The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — four from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
The sky is blue, serene, soothing. Stars skim the clouds as they gracefully descend. But then the bass rumbles and the orchestra rustles, as if recognizing the reckoning to come. The typical Paramount studio-logo perspective swoops and burrows into a towering slab of rock — diving, diving, diving to discover … an uncommonly pixelated swirl of orange goop. You know, like a 240p version of those whooshes into the body on House to reveal an episode’s mystery malady.
That’s right, friends. It’s not just another day on the Paramountain. It’s The Core, a film released in 2003 with effects ensconced in 1993, aesthetics akin to 1983 and inspiration initiated in 1973.
Folding together dogeared tropes of disaster epics and day-saving sci-fi, this tale of “terranauts” trying to restart Earth’s stalled core and save humanity could slot into many different decades. It could have hailed from Irwin Allen, the “Master of Disaster” behind 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and 1974’s The Towering Inferno. It could have piggybacked off the panic of nuclear annihilation at any point in the 1980s. It could have brought up the rear on 1990s cinema of obliteration perfected by Roland Emmerich with Independence Day and Michael Bay with Armageddon.
Instead, we received this goofy gift in 2003, at which point post-9/11 pleas for national unification had faded, visual effects had reached rigid standards of sophistication and Hollywood generally approached theoretical science with increased sense and sensibility. Even then, The Core seemed trapped by time — throwing Oscar winners and nominees, preeminent That Guy character actors, and an up-and-comer leading man together for a mission in a theoretical trillion-dollar tin can. Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, Tcheky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood, D.J. Qualls, Alfre Woodard and Richard Jenkins had done (and would do) far better work. But this assembly of all-stars generally assuages dire visual depiction — in which the ship named Virgil often resembles a gigantic suppository. It’s less Aeneid and more anus.
To say time has proven unkind to The Core’s effects supposes they were ever once acceptable. These were always mostly hopeless hail-Mary digital squiggles. What looked bad in 2003 often looks hideous on the film’s recently released 4K Blu-ray disc. (The less said of a home-theater “remaster” most generously described as rugged, the better. This drab, disengaged color palette often resembles the “You wouldn’t steal a car’ anti-piracy ad slapped on every early-2000s DVD. At least the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track brings reliable oomph.)
It’s easier to understand how The Core grossed only $74 million worldwide than how it could have possibly cost more than $100 million all in. The film’s underperformance tossed magma on the moviemaking aspirations of British journeyman director Jon Amiel — arguably the James Mangold of his day as he hopped around genres with films like the spy caper Entrapment, the somber drama Sommersby, the serial-killer thriller Copycat and the underrated comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little. He has since largely transitioned to episodic TV work. The Core also became a whipping boy for scientific authenticity in Hollywood, eventually prompting Dustin Hoffman to pair up with the United States National Academy of Sciences for an initiative to infuse more actual science into science-fiction movies. (I wonder how awkward their conversation was about Sphere.) Knocking The Core in a 2010 Guardian article, a professor named Sidney Perkowitz said: “If you violate (the coherent rules of science), you are in trouble. The Core did not make money because people understood the science was so out to lunch.”
Not wrong. And yet The Core remains a rigorously rollicking ride that cuts a significant swath of dumb-fun delight across its swift-moving 135 minutes — from a mass bird death in Trafalgar Square to a Dodger Stadium shuttle fly-by, a solar disaster on the Golden Gate Bridge, the cooking of the Colosseum, and Eckhart elevating Ed Harris’s climactic freakout in The Abyss by about 11 levels of loudness … and unintentional hilarity.
You know Eckhart’s Josh Keyes is the “cool” professor from his frizzy hair and frazzled couture. Specializing in geomagnetism, Keyes is conscripted by Lt. Gen. Purcell (Jenkins) for an urgent analysis alongside longtime pal and nuclear weapons specialist Serge Leveque (Karyo). Arriving in a hangar full of dead bodies, Keyes asks if they’ve been brought to the wrong place. “If you were in the wrong place,” Purcell tells the two scientists, “you’d have already been shot.”
These people’s pacemakers petered out at the same time. Purcell wonders: Has a geopolitical enemy perfected an electromagnetic pulse weapon to target people for assassination? That is not the case, but Keyes and Leveque eventually surmise something more sinister: Earth’s electromagnetic field is on the fritz. To paraphrase Keyes’ quick and dirty scientific explanation: Hot metal moving fast in Earth’s core makes an electromagnetic field. But the core that powers that field has stopped spinning. That means all the protection it affords us from superstorms, electronic failure and solar radiation will disappear. For visual learners, Keyes torches a peach.
Unsurprisingly, this is a patently absurd inversion of actual science. Earth’s atmosphere wouldn’t disappear in a year in this scenario. Even if it did, it would happen universally and not through holes like that appearing over the Golden Gate Bridge to send it into the San Francisco Bay (amusingly melting the bridge first and not the cars on it). And frankly, the stoppage of Earth’s core is no big deal. It probably paused around the time Allen shopped his own disaster dramas. And it just happened again. The core won’t stop spinning as long as Earth revolves around the sun. That it may reverse, as predicted now, is also not perceived as a problem. Scientists theorize the worst that could happen is that our day will lengthen by a millisecond at most.
Ah, but that’s no fun, right? No! But saving the human race by hurtling through rock seems hopeless, doesn’t it? “Space is easy!,” Josh shouts in a seeming jab at Armageddon. “It’s empty!” Of the planet’s core, he screams, “We just can’t get there!” (Eckhart delivers nearly all his dialogue with the inferred exclamation point.) “Yes,” interjects the Carl Sagan-ish rock-star researcher Conrad Zimsky (Tucci). “But what if we could?”
Enter Edward Brazzelton (Lindo), an estranged, and quite aggrieved, former colleague to Zimsky. He’s now holed up in the desert with his ultrasonic lasers (which could blast holes in the planet’s crust and mantle) and wild designs for Virgil, a ship built from “unobtainium” that can convert heat and pressure to energy that makes the craft stronger as it burrows. Given all the money he needs to build it in months, Brazzelton gets to work alongside Keyes, Zimsky and Leveque. (No, James Cameron didn’t steal Avatar terminology from The Core; “unobtainium” has been a sci-fi colloquialism for decades.)
Throw in rule-breaking NASA astronauts Beck Childs (Swank) and Bob Iverson (Greenwood), and you’ve got your Virgil crew — tasked to deploy a series of multi-megaton detonations to restart the core with a “gentle nudge.” Sprinkle in Talma Stickley (Woodard) to keep a game or grim face behind mission control monitors. Oh, and what about those pesky internet rumors that could foment panic? Enter Theodore “Rat” Finch (Qualls), a criminal who will get a full pardon if he can “hack the planet” by controlling the flow of online information. (Bless editor Terry Rawlings for cutting straight to Tucci’s toupéed and troubled head when Qualls mentions the “sexual fantasies” he could learn about people if left to his own devices.)
Naturally, Purcell and Zimsky know more about why Earth’s core may have stopped turning than they’re sharing with the others. Inevitably, Rat will conspire to crack the covert information and communicate what he finds to the crew of the Virgil through, uh, several thousand miles of solid rock. And screenwriters Cooper Layne and John Rogers will mercilessly apply Murphy’s Law to this mission; you know Virgil’s automation to seal off and jettison a breached compartment will crush at least one person.
Almost every five minutes, these terranauts encounter a new, likely fatal and deeply implausible wrinkle — such lava monsoons, Cape Cod-sized diamond fields or debilitating amethyst stalagmites. (Rogers’ rigorous apologia asserts that, in his revisions, he removed the discovery of dinosaurs down there, too.) Along with Layne, he still drops reams of expository egghead dialogue to address all these problems, quickly exceeding the already-wide theoretical latitude but in ways that remain exciting in their deeply erratic exaggeration. Just because no suit could really survive a 9,000-degree environment for a few minutes doesn’t mean The Core shouldn’t try it! Plus, nearly everyone gets a mammoth freakout (especially A-plus aggro from the Tooch), a calamitous comedy of errors comes from calculating correct vectors for the explosions and, as befits a film filled with so many pros, there’s a real “we are all made of stars” energy brewing.
Paired with gee-whiz optimism, that is the build-the-ship-as-it’s-plummeting charm of The Core. And while there is considerably deeper nuance to its storytelling and impressive, immersive detail to its special effects, the oh-shit tension of the great Apple TV+ series For All Mankind is cut from a similar cloth. The Core is a movie out of time from its inception, but it still turns as it always has — in ways that are always silly, stupid and slapdash but also sleekly watchable.