20 Years After Its Release, The Core Is a Fascinating Disaster
If nothing else, this sci-fi flick can teach young actors how to keep a straight face no matter what.
Some of the best disaster movies make little scientific sense. Will a team of oil workers save us from certain destruction, or will a basic computer virus bring down an alien fleet that traveled across the universe? But few apocalypses test an audience’s suspension of disbelief like The Core, Jon Amiel’s wacky, illogical journey to the center of the earth.
In it, large-scale catastrophes, such as everyone with a pacemaker suddenly falling dead from an electromagnetic wave, foretell that the planet’s magnetic field is on the verge of collapse. Only the idealistic Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), a scientist at the University of Chicago, notices the origins of the cataclysm. He takes his findings to the government, where the self-absorbed celebrity scientist Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci) has a plan.
His old colleague Dr. Braz Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo) has invented a ship capable of tunneling to the earth’s core. With Major Beck Charles (Hillary Swank) and Commander Bob Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) as pilots and nuclear specialist Dr. Leveque (Tchéky Karyo) handling the tech, the trio of scientists (Keyes, Zimsky, and Braz) will travel to the core armed with nuclear missiles to restart the planet’s magnetic engine.
The Core is terrible. Fun, but terrible. It tests the patience of the logically inclined viewer, and its absurdities even wear on its star-studded, prestige ensemble. Almost everyone has at least one scene where they realize they’re in a terrible movie, and yet they plow ahead.
Lindo’s recognition of the film’s schlock happens early. When the crew arrives at his desert workshop with their humanity-saving plan, he must explain his solution. “I’m combining high-frequency pulse lasers with resonance tube ultrasonics,” he says, as he pulls a white tarp from a Gatling laser gun. “If you’ve ever seen ultrasonic waves break up a kidney stone on the Discovery Channel, it’s the same deal here.”
Lindo’s melodious, commanding voice delivers the line with such assurance that we’re forced to nod in agreement. The gun blows a hole through the side of the hill as empty as the film, the dust clears, and Lindo emerges. From then on, you sense that he knows this is a dumb movie, but he persists in delivering word salads posing as science. He imbues Braz with the aching melancholy of an overlooked genius, a principled man dedicated to his life’s work. It doesn’t matter that the words, when thrown together, have zero emotional meaning to us. Lindo understands how they hold immense power for his character.
From Braz’s genius, a ship named Virgil is built. In it, the crew descends through the earth in a cylinder, where they chart the unknown territory of the earth’s mantle. It all goes swimmingly until they crash through a void filled with obelisk crystals, ultimately colliding with one and forcing everyone to venture outside to free the vessel.
Up to this point, Greenwood has played the sage teacher. “Because you’re so damn good, you haven’t hit anything you couldn’t beat. I mean, hell, you were the one who figured out how to save the space shuttle,” he tells Beck. “You’re used to winning... and you’re not really a leader until you’ve lost.” Swank takes this dialogue in stride, but there must have been a moment where she felt the dissonance of a man telling a woman that they’re not equipped to lead because they’re too good at their job.
This lesson soon becomes practical, as a falling shard of rock descends from the ceiling and skewers Greenwood’s head. A wisp of blood stains his forehead, and a look of confused shock covers his face. As Greenwood allows his limp body to fall into the sea of lava, he knows this is a silly movie death. He still sells it. An expression of grief shakes from his brow, and he blinks away his despair as he hits the fiery sea like a plank. His crew is left to mourn, but he’s in a better place, one far away from this film.
The same can be said for Karyo, whose Leveque is our lighthearted foreign buddy. When he’s slowly crushed to death, it’s meant as a heartbreaking moment for his friend Keyes, and a learning opportunity for Beck, who must make the difficult decision to sacrifice Leveque for fear of losing the entire crew. But the scene, where Eckhart watches Karyo’s death on a monitor as the Frenchman slowly disappears from view, stretches on for so long that it becomes laughable. You picture Karyo checking his watch, wondering when he could die already. Nevertheless, he delivers.
As Zimsky, Tucci knows The Core is rotten. When the strategy to explode nukes is revealed to be useless, Keyes suggests a slap-dashed Plan C. “You’re a bunch of suicidal morons! What are you, crazy?” Tucci screams, like his brain can barely compute the lines he’s reading. When he puts quotation marks around the words “restart the core, somehow,” you wonder if this is his breaking point.
Eckhart looks bemused during Tucci’s exasperated torrent, but you never get the sense that he knows he’s in a bad movie. Maybe, as the lead in a big-budget extravaganza, he knows how not to let it show, but Eckhart remains steady even when the material shouldn’t allow it. Amid all the absurdity, he and Swank build an enjoyable rapport. They don’t have steamy hook-up chemistry, but in a script that barely bothers to put them in the same scenes together, that feels like a win.
Watching this drek, it’s easy to forget that outlandish, big-budget disaster flicks were hot. Volcano, Deep Impact, The Perfect Storm... weirder premises had succeeded. So it’s understandable that all these talented actors ended up on The Core, even if they came to regret it. Screenwriter John Rogers pushed back against criticism, citing the deep research he put into the science. Maybe it’s a compliment that all of these actors read the screenplay, envisioned their characters within this far-fetched reality, and still decided to sign on.
And so while you can and should call The Core terrible, you can’t accuse anyone of phoning it in. Everyone fleshes out their characters and delivers stronger emotions than this film deserves. Their professionalism should be commended, and The Core should be required viewing for every young actor. It’s a master class in making the most out of what you’ve got, even if what you’ve got doesn’t make a lick of sense.