In the hit Armageddon, our planet -- big mother, source of life and self -- is threatened by Ben Affleck and other calamitous horrors, with the movie commanding attention through fear. The converse now arrives in The Core, wherein the mama herself goes terminally nasty on the inside due to the careless meddling of her more obnoxious children. The crux -- that her molten core has stopped spinning, spelling short-order electromagnetic doomsday up top -- is quite absurd but doesn't hamper enjoyment of the movie on the goofy sci-fi level at which it most confidently plays.
We open with the comforting image of a high-stakes yuppie executive dropping stone dead at a board meeting. Much like Wheel of Fortune, the movie cheerfully encourages its viewers to feel superior to its participants, and my hand was on the buzzer with the phrase "pacemaker failure" in less than a nanosecond. Indeed, something deeply disturbing is happening around the world, causing people to drop like flies in Boston, pigeons to go bonkers in London, and aurora borealis to shimmer in places where it oughtn't. There are even rumors of Frasier finally being canceled.
Given that the government isn't as smart as I am, they summon Chicago-based geophysics professor Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) to explain the obvious regarding pacemakers, EMFs, and such. Quickly teaming with homely French atomic weapons expert Dr. Sergei "Serge" Leveque (Tcheky Karyo), Keyes then tells ego-mad celebrity scientist Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) more of the obvious, and under the furrowed brow of Gen. Purcell (Richard Jenkins), a mission is launched. Somehow, they've got to keep Earth from frying in electrical superstorms and lethal microwaves. As we all know, the best way to do this is to drive into the middle of the planet and set off a bunch of nuclear warheads.
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Only a little over a half hour in, the gang's all here. With WarGames-era Matthew Broderick now aging pudgily, we get beanpole D.J. Qualls as a master computer hacker simply called Rat (a truly authentic geek). Space Shuttle Cmdr. Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and his precocious rookie co-pilot, Maj. Rebecca "Beck" Childs (Hilary Swank), are recruited for their sensational piloting abilities, illustrated during a rollicking emergency landing. Plans of driving a Cadillac Escalade into the Earth's core are eventually scrapped when top government minds discover that the popular SUV simply won't fit. Thus, Utah-based genius Dr. Ed "Braz" Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo) is tapped for his pioneering work on a tunneling vehicle made of a new alloy called "Unobtanium" that becomes stronger the more it is compressed by heat and pressure. Add bitchin' laser beams to obliterate all within its path and this team's got the perfect ride for rush hour, the end of the world, or both.
Much like Mimi Leder's Deep Impact, The Core takes on grand-scale planetary parable and humanity's tough road of struggle and sacrifice. (As we discerned from the most moving scene in Mission to Mars, some heroes gotta die, but I'll only hint that the most boring one here goes first.) The movie also offers a mild spiritual element regarding large aquatic mammals, which may tickle fans of the fourth Star Trek movie. Mostly, however, director Jon Amiel (The Man Who Knew Too Little) and screenwriters Cooper Layne and John Rogers just want to play with Saturday matinee toys on a huge scale, the way Roland Emmerich did in Independence Day and Godzilla. Their choice to demolish Rome and San Francisco specifically -- and not, say, Hackensack and Addis Ababa -- feels arbitrary, but the disaster visuals ought to please the Irwin Allen fans out there.
Unlike the 1959 adaptation of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, there's no Pat Boone here to serenade the subterranean adventurers, but there's still a fair dose of wit on hand. Sometimes the laughs seem unintentional (as when Purcell, informed that the core has stopped spinning, earnestly pleads, "How could this have happened?"), but most giggles are properly earned, and the movie is fun and exciting if you can accept its inherent camp factor. Sadly, Swank couldn't find her funny bone with both hands -- she's here exclusively to jut her jaw in determination. But after humoring Gwyneth Paltrow's faux-English posing all the way through Possession, Eckhart's more wry and accommodating than ever, and his zingers hit their marks.
From its tagline ("The only way out is in" -- Scientology, anyone?) to its utterly absurd tunneling action (which looks like countless shots of a metallic sperm accosting a molten egg), you're not expected to take The Core seriously. It's a thrill-ride with a simple message: The more mankind tries to dominate the planet, the sooner she'll pull the plug on us. Clearly, the filmmakers understand this thesis, but it's puzzling that they take over two hours to spit it out.