Let’s get the least important part out of the way: yes, The Core is total nonsense.
Arguably this is more a feature of the subterranean adventure genre stretching back even further than Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar series than a bug of this particular movie, but The Core’s efforts to include up-to-date Earth science earned it a regular slot in rounds of Neil deGrasse Tyson fun-vacuum whack-a-mole.
Ultimately it’s entertainment not documentary, and for my money if there’s a choice to be made between science, spectacle and drama, it’s no big deal if the scientific accuracy takes a back seat as long as the movie science is internally consistent, and while The Core achieves this it undeniably falls down in the spectacle and drama departments.
A remake of the 2000 direct-to-video movie Deep Core (most notable for its post-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Terry Farrell stunt casting), 2003’s The Core clearly takes Michael Bay’s 1998 Armageddon as a template with its Space Shuttle scene, ludicrous global disaster and constantly roving camera, but sends its story down into the Earth rather than up into space, swapping blue collar oil workers for a crew of scientists and astronauts, revealing itself in the process as something closer to a movie which genuinely aimed to be as educational as it was entertaining, 1966’s Fantastic Voyage.
Much like that movie, The Core has little interest in establishing characters beyond one-dimensional embodiments of their narrative function, adopting an old-fashioned form of science fiction which in turn robs it of character drama as the stakes, pressure and temperature rise.
The exception, the Cape Cod-sized diamond in the rough of The Core, is Dr. Edward "Braz" Brazzelton, played by Delroy Lindo. This guy’s an actual character with an arc, his enmity with Stanley Tucci’s all-round asshole Dr. Conrad Zimsky, fuelled by the latter’s vainglorious theft of his research, overcome by the delight of finding that his solo work has finally found a purpose.
Lindo plays Braz as a diffident mad inventor, giddily demonstrating his toys in the desert but scarcely able to believe that he’s finally getting the funding to realise his dream of building a ship to voyage deep below Earth’s surface, the Virgil laser drilling machine. It’s a performance of tremendous dignity which only slips when Zimsky chooses to insult the Virgil and thoroughly earn himself a pop on the jaw.
Braz’ finest moment, and the dramatic highlight of the movie, comes after the revelation that, due to a poor design choice he made in haste, Virgil’s compartments cannot be separated without a crew member facing certain death. His subterfuge in rigging the drawing of lots exposed, Braz gives an impassioned speech explaining why he must be the one to go to this fate.
“Because it’s my damn ship. Look, for twenty years, I've done nothing but Virgil. Twenty years. Virgil belongs to me, and I will not let her fail. I will not. Now, if you want to know what's worth dying for: this ship, building it, instead of imagining it. If Virgil needs more blood, it will be my blood.”
This one speech, this appeal to creativity and purpose and dedication, this discovery of inner resolve, surpasses anything else in The Core purely in the writing and delivery, setting up a moving scene in which Braz’ self-sacrifice is depicted not as some glistening moment of transcendent heroism but instead an agony to be endured in the pursuit of both greater good and personal values, with no bombastic score, no tear-streaked farewell speech, no last-minute reprieve.
This sequence offers respite from The Core’s wildly varying tone and lack of thematic cohesion between its attempts at comedy, dud Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart romantic arc, laughable mime-exercise Tchéky Karyo death scene and redundant DJ Qualls hacker subplot, not to mention the absence of a ticking clock that should be escalating the tension.
In all these ways The Core fails to escape those DTV roots: its cheap feel isn’t helped by the core cast spending most of the movie staring into screens even before it deploys over-ambitious special effects which sit at the cusp of obvious miniatures and unconvincing CGI – often in the same shot – or numerous shots of lips moving silently or exaggerated artificial slow-mo: this is far from legendary editor Terry Rawlings’ finest hour, starting with the botched match cut following the opening titles, and it’s all suggestive of problems there was neither time, money nor inclination to fix.
There’s a theory The Core is in on the joke, but this relies on such evidence as the trout found in freeze-frame during the curiously flat Trafalgar Square pigeon attack, the shamefaced introduction of “Unobtainium” and the amount of scenery Stanley Tucci devours, but the movie’s demeanour offers no hint that it’s revelling in the silliness of these elements or indulging itself in a celebration of campy low-rent SF.
No, it’s a throwback B-movie offering only the ability of actors who deserve to be in other, better movies to distract from its flaws, however briefly, and maybe The Core recognises this in its closing moments and is displaying some self-awareness when it reports, “It is now emerging that the world owes its survival to the heroism of six remarkable individuals,” before revealing their efforts to save the planet were for naught by playing Thirty Seconds To Mars over the credits.