Hollow 'Core'

Sci-fi disaster film throws a likable cast into the mix, but it goes down, down, down from there.

Movie Reviews

March 28, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It's unfortunate that the makers of The Core follow the apocalyptic-disaster movie formula so mechanically that they kill off key members of the cast. The ensemble they've assembled for the crew of the underground spaceship called the Virgil would make a crackerjack team for a TV series spinoff called The Terranauts.

After watching the movie, just listing them can make you smile: Bruce Greenwood and Hilary Swank as a cool NASA skipper and his resourceful navigator (she coins the word "terranaut"). Aaron Eckhart as a lighthearted geophysicist - he's a hip, grown-up Tom Swift - and Tcheky Karyo as his friend, a genially paternal weapons expert. Delroy Lindo as the obsessive inventor who designs the ship, and Stanley Tucci as his longtime antagonist, a slimy scientific careerist.

Whether in these match-ups, or individually, or as part of the whole group, all these folks bring something enjoyable or appealing to what starts out as an end-of-the-world party. So does DJ Qualls as a computer geek back in mission control, addicted to Hot Pockets and Xena videos.

The infectious fun of the first half lies in its breezy approach to rack and ruin, as Eckhart figures out that the constantly moving, super-hot liquid at the Earth's core has stalled in its rotation around the solid center, causing the Earth's electromagnetic field to deteriorate. This process leads to pacemakers collapsing in Boston and, in the one tingling sci-fi scene, birds slamming en masse into the statuary of London's Trafalgar Square. By the time Eckhart experiences his eureka moment, the Earth has only months before static discharge in the atmosphere will create monster lightning storms (think of what local news channels could do with them) and solar radiation will cook the planet.

The team is so gung-ho about assembling a new Manhattan Project to fend off Armageddon that an audience accepts how cunningly the moviemakers have pushed even surface plausibility underground. Forget the far-fetched science: We must take on faith that the world's governments can control the mass paranoia and anarchy that would result from even this film's opening crises. In any case, discord never permeates the sphere of the terranauts, who believe they can function only if they think of saving the people they know, not the entire human race.

If this genial form of dramatic sanitation keeps the script safe for entertainment, it also puts extra pressure on the filmmakers when constructing their own vehicle for generating suspense. Unlike their characters (and actors), they fall on the job. As the Virgil plunges to the center of the Earth in hopes of shaking the liquid back to life with a series of nuclear jolts, the movie devolves into twin obstacle courses. There's a physical one, as the ship snakes its way around giant diamonds and quartz crystals; and there's an emotional one, as the team endures a succession of sacrifices and self-sacrifices. You can see the big plot-and-character revelation coming several thousand miles away.

The director, Jon Amiel, keeps the actors in the game as long as he can. And the writers, Cooper Layne and John Rogers, maintain a decent level of stiff-upper-lip banter and schtick. Just when you get weary of Tucci's trademark twisted-mouth expressions of snobbery and disdain, he requests to smoke a cigarette - and holds it in a hilariously affected Continental manner.

But there's a perilous letdown in imagery the closer they get to the core. Lava in a trickle makes for sure-fire screen terror, but wall-to-wall lava seen without a born moviemaker's eye turns out to be boring. Despite the goodwill mustered by the cast, the audience leaves regretting lost opportunities.

The real obstacle here is a lack of filmmaking imagination.

The Core

Starring Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo

Directed by Jon Amiel

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

Time 135 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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