The Core (2003)

D: Jon Amiel
S: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank

Oh, come on: what were you expecting? The premise of this film is that a group of American heroes travel to the centre of the earth. We're not even in the general ballpark of serious cinema here, so why even bother to complain? The Core is the kind of film which gets a lot of people hot under the collar about what is wrong with Hollywood. It is a thoroughly mindless spectacle, a jingoistic fantasy propelled by a hi-concept story and surprisingly mediocre special effects. It has a plethora of reasonably good actors who are not stretching themselves very much and it is helmed by a director who was once thought of as a distinguished artist. It is lowest common denominator filmmaking, a stroll to the bank for a group of investors which has been cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies and churned out of the standard issue screenwriting courses and pitch sessions. But, you know, if you pay to see it, you should know what you are going to get, and from its opening titles The Core delivers exactly what it promises: preposterous entertainment for a mind in neutral gear.

The earth's electromagnetic field has gone awry, and the effects are being felt in a variety of ways. First comes the stopping of watches, followed by the sudden deaths of groups of people with pacemakers. Scruffy University boffin Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich) is brought in to suspicious military type Terry O'Quinn (The Stepfather) along with French boffin Tcheky Kayro (The Good Thief) to theorise about what's going on. Once the possibility of a secret weapon has been ruled out (at least one owned by 'the other side'), the scientists are dismissed, but when further effects become evident, Eckhart comes up with a more detailed theory which forecasts the end of the world. He approaches celebrity scientist Stanley Tucci (Road to Perdition), who reluctantly concedes he may be right.

A plan is hatched to save the world by going to the centre of the earth and 'jumpstarting the planet' by detonating nuclear devices in the core ('using weapons of mass destruction to save the world', as one character points out with sincere irony). The ship is built by hermit-like scientist Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X), a former colleague of Tucci's, who, once money proves no object, manages to get it together in three months (during which the situation gets worse as massive electrical storms ravage the planet, symbolically eliminating the remnants of the Roman empire at one point while the American empire metaphorically rises to the challenge of taking over). With determined young shuttle co-pilot Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) developing her attitude to leadership (needing to learn to make the hard decisions) under the tutelage of veteran commander Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days), and you just know she's going to have to take charge sooner or later. Meanwhile computer geek DJ Qualls (Road Trip) is hired to 'hack the planet' and control the flow of information on the internet to prevent panic (talk about your moral paradoxes...), and veteran controller Alfre Woodard (Passion Fish ) tries to co-ordinate from control centre while O'Quinn hovers menacingly dropping not so subtle hints that there is more to all of this than meets the eye.

Politically outrageous, especially in the light of contemporary political developments (one scene even mentions how 'our friends' will help the US to build the expensive ship while the Israeli and Australian flags flutter in the breeze in the background), thoroughly ridiculous (most of the techno-babble is pleasingly dumbed down with colourful metaphors involving fruit, aerosols, and ripples in water), and completely devoid of even a semblance of originality, the film moves along at a good pace and makes no apologies for what it is. Less sombre and self-involved than Deep Impact, less smug than Armageddon, the film falls loosely into the category of disaster movie, though the mass destruction is notably toned down from what you would usually see (an early scene involving the troubled return to earth by the shuttle Endeavour gives pause for thought though). The script, credited to Cooper Lane and John Rogers, owes as much to the 1950s and early '60s variety of science-fantasy (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage) as to the disaster genre, cheerfully thundering away through lunacy after lunacy with not a care in the world.

There is not a lot of variety to the action all the same. One brief pause in a giant geode is about all the environmental digression that the script can come up with once the ship has launched. There is perhaps some psychoanalytic mileage to be made from a discussion of how the phallic ship makes it way through the layers of crust, magma and core like a giant sperm into a symbolic ovum, but people who find this exciting really need to get out more. The rest of the film is made up of cutting between above ground scenes of military industrial complex conspiracy (which dole out some slaps on the wrist, but basically endorse the status quo) and scenes of character drama underground. The actors seem relaxed (Tucci is very amusing in what amounts to a revision of the classic 'Dr. Smith' character from Lost in Space ), and the whole thing has a pleasantly undemanding tone to it which doesn't put much pressure on any one performer. As such the ensemble acting holds the audience's attention and the rudimentary character development is just enough to keep it going. The guessing game about which of them will die in what order is not very challenging though.

Look, The Core is errant nonsense, but it is put together with enough basic skill to provide aimless entertainment for as long as it runs. There are seriously questionable politics lurking not very far beneath its surface (no pun intended), but these too are unsurprising. It is not as self-parodic as the likes of Deep Rising, but it has some sense of humour and plenty of pace. It is fun if you let it work on you (and can lay the metaphors and symbols aside for a while), and though you won't be enriched by the experience of viewing it, you may enjoy it if you've had enough of Three Colours: Blue. This is the kind of mass-market programmer which used to entertain small fry on a Saturday afternoon, and though not as cheerfully harmless as the classics of the genre, it is what it is and should be treated with no more gravitas than it offers. Watch it, eat popcorn, question its political subtext, and forget it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.