Monday, March 30, 2009

The Core 2006

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR. 30 - This originally posted on, 2/26/06.

2005 was a bad year for the film industry, perhaps a mortal one. American box office sales have dropped nine percent in twelve months. Teenagers, seduced by portable gaming and cell phones and their own budding physiques, are finding less and less time for the rituals of the silver screen. Adults, beset by teenagers playing video games and talking on phones and having sex in their theaters, are staying away from the movies in droves. Barring some sort of self-referential Hollywood comeback, the cinema of the early aughties - "Scooby Doo" and "Analyze That" and "Freddy Vs. Jason" - will be remembered as the swan songs of the Talkies Era.

2003's "The Core" holds an extra distinction, being the first film after 9/11 to resume pummeling American cities (although Manhattan and DC are tenderly left offscreen). Its story reflects the fragile state of the union in the early days of this century; spurred by a rash of baffling magnetic mishaps, scientists discover that the core of the Earth has stopped rotating. Inertia below means death from above; soon, the planet will shed its electromagnetic skin, leaving humanity to roast by microwave. Against a backdrop of ominous skies and smited national monuments, The U.S. government commissions a $15 billion laser-drilling super-subway named The Virgil, capable of leading the team of "terranauts" down into the world's bowels to shock the core back into motion with a boiler room full of atomic weapons. Time is running out!

This film was not loved. Blasted by critics, sniffed at by the American public, little gratitude was shown for the saving of all humanity. Reviewers railed against The Core's dopey implausibility without noting the script's nods to a half century of disparate pop culture ("Journey To The Center Of the Earth", "Das Boot", "Silver Streak", the opening salvo of "Soul Train"), or its status as a time capsule of the best of American stagecraft in 2003. We may never see Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Alfre Woodard, Stanley Tucci, and Delroy Lindo on the same screen again. Tongues wagged at Eckhart's Bushlike mangling of "nuclear", but stayed strangely silent at Stanley Tucci's delicious enunciation of "cook" (a precise homage to Delbert Grady of "The Shining") that redeemed a matinee admission. The old boot of Delroy Lindo's face was worth four regular admissions, plus drinks and Twizzlers and a clean men's room. Lindo is one of those rare actors who can play amoral thug or doddering, lovable scientist with equal ease; he automatically justifies the existence of any film he touches.

Not that there weren't flaws. Obviously, this film needed Jeremy Piven as a penny-pinching Government Accountability Office bureaucrat sent along to make sure the mission didn't run a dollar over budget. But where was the Thug Life? Where was Ice-T as the streetwise theology expert brought along to steer the craft clear of Hell? If audiences could stomach the cornball tokenism of Lindo's martyrdom, we certainly could've handled Mekhi Phifer or Terry Crews or a digitally resurrected Tupac as an escaped rapist stowaway. And while we're discussing raw Hollywood racism, why was Alfre Woodard kept on the Earth's surface and out of Aaron Eckhart's arms? Is it so much to ask that these two share an explicit interracial sex scene, available in its entirety only on specially stickered DVDs?

If anything, the producers weren't garish enough. Or thorough enough. Except for the fact that there is a planet called Earth which does indeed possess a core, the film has apparently gotten every single bit of its physics wrong. Internet cranks tell us that the discharged kinetic energy of a stalled core would be enough to vaporize all the Earth's oceans tenfold. This should have been in the film. It seems strange that Paramount would drop tens of millions of dollars only to balk at a few meager minutes of CGI fun. A screenwriter named John Rogers has since made public hints of backstage battles between visionaries and 'suits', alluding to his own fight to keep the physics real, to keep a windshield off the Virgil and dinosaurs out of the inner earth.

But dinosaurs are exactly what this film lacked, along with demon dogs and oompa loompas and giant neon mushrooms and vast subterranean lakes of screaming maggots. Realism is what we grapple with every morning in the bathroom mirror; it has no place in cinema. There should have been savage, elaborately choreographed violence in jeweled underground cities, uncomfortable stretches of full-frontal nudity, an Agatha Christie-style murder subplot aboard the cramped compartments of the moleship. A few musical numbers wouldn't have killed anybody, perhaps sung by passing upside-down volcanoes, or the lonely Virgil itself. Again; Thug Life needed. Where was the voice of Ja Rule in all of this?

And for a film burdened with such unbridled confidence in American ingenuity, the producers showed a startling lack of belief in their own franchise. Lesser films have left their spoor in our nation's landfills for eons to come, so why no The Core acrylic figurines and plush dolls and Happy Meal surprises? 2005 should have been the summer of Core II The Return. It is no stretch to picture the Virgil riding on, Mystery-Machine style, dispatched to save the world from future threats. Maybe the crust is coming loose, or clumps of mantle are bubbling up through New Jersey sewer grates. Perhaps a rival Chinese terranaut crew must be battled deep within the Earth with H-bomb cannons, I don't know, it's not my job to figure these things out.

Then there's the issue of timing. Released in theaters one week after the invasion of Iraq, the script's economics already seem quaint. $15 billion to save an entire planet has the flinty ring of pre-war prices. We blow fifteen big ones every twelve weeks in Baghdad. Surely a few more after-school programs and farm subsidies could have been sacrificed for the integrity of our magnetosphere.