Faster, Faster! Deeper, Deeper!

The Core is a joyous movie about the Earth exploding.

The Core's catharsis: disaster never felt so good
The Core’s catharsis: disaster never felt so good

In The Core (Paramount), a space shuttle on its return trip to Earth goes horrifyingly off course and plummets toward a major metropolis. One of the country’s most beloved landmarks melts, killing hundreds, and half the city beyond it gets leveled by fire. In another part of the world, destruction rains down on a 2,000-year-old archeological wonder. Ultimately, scientists must sacrifice their lives, one by one, to keep the world turning. You would think, given the events of the last few months and our sense of impending catastrophe, that watching The Core would be traumatic, depressing, maddening. I think it’s the feel-good movie of the year.

It buoyed me not because it’s especially well-done (it’s OK—it could be a lot worse), but for the same reason that the Japanese liked watching Godzilla incinerate large sections of their island while the radioactive dust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still settling: as therapy. Here’s the scariest stuff in the world organized according to the age-old rules of melodrama, complete with cartoony special effects. Here’s a chance to empathize not just with the guy who has the bad fortune to be on the bridge as it collapses (i.e., the guy that most of us would be), but with the genius scientists and stalwart astronauts who pilot their super vessel (here a giant phallic drill made of something called “unobtainium” and nicknamed “Virgil”) into Mother Earth. In the great tradition of Armageddon (1998), The Core spells out the American resolve in the face of disaster: Drill That Bitch.

The Core begins unnervingly, eerily, with a yuppie pitching for a $30 million account and then pitching forward, face-down on a glass table. Some kind of electromagnetic pulse has stopped his heart—and the hearts of other people in the vicinity. Pigeons go nuts in Trafalgar Square. The space shuttle loses its bearings. Brilliant, disheveled dreamboat professor Aaron Eckhart gets a weird hunch about all these electromagnetic mishaps, then orders his graduate students to search the Internet for similar incidents and to plot some kind of model. To make them go faster he says, “I’ll sign your doctorates blindfolded”—which should tell you what’s at stake. He scans the data and murmurs to himself, “Be wrong. Be wrong.”

I’m sorry, I just love this stuff. I love the convincing-the-military-that-the-world-is-about-to-end stuff, and I love the assembling-the-eccentric-but-crack-team stuff even more. Eckhart, momentarily sprung from the virulent universe of Neil LaBute, makes a great sci-fi lead, spitting out the gobbledygook like he knows what he’s talking about and finding the right balance of arrogance and humility. Complimented on his bravery, he says, “Lack of oxygen kept me from weeping like a little girl, as is my custom in dangerous situations”—and he doesn’t seem glib, just honest. Tchéky Karyo, my new favorite unshaven French actor (you can see him next week in The Good Thief, Neil Jordan’s fun remake of Bob le Flambeur [1955]), plays an endearing French researcher called Sergei, and Stanley Tucci is a hoot as a plummy-voiced prima donna celebrity-scientist who might have inadvertently caused the whole core mess in the first place. Will he remain a sniveling coward or rise to the occasion like a true American?

As Tucci’s sometime rival, Delroy Lindo stops the show as the wild-eyed visionary who created unobtainium, which turns mineral into liquid in milliseconds and thereby makes it feasible to rocket hundreds of miles through solid rock and drop nukes into the earth’s core. Pinocchio-nosed DJ Qualls is a teenage hacker brought in to keep Kaus, Reynolds, and other bloggers from getting wind of the planet’s imminent demise. Bruce Greenwood is the square-jawed shuttle commander, and Hilary Swank is another astrbasg6fsdwtu. Let’s try that again: Hilary Swank is another astrobdhefydfqfleurrrr. I can’t seem to type the last word. I can suspend my disbelief about the unobtainium, the ship shaped like a giant drill, the part about “jump-starting the planet” with a nuke—but not the part about Hilary Swank as an abanabastraut. Swank might have been so touching in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) because she was playing the part of an overactor instead of merely overacting.

Having never been more than 50 or so feet underground, I can’t say if the visual effects are realistic, but the director, Jon Amiel, could have ordered up a few more beautiful and mysterious images; the floating globs and geodes on the Virgil screen look only a couple of cybergenerations better than the arcade game “Asteroids.” Amiel did put some flair into designing the Hitchcockian pigeons-crash-Trafalgar sequence (although it goes on too long), but the lightning bolts over Rome would electrocute only cartoon people, and the budget for leveling San Francisco appears to have gone south with that city’s economy. But this is the rare disaster picture with a witty script (by Cooper Layne and John Rogers), and the members of the team that don’t make it get ends that are worthy of them. They die so that we can continue to imagine our own deaths at movies like this.

As I said, The Core is no more than an OK disaster picture, but I suspect that people will flock to it this weekend. It offers a way for us to wallow in our current anxieties without making other demands on ourselves: that we march (for or against the war), that we learn a little history, that we contemplate a new world disorder that can’t be straightened out with lots of money and a big drill. The movie opens with the camera seeming to plunge into the mountain of the Paramount logo, and that’s about the most comforting place I can think of right now.