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The Core

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg-13
136 min. Paramount. Director: Jon Amiel. Cast: Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Bruce Greenwood, Stanley Tucci, Tcheky Karyo.

The Core opens with a burst of cheesy zeal; we burrow under the Para-mountain to the deliciously overwrought music of Christopher Young. When the earth's core stops spinning, we go topside to see innocent Bostonian businessmen and--shades of Airplane--hare krishnas drop like flies in a scene of mass panic around a business-district "Green World Day" carnival. Apparently, director Jon Amiel doesn't have a very good poker face, but The Core's willful silliness makes for compulsively watchable disaster pap, to a point. As Bruce Greenwood's NASA shuttle pilot grumbles, "Hang on. This isn't going to be subtle."

The ensuing crash landing is one of a series of peppy amusements at the outset of this bad-science global adventure. We also get a birds-gone-wild sequence in Trafalgar Square, capped by the requisite self-satirizing, Herrmann-esque Psycho strings ('cause who remembers the score of The Birds, right?). We meet Aaron Eckhart's handsome, funny, creative geophysics professor Josh Keyes (who, implausibly, fails to draw many students). Two men-in-black drag off Keyes to meet his buddy--likeable French (whoops, bad timing) atomic weapons expert Dr. Serge Leveque (Tcheky Karyo)--and a no-nonsense general, who dismisses evidence of the impending failure of our protective electromagnetic field. So Keyes rounds up--get this--an arrogant, autograph-signing, celebrity geophysicist-lecturer named Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci, who stays slim on the all-scenery diet). Are you in love with this movie yet?

Several other characters with wacky nicknames show up: Dr. Ed "Braz" Brazzelton (Delroy Lindo), Major Rebecca "Beck" Childs (Hilary Swank), Rat (D.J. Qualls), and Talma "Stick" Stickley (Alfre Woodard). If I were Alfre Woodard, I wouldn't be able to resist playing Talma "Stick" Stickley, either; I feel her pain. Anyway, they all team up--Armageddon-style--for a hugely implausible effort to save the world by journeying—wait for it—to the center of the earth. As Keyes says, "We simply can't get there," but as Tucci's Zimsky replies, "Yes, but [devious, actorly pause] what if we could?" And what if we could in a vessel named Virgil in honor of The Divine Comedy? Now do you love this movie?

So Amiel and his team pull out the stops. Groove to the synth-pop beat behind DJ Qualls's super-hacker Rat! Cock your head quizzically at the geophysics-for-dummies metaphors! See digital lightning bolts fry Rome and other beloved world centers (San Francisco feels some heat, my friends)! These sequences are nearly as pleasurable, guiltily, as their counterparts in Independence Day and Armageddon, but perhaps that's not saying much.

The fun begins noticeably to dry up once our heroes puncture the crust and head for the core. Amiel and screenwriters Cooper Layne and John Rogers do their best to vent the claustrophobic trip with fatalistic action but soon envoke the predictability of a horror film. Here, the slasher is the churning, molten Core, which at one point crumples a piece of the ship into a ball of tinfoil. Worse, the script foists off false suspense, as in a hacker sequence for Rat: he fails to hack in, fails, fails again, then succeeds! Repeatedly, artificial problems lead to artificial solutions and artificial thrills.

Reviewers are probably too jaded by a steady diet of thoughtless rehashes to give them ample credit for their empty-calorie satisfaction. If you need it, I give you cultural permission to go giggle at Tucci's perfectly modulated rants. I give you permission to learn about DESTINI (the Deep Earth Seismic Trigger Inititaive) and gape at crumbling, fiery monuments. Hey, it's a free country!

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