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I miss sci-fi action flicks of the 50's and 60's that were somewhat naive, with simple special effects. What made them classics beyond their B-grade status was their great attention to the story and its characters. Films like Forbidden Planet or Fantastic Voyage will remain forever in our collective hearts. I mention the latter because, in some way, i consider The Core as a modern version of it, although, apparently, i may be alone. It was not as well received, and definitely looks like it won't be remembered much. The film was quite a flop in the theaters when it came out in 2003. It cost $85M to make, $30M to market, and made only $31M at the box office in the US, and not much more internationally.
How come? There are many reasons. It was a long movie, clocking at over 2 hours and 15 minutes. The cast was strange for a sci-fi action flick, comprising of A-list actors and actors not generally associated with this genre. The special effects were overall sub-par and the subject matter was quite unbelievable to the point of being laughable (2004's The Day After Tomorrow featured an equally unbelievable pseudo-scientific plot but was successful nevertheless partly because it had jaw-dropping special effects that made the outlandish story almost believable). Then, the movie, originally planned for the blockbuster summer season of 2002 got delayed and was released in March 2003, a period of the year generally not friendly to this kind of movies. And finally, it got released right after the shuttle Columbia disaster which bears a close resemblance to one of the opening scenes of the movie. Some people say it affected the marketing of the movie and some of the reception the audience gave it.
The story is fairly simple. The earth's core, made of hot magma (liquid rock), inexplicably stops spinning one day and slowly, weird things start happening as the magnetic field starts falling apart. The ozone layer starts to crumble, letting deadly sun rays enter and burn everything in their way. Birds lose their sense of direction and flock all over the place, hitting buildings en masse. Massive electrical storms suddenly appear out of nowhere and devastate entire cities, leaving ruins in their wake. A geology professor (Aaron Eckhart) figures out what's happening and warns a high-ranking government scientist (Stanley Tucci) about what he found out. Quickly, two NASA officers (Hillary Swank, a space shuttle navigator and pilot, and Bruce Greenwood, a space shuttle mission commander) and two scientists (Tcheky Karyo, a French weapon's specialist, and Delroy Lindo, a crazy scientist who conceived a ship capable of getting to the center of the earth) are brought together to form the team for a very dangerous mission: get to the center of the planet Earth and restart its core with a massive nuclear explosion. The story focuses on those 6 individuals, in a fairly small ship, making their journey to the center of the Earth to accomplish their mission and save the world.
This movie reminded me of a mix of the classic Fantastic Voyage and the 1990's blockbuster Armageddon. But whereas i felt Armageddon was all about special effects, and had little to offer in terms of human content, The Core is quite the opposite and has more in common with Fantastic Voyage. The special effects are actually not that great, ranging from frankly bad (The destruction of Rome) to acceptable (inside the core). The scientific part of the writing is every bit what you would expect from a big budget Hollywood sci-fi movie: it is mediocre and full of holes. But it gets so laughable at times that as far as i am concerned, i simply overlook that deficiency and turn on to other aspects of the film to find out if there is anything else in there that is good.
And there is, plenty. If this movie failed in all the ways possible with respect to being a blockbuster sci-fi action flick, it succeeds frankly for the pure fun of its character-driven writing and ensemble cast. They all hit the note just right. This movie is very entertaining because of the odd bag of characters it pulls together for this save-the-world mission in a fairly small space. To me, the over the top arrogant government top scientist is marvelously played by Stanley Tucci. He makes the movie with several scenes that showcase his acting talents. He is so much fun to watch and is missed in all the scenes where he is not present. Hillary Swank plays her role well, but the material definitely is below her talents. Even though she is a pivotal role in the story, her character doesn't seen to be as well rounded as the others. Delroy Lindo is wonderful as the crazy genius scientist and provides a great counter point to Tucci's arrogant flamboyance of an official personality who had to step on a few people, including Lindo, to get where he is now. Tcheky Karyo, the well respected French actor has a fun role here and seems to have a lot of fun, but overall, his character is rather minor. Finally, Aaron Eckhart, as the leader of the expedition, does a competent job here but nothing more. Throughout the movie, you get a sense of fun, that the entire cast just had a good time. This feeling permeates the entire movie, even if the story is quite cliched: some of the characters die throughout the mission, sometimes while doing heroic deeds and sacrificing themselves for the rest of the team, and you only have a few survivors at the end and the world is safe. But the writing is not pretentious and it's obvious that the makers of this film did not take the story too seriously. This gives rise to some of the funniest scenes in the movie when characters are confronted with the absurdity of their mission and react like any of us would: Huh! I was laughing hard during the "Plan C" scene when Tucci completely loses it.
On other sides, visually, the movie manages to be OK in spite of the special effects that are bad at times. The cinematography is clean and the art direction is well done. The only thing i missed was the music, which was uninspiring. Maybe that's the reason why the film is one of the few Hollywood movies to not even have a soundtrack available as a CD.
It may have been a box office failure, but this film is definitely good popcorn entertainment. It's impossible to take seriously, but it's entirely pretension-free, so it ends up being respectable and enjoyable. The cast is great with two stand-out roles for Tucci and Lindo. If you are able to put aside a film's weaknesses and focus on its strengths, then this might just be a movie for you. You can focus on the actors and the interpersonal interactions that are brought together so well by the screenplay or you can be under whelmed by the special effects and annoyed by the pseudo-scientific techno-babble that permeates most of the film, the cliches and the improbable premise. I personally really enjoy this movie, and each time i have watched it (it's been 4 times now), i have enjoyed it even more. I hope you do too.
- Laurent Hasson