23 December 2012

POST-APOCALYPSE: DEATH BY BAD SCIENCE

In truth, there's no good reason to review The Core of all movies in honor of the fact that we didn't all die a horrifying death on 21 December, 2012, but I'd already watched it, and by God, I was not going to write that off as time wasted. The one thing you don't fucking do, you don't watch The Core just for fun. Not unironic fun, anyway. Ironic fun, now that's something that the movie has in spades, especially if you got a passing grade in high school earth science, as writers Cooper Layne and John Rogers* would appear not to have done.

Being a disaster movie, The Core is more notable for how many things it borrows than how many things it invents: in this case, the general shape of the first act from 1997's Volcano (man, Volcano, there's a movie I haven't thought about in a fucking lifetime) - or the exact, specific first act from 2009's 2012, if only it had existed at the time - is welded onto the second and third acts of 1998's Armageddon. The short version - for if you wanted the long version, you'd just watch The Core, and I would then have to punch you square in the kidneys - is that the outer core of the Earth has stopped rotating, causing massive disruptions to the planet's electromagnetic field, and basically dooming everything to destruction at the hands of unfathomable storms, earthquakes, and solar radiation within the year. It is only innocent, sexless scientist Dr. John Keyes (Aaron Eckhart, who could only have headlined a movie like this during a very brief window of the early '00s) who knows this, but when he shares it with venal celebrity scientist Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci), they're able to bring it to the attention of the U.S. government, which then foots the bill for a journey to the center of the Earth, in an experimental craft built by Zimsky's greatest rival, Dr. Ed Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo), manufactured out of a synthetic heatproof metal called Unobtanium. The mission, involving all three scientists and others, is lead by astronaut Cmdr. Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and his hotshot protegé Rebecca "Beck" Childs (Hilary Swank), who recently was involved in a bravura attempt to land an out-of-control space shuttle in a dry Los Angeles river.

The Core is a magical film: it never runs out of new and delightful ways to be completely inane. The science is, of course, the worst part of it - even spotting the writers their magic metal, there's barely a single story point that holds up to even the smallest degree of scrutiny. Everything from plate tectonics to cetacean biology is conspicuously messed up, and of course the central premise is asinine in ways that can barely be defined; and it's bad enough when the film simply requires the core to have stopped rotating for no damn reason, but when we learn it's because of a failed earthquake machine, the movie skips merrily into the realm of dodgy '50s sci-fi parables.

But of far more immediate concern to anybody who is not, themselves, a geologist or other scientist - and this is the kind of movie where "scientist" is a profession, and the idea of separate disciplines is considered in only a vague way - are the epic outcroppings of Bad Movie in every regard. Plot points are heavily telegraphed (Keyes proudly mentions his lack of a history with women, seemingly just to trick the Movie Gods into putting a single female on the ship to the core of the planet with him). An unexpectedly strong cast (Alfre Woodard and Richard Jenkins are also on hand) for a trashy B-movie that couldn't even swing a summer release is given boring characters and ludicrous dialogue - Tucci (in a singularly gaudy hairpiece) especially has to field some hilariously wrong-headed lines, including portentous moment that was so blessedly hilarious in the trailer, "the core of the Earth has stopped spinning", and a giddy PSA moment in "M.A.D. Mutually Assured Destruction. A perfect acronym if ever there was one", but my absolute favorite is when Greenwood has to find a way to scream that he doesn't plan to crash a space shuttle in downtown L.A. without bursting out laughing - and the reliably uncharismatic DJ Qualls plays a hacker named Rat who refers to his skills as "kung fu", having apparently been trapped in a cave since 1994.

Jon Amiel directs the action with an absolute lack of any sense of scale, casting everything in a uniform mood of poundy seriousness (though the moment where he blithely uses a cluster of slow-motion pigeons is inspired in its overreaching ambition, like he knew that John Woo was well-regarded, but could not quite figure out why). That most of the film takes place in a tight space largely destroys him: a genius working with a nuanced script could make sweaty people talking about science seem thrilling and tense, but neither "genius" nor "nuance" hold for The Core, and the offensive CGI used to represent the Earth's interior - a theatrical release in 2003 had absolutely no excuse to look this bad - serves rather to extinguish our feeling that there are real stakes and dangers here, rather than to accentuate anything.. That the actors are living in at least three different films - some of them are in a cheesy film and not trying too hard, some of them really want to prove they can open a tentpole, and try very hard indeed, thus accentuating how stupid all the things they say and do are, and Delroy Lindo is off on his own doing something that I find extremely delightful, even if it doesn't apparently have to do with the people around him.

At two and a quarter hours, there's a lot of The Core to make it through, but even with that much bloat, it's a dazzling bad movie of the "let's throw a party, drink beers, and make fun of it" ilk; as much as any movie of the '00s, really. There's nothing about this that goes even a little bit right or betrays even a slight spark of intelligence, but the film is so damn committed to its concept and its immensely unpersuasive stakes that its very sobriety becomes adorably dumb, like a kitten staring at a crack in the wall as though God himself lies within it. The film is a great equalizer: none among us is so ignorant, confused, or slow that we cannot proudly consider ourselves so, so much more intelligent and aware of how life works than The Core.

4 comments:

Thrash Til' Death said...

I seem to remember that NASA maintains a list of films that represent science worst. "The Core" topped that list from its release until 2009, when it was supplanted by - you guessed it - Roland Emmerich's "2012."

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Oddly enough, John Rogers is responsible for several well-known and perspicacious left blogosphere tropes, the crazification factor and that crack about Tolkien and Ayn Rand. And in his spare time, he writes bad movies. And yes, it's definitely the same guy.

Kevin J. Olson said...

So, I hadn't thought about Volcano in a long time either...then it randomly came up when I was with my family on Christmas. My brothers and I began talking about Volcano of all movies (and even more random: we Wiki'd Mick Jackson's resume and began talking about his movies). I can think of no odder thing to talk about when you gather with family than that, but we did it (we Olson brothers are an odd bunch because the conversation then moved to which was the "better" volcano movie: Volcano or Dante's Peak). Anyway, your aside about the film made me chuckle because I had just got done talking about that random movie.

Tim said...

The awesomeness of your brothers is indisputable. FWIW, Volanco is "better", but I'd rather re-watch Dante's Peak any day of the week.