic Keyes (who, despite his muscles, is no cousin of Bruce Willis’s mercenary Armageddon drillers) explicitly rejects the temptation of a well-paid NASA job in order to stay with his (inattentive) students. Today’s lesson: the victory of ‘pure’ academia over the bastardised, corrupted form represented by the egomaniacal Zimsky.

Because, despite the surface chaos of its cobbled-together plot, The Core‘s ideological subtext holds together surprisingly well – which is partly why it’s preferable to Eckharts last turn as an unkempt prof, Neil Labute’s relatively po-faced A.S. Byatt adaptation Possession. The gleefully implausible Core has none of that movie’s highbrow pretensions — despite all the scientific gobbledygook, the film adheres to the long-standing principle that films about hyper-intelligent people are invariably extremely dumb themselves. Here, that means endless on-screen captions telling us exactly whats going on, and when, and where though there’s never any real doubt that we’re always slap bang in the middle of prime, camembert-flavoured Unbelievium.

Neil Young

24th March, 2003
(seen same day, Odeon Gate, Newcastle)

THE CORE : 5/10 : USA 2003 : Jon AMIEL : 103 mins (approx)