I admit I like well-done disaster movies, though like effective or inventive horror films they are rare. The genre is the junk food of cinema – tasty at times but you have to limit your intake if you want to stay fit and healthy. Disaster flicks go back all the way to the silent era, and two of the best were from the 1930s: 1936’s San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and 1937’s The Hurricane, directed by John Ford. Neither could win a Special Effects Oscar, since that category wasn’t added until 1939, but San Francisco got 6 nominations and won for Sound Editing, and The Hurricane got 3 noms, also winning for Sound. The 1970s were the heyday of the genre, with The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, etc, but by the end of the decade their box office had fizzled. Movies like The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and When Time Ran Out (all produced by disaster-master Irwin Allen) were nails the genre’s coffin. But like zombies, the genre keeps coming back. Last year’s Into The Storm and this summer’s release, San Andreas, are the latest to keep it alive.
Often the premise of the impending disaster is repeated in multiple movies – sometimes in the same year. We’ve had dueling volcano (Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano) and killer asteroid (Armageddon vs. Deep Impact) pictures in the past. Occasionally, though, there can be an original – if hardly credible – idea that is done decently enough that you suspend your disbelief for two-plus hours and just enjoy the ride. It may even become the chocolate bar you enjoy when no one’s looking, even when you eat healthily the rest of the time. For me, that guilty pleasure is 2003’s The Core.
Let me grant from the outset that the premise is completely ludicrous: the core of the earth has stopped spinning, causing a breakdown of the electromagnetic field that leads to all manner of catastrophic events, and a team must travel to the center of the earth and use nuclear weapons to jumpstart the planet. It’s not quite as bad a premise as 2012’s overcooked continents, but it’s close. What separates The Core from schlock like 2012 is a good director, an unusually fine cast, a script that manages some wit and surprises, and decent special effects.
The movie was directed by Jon Amiel, who graduated from Cambridge and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He directed the classic “The Singing Detective” for the BBC, and did several good movies in the 1990s, among them Sommersby with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, and Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since The Core he’s mostly worked in TV, with recent work on “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” and “Once Upon a Time.”
In the opening scene, he focuses on a hotshot businessman about to earn millions on a deal. The man’s expensive watch stops just before he enters the meeting, but he doesn’t think much of it. In the meeting, the businessman leads his team to the head of the glass conference table – then collapses on it, dead. Sounds of alarms filter into the room from outside, and the camera pans out the window to a fair in a square and the surrounding streets where other people have fallen dead at the same time. It’s one of the more effective opening sequences for a disaster flick.
The cast for the movie is not the usual suspects – no Bruce Willis or, for an earlier generation, Charleton Heston. Instead the cast is heavy with Oscar and Golden Globe winners and nominees who usually work in independent films. The main roles are played by Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Tcheky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood and Richard Jenkins. Among them they have 2 Academy Award wins plus 3 nominations, and 5 Golden Globe wins plus 5 nominations.
The disaster scenes are unusual and decently done. Along with the opening scene, you have two other set pieces early in the film. One features birds going amok in Trafalgar Square, and while it’s not the equal of Alfred Hitchcock’s attack on Bodega Bay, it’s effective. Part of the action is shot through the viewfinder of a video camera that’s been dropped during the mayhem. The other sequence is better, with the Space Shuttle having to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The filmmakers do move Dodger Stadium from Chavez Ravine in East LA to somewhere around Long Beach for the sake of a shot of the shuttle buzzing over the stadium. It would have made more sense geographically to use Angel Stadium, but The Core was produced by Paramount, and at that time the Angels were owned by the Walt Disney Company. Such is life in Hollywood. Later in the movie they do meet a major criteria for disaster films and destroy the Golden Gate Bridge, but not in the usual way. This time they melt it.
The screenplay was done by Cooper Layne and John Rogers. Layne was also a producer of the film, but his credits are thin according to IMDb. He’d acted three times, produced a documentary and The Emperor’s Club before The Core, and his only other screenwriter credit was the 2005 remake of The Fog. Rogers has more writing credits, particularly for the TNT shows “Leverage” and “The Librarians” which he also helped create, but he has a major blot on his record. He followed up The Core with the horrible Halle Berry Catwoman. Somehow the script for The Core turned out better than anyone had a right to expect, unless there was an awful lot of ad libbing on the set.
While still conforming to the thriller format, the movie has plenty of sly humor. You have Eckhart as Dr. Josh Keyes, Karyo as Serge Leveque, and Tucci as Dr. Conrad Zimsky, all scientists, though Tucci is one of the rock star variety. When Keyes hands him a paper where he’s outlined his evidence that life on earth will end in a year, Zimsky’s first thought is he wants an autograph. When Keyes and Zimsky brief a Pentegon meeting on the threat, they give a demonstration of what will happen to the Earth when the electromagnetic field disappears – using an orange, a can of air freshener, and a lighter. Keyes drops the incinerated orange in a carafe of water and tells the group, “Feel free to throw up. I know I did.” It’s a welcome relief from the usual stoic heroism in disaster flicks.
Jenkins plays Thomas Percell, a 4-star General, while Swank and Greenwood are shuttle pilots and Woodard is a NASA mission controller. Lindo is Braz Brazzleton,a scientist who left academia to pursue creating an inner space ship. When Percell and the other scientists approach Braz, you have this exchange:
Serge Leveque: Dr. Brazzelton, when do you think the ship will be operational?
Brazzelton: When I get my fabrication methods perfected; twelve…no, ten years.
Percell: What would it take to get it done in six months?
Brazzelton: (laughing) Fifty billion dollars, I…
Percell: (deadpan face) Will you take a check?
Keyes: Why don’t you use a credit card? You get miles.
With his lanky body and unusual face, D.J. Qualls is perfect as “Rat” Finch, a hacker who’s recruited to keep any news about the Earth’s impending doom off of the internet. When Zimsky scoffs at his usefulness, Rat asks Zimsky how many languages he speaks. Zimsky says five, and Rat comes back with: “Well, I speak one…One Zero One Zero Zero. With that I could steal your money, your secrets, your sexual fantasies, your whole life. Any country, any place, anytime I want. We multitask like you breathe. I couldn’t think as slow as you if I tried.” Bam!
The Core didn’t light up the box office, and only made back about half of its production cost in its US release. You’ll likely find the DVD in the $5 bin at your local Wal-mart. The production did consult with scientists about the science of building a capsule to reach the Earth’s core, and it actually stimulated one to theorize a way for an unmanned probe to do it. He published his ideas in the prestigious journal Nature in 2003. The movie did find an audience at the University of British Columbia, near where it was filmed in Vancouver. The Earth and Ocean Science course uses it by showing the film and then having the students discuss the bad science in it.
But, if you do suspend that old disbelief, it is a bit of a fun ride.