People in Boston are suddenly collapsing in their tracks, dropping dead at exactly the same second. Pigeons in London's Trafalgar Square are flying blind, crashing into taxis and terrifying tourists. And scientists all over the world are scratching their heads, wondering what the Sam Hill is going on.
It's the core, stupid. It's definitely "The Core."
That's right, there is something going on in the center of the Earth and it's not pretty. After rotating like mad for eons and eons, the core has gotten fed up and thrown in the towel. I won't turn, don't ask me, is the tune it's singing now. Bad news for the planet, but for moviegoers, a bit of a blessing in disguise.
For although it may be the last thing director Jon Amiel intended, there is something endearing about the old-fashioned earnestness of this disaster movie, complete with flashing numbers, beaucoup scientific jargon and dollops of portentous "I think you should check this out" dialogue.
There is also, at least in the early stages, a lot of intentional humor embedded in the script by Cooper Lane and John Rogers. Although it ends up conflicting with the film's less successful attempts to be taken seriously, the sense of fun is unmistakable.
If "The Core" finally has to be classified as a mess, it is an enjoyable one if you're in a throwback mood. After all, a film that comes up with a rare metal called Unobtainium can't be dismissed out of hand.
The man who figures out what those collapsed Bostonians and confused pigeons have in common is geophysicist Dr. Josh Keyes, played by Aaron Eckhart, who apparently had so much fun playing an unconventional academic in "Possession" he's trying it one more time.
If Dr. Keyes is the scientific straight man, the droll comic relief is provided by the endlessly conceited and double-dealing Dr. Conrad Zimsky. A self-promoter given to proclaiming "Do you know who I am?" at every opportunity, Zimsky's brought to deft comic life by a clearly amused Stanley Tucci.
Along with French weapons expert Dr. Sergei Leveque (Tcheky Karyo), these scientists bring the bad news to hard-nosed Gen. Thomas Purcell (Richard Jenkins): "Everyone on Earth is dead in a year." Without the protective electromagnetic field the rotating core provides, deadly radiation will bake the planet like an Idaho potato.
What to do, what to do, what to do? Suppose a ship could briskly tunnel 2,000 miles below the surface and then detonate some persuasive nuclear weapons to convince the core to get a move on. Hey, we know it's a long shot but we've only got one planet and we don't want to lose it without a fight.
As is often the case in these films, the coming together of the crew, who cleverly call themselves terranauts, is most enjoyable. In addition to the trio of scientists, the terranauts include:
* Commander Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and his No. 2, Maj. Rebecca "Beck" Childs (Hillary Swank). She's the youngest person ever in space and the brilliant can-do navigator whose quick thinking keeps a returning shuttle flight from landing right in the middle of downtown L.A.
* Dr. Ed "Braz" Brazzelton (the always welcome Delroy Lindo), the inventor of the ship, named Virgil after the Roman poet who is Dante's guide to the underworld because "The Divine Comedy" is a must-read for the film's key demographic (just kidding).
* Rat (DJ Qualls), the world's premier computer hacker, called Mr. Rat by the always polite Gen. Purcell. Not an actual crew member, his job is to stay on the surface and "hack the planet," ensuring that no news of the potential end of the world reaches the Internet.
The closer the Virgil, which looks like a giant tapeworm crossed with one of those pens that light up in the dark, gets to the core, the more serious both its characters and the film gets, to the benefit of neither. There is soul-searching, heroic loss of life and general consternation, none of which plays to "The Core's" goofy strengths.
More enticing are the film's plethora of special effects, which have certainly improved since the last below-the-surface epic, 1959's fondly remembered "Journey to the Center of the Earth." But even that film didn't have a shot like the Golden Gate Bridge melting in a radiation bath like a Popsicle on a steamy day. Bay Area traffic won't be the same.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi life/death situations and brief strong language.
Times guidelines: Nothing unduly disturbing.
Aaron Eckhart ... Dr. Josh Keyes
Hilary Swank ...Maj. Rebecca Childs
Delroy Lindo ...Dr. Ed Brazzleton
Stanley Tucci ...Dr. Conrad Zimsky
D.J. Qualls ...Rat
Richard Jenkins ...Gen. Thomas Purcell
Tcheky Karyo ...Dr. Sergei Leveque
Bruce Greenwood ... Col. Robert Iverson
Alfre Woodard ... "Stick"
A David Foster Cooper Layne Sean Bailey production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Jon Amiel. Producers David Foster, Cooper Layne, Sean Bailey. Screenplay Cooper Lane and John Rogers. Cinematographer John Lindley. Editor Terry Rawlings. Costumes Dan Lester. Music Christopher Young. Production design Philip Harrison. Art director Sandra Tanaka. Set decorator Lin MacDonald.
In general release