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(2003) (Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi: A small team of scientists and astronauts travel to the center of the Earth to restart its non-spinning core and thus save the world from destruction.
Dr. Josh Keyes (AARON ECKHART) is a university professor who's been asked by General Thomas Purcell (RICHARD JENKINS) to investigate the simultaneous deaths of 32 people in a ten-block radius. He and old friend Dr. Serge Leveque (TCHEKY KARYO) figure out is has something to do with the Earth's electromagnetic field having gone awry, a theory confirmed by egotistical scientist Dr. Conrad Zimsky (STANLEY TUCCI).

They're soon presenting a worst case scenario to the Pentagon where they outline global Armageddon due to the Earth's core - that creates its electromagnetic field - having suddenly and mysteriously stopped spinning. Keyes predicts they have three months before things get really bad and maybe a year before unshielded solar rays fry all life on Earth.

Due to the depth of the core, he sees no way of remedying the situation. Zimsky, however, has an idea and soon everyone travels to the salt flats of Utah where they meet the eccentric and reclusive Dr. Ed "Braz" Brazzleton (DELROY LINDO). He's devised a way to travel to the center of the Earth via a specialized ship that uses ultrasonic waves to cut through rock.

After several months of making the ship a reality, Keyes, Serge, Zimsky and Braz are joined by NASA shuttle astronauts Major Rebecca "Beck" Childs (HILARY SWANK) and Colonel Robert Iverson (BRUCE GREENWOOD) and enter the Earth.

Under the watchful eye of NASA Control Chief Talma "Stick" Stickley (ALFRE WOODARD) and guaranteed trip anonymity by computer hacker Taz "Rat" Finch (D.J. QUALLS), the crew sets on a journey into the unknown where they hope to reach the core and restart it with a series of nuclear explosions, all before time runs out for them and the world.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Once upon a time, nuclear bombs were considered horrible weapons of mass destruction. They still are, of course, in reality. In the movies, however, they've suddenly become our saviors. Perhaps it all started with the secondary title part of "Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," but whatever the case, nukes are now our cinematic friends. After all, they saved the day in "Armageddon," and are now called upon to do the same in "The Core."

Rather than a menacingly huge asteroid from outer space, though, the threat this time comes from within. For reasons that are too easy to figure out and/or predict, the Earth's core has stopped spinning - who knew it spun in the first place - and the resultant and protective electromagnetic field is damaged. If the core doesn't receive a massive jump-start, the Earth is doomed. Don't you just hate it when that happens?

Rather than call AAA, however, the U.S. government sends in the usual varied array of heroes to solve the problem and save mankind. That's when everything falls apart, at least from a movie standpoint. Up until then, director Jon Amiel ("Entrapment," "Copycat") and screenwriters Cooper Layne (making his debut) and John Rogers ("American Outlaws") deliver a decently engaging doomsday scenario that piques our interest.

That includes an effectively taut space shuttle crash sequence that may hit too close to home for some viewers in light of the recent NASA tragedy. Once that's over, the unlikely heroic crew is assembled and the journey to the center of the Earth is begun, however, the film begins to come apart at the seams and then some.

Any sort of sci-fi flick obviously need some degree of suspension of disbelief to work - as that's the nature of the beast - but this one requires too much and then keep pushing that envelope until it bursts. Part of that stems from the contemporary setting on Earth needing more S.O.D. - particularly when dealing with something along the scale of this blockbuster wannabe - than if the story was set in the future or on another world.

The rest is from the filmmakers not making the effort to cover their tracks and make the effort believable within its own parameters. While I understand that the film is only trying to be a grandiose but diversionary popcorn thriller, it simply has too many gaping plot holes, easy remedies to introduced complications and serious lapses in logic and/or credibility. Accordingly, one is unable to turn off their mind and enjoy what's offered due to all of the problems.

For instance, how can the crew communicate - via live audio - back to the surface through thousands of miles of rock and magma? Then again, who in the world assembled this crew and why aren't they crushed by the intense pressure when they exit their protective ship (Answers: A Hollywood casting agent, and "just because" respectively). There are scores of other such questions, but the film either ignores or answers them with trite and/or unbelievable explanations.

Beyond that and some occasionally fake looking special effects (particularly the destruction of buildings, etc. that don't have that "Independence Day" high-tech appearance), Amiel's direction is lacking. Granted, there are only so many ways to show an "Earth-ship" boring toward the center, but the film seriously lacks a much-needed sense of urgency either in whole or during specific "perilous" moments.

I kept hoping and waiting for a similar reaction to what I felt in "Apollo 13," "Aliens" or even "The Abyss," but it never occurs, at least not on the grand scale. Some of the smaller moments occasionally work and elicit that sense of dread, but not enough to give the overall effort the feel of overwhelming and pending doom it so desperately needs.

The haphazard momentum - particularly at the end - and growing melodrama and hokeyness don't help matters. Nor does the cast, despite a decent if eclectic array of performers called to duty. Purposeful or not, the collection has that old-fashioned disaster movie feel. Accordingly, the performances are pretty much rote for that.

Aaron Eckhart ("Possession," "Erin Brockovich"), Tcheky Karyo ("The Good Thief," "The Patriot"), Stanley Tucci ("Maid in Manhattan," "Road to Perdition"), Delroy Lindo ("The One," "The Last Castle"), Hilary Swank ("Insomnia," "Boys Don't Cry") and Bruce Greenwood ("Below," "Swept Away") play the members of the team. While okay, none is particularly remarkable or memorable. Richard Jenkins ("Stealing Harvard," "Changing Lanes"), Alfre Woodard ("K-PAX," "What's Cooking?") and D.J. Qualls ("The New Guy," "Road Trip") embody the topside characters, but are pretty much wasted in their sparsely drawn roles.

Similar to Jules Verne's classic tale in terms of destination only, the film has its moments, but becomes so ludicrous and unrealistic that it ends up making "Armageddon" seem like scientific accuracy and believability in comparison.

With a different director, some script surgery and if not for the plot problems, inconsistent and/or ham-fisted direction, bad special effects and inability to make us believe what's happening or care about the characters, this could have been a fun if hokey diversion. Alas, that's not the case. As it stands, "The Core" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 10, 2003 / Posted March 28, 2003

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