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You really don’t have to sit through The Core to know how everything is going to wind up before the closing credits begin to roll. Anyone who has watched enough Star Trek will recognize the formula where a huge ecological problem must be handled, solutions must be quick and efficient despite the lack of time and materials, and everything always succeeds in the last possible second by the narrowest of margins despite astronomical odds.

The Core delivers what it promises in that department, but painfully little else.

I Can Feel it Coming in the Air Tonight

Coolness floats Swank above the molten sulfurous core
Coolness floats Swank above the molten sulfurous core

The movie opens with a prominent businessman in Boston about to close a $30 million deal when his watch suddenly stops; a few minutes later, his heart does the same. It turns out he was wearing a pacemaker, and about 30 other people in the area with pacemakers met the same fate.

Meanwhile, in London, a huge flock of pigeons mysteriously lose their sense of direction and start dive bombing tourists in Trafalgar Square. Then the space shuttle loses its navigational controls during a routine landing and the shuttle’s copilot, Maj. Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank) has to make an emergency landing in downtown Los Angeles in a scene that has to be seen to be believed (Paramount pulled the movie’s trailers because of its similarities to the recent Columbia disaster).

In order to make sense of these weird events, the U.S. government sends agents to Dr. Joshua Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), a college professor of earth sciences, to ask for an explanation. It doesn’t take long for Keyes and a rival scientist Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci, wearing a hairpiece that even William Shatner would never touch) to figure out that the earth’s electromagnetic field is vanishing. In one year the radioactive solar winds will penetrate the atmosphere and fry every living creature on the planet. The reason: the earth’s core, a huge mass of hot molten liquid, has stopped spinning.

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before

Naturally, everyone thinks this is it for our world, but Zimsky knows of someone living in the barren Salt Flats of Utah who has developed a vehicle that uses lasers that can bore straight through solid rock using technology that could only exist in the movies.

It is at this point that the movie finally tells you to suspend your disbelief altogether. The vehicle, called “Virgil” by its creator, Dr. Edward Brazleton (Delroy Lindo), resembles a giant metal earthworm and can eject entire sections of itself to protect the remainder of the ship, should there be a hull breach.

Keyes, Childs, Zimsky, and Brazleton are assigned to the mission to correct the core problem along with pilot Col. Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and weapons specialist Sergi Leveque (Tcheky Karyo), who will help detonate the nuclear devices that will start the earth’s core to spin again (suspension of disbelief, suspension of disbelief...). A teenage hacker know as “Rat” (D.J. Qualls) is assigned to prevent any leakage of news about the mission so no panic ensues and to supply the much-needed irreverent moments.

Since very little is known about the Earth underneath its 30-mile crust, The Core uses its strongest suit, the special effects, to show an entirely fabricated world filled with diamonds the size of Cape Cod, pockets of space infested with huge crystalline forests, and giant pools of pure lava that our implausible ship can burrow through like butter. Incredibly, the movie does not linger too long on its effects, pretty as they are.

Ridiculous Plot

You really cannot blame writers Cooper Lane and John Rogers for the ridiculous plot. Just because a movie asks you to accept an outlandish plot device does not make it a bad one; Steven Spielberg has made a whole career of making us enjoy silly stories. Just let go of anything you learned in high school physics and your intelligence will not be bombarded too badly. It is director Jon Amiel who failed to make The Core entertaining enough to allow audiences to forget how ridiculous the plot is.

What Amiel did get right is to not make The Core a paint-by-numbers clone of Armageddon. Issues of personal sacrifice and executive decisions add the necessary brevity and sense of urgency to the story. Ultimately the movie’s plot twists — such as the fact that this whole core problem is the result of a military operation known as “Project Destiny,” which turns out to be a first-strike weapon (Did the U.N. Inspectors consider this when they were visiting Iraq?) — take a back seat to the movie’s Can-Our-Heroes-Survive-The-Next-Challenge story. Even the denouement involving Rat’s final computer hack comes as no surprise or payoff.

Popcorn Movie Performances

When a cast this talented is asked to make a movie like this work, you never know what kind of results you get. Even though “The Core” has its share of jokes, the biggest laughs are unintentionally due to its performances. The Biggest Overactor Award goes to Tucci, who is at first presented as the movie’s pompous ass who sees his role in the mission as a chance for intellectual and financial gain, with two lucrative book deals awaiting him when he gets back.

Lindo plays it too compassionate as the guy who has to figure out how his hastily-built contraption will survive the next scene, while Eckhart tries a little too hard to not take his role too seriously. Swank’s understated performance is by far the best, as if she’s figured out that acting cool is what will elevate her above the silliness this plot swims in, while making it appear as if she really wanted to be in this movie.

The biggest problem with The Core is that it is not bad enough to be any fun like some unintentionally bad movies are. In the hands of less talented filmmakers, it could have wound up as a cult favorite or fodder for the likes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” But since this is a real movie with real ambitions, and its only real goal is to entertain, its mediocrity is what it will be best remembered for.