A Misunderstood Masterpiece: Celebrating 10 Years of 'The Core'


You'd think we'd be better at this by now. You'd think we, as a culture currently so steeped in irony that we can't decide whether "Spring Breakers" is actually a good movie or if we just like Harmony Korine constantly trolling us, wouldn't allow highly enjoyable pieces of garbage cinema to slip through our fingers like this. And yet that's exactly what happened to "The Core," a mid-'00s piece of disaster porn from director Jon Amiel about a brave band of astronauts (TERRANAUTS!) and scientists who dig deep beneath the surface of the Earth in order to re-start the rotation of our planet’s core (!) before the whole rock destabilizes and burns black. A story as old as time itself.

Ten years ago this week, "The Core" opened on 3,000 screens across America and was promptly rejected by the American people. Bested by not only the Chris Rock comedy "Head of State" but by the fourth week of the Queen Latifah/Steve Martin comedy "Bringing Down the House," the film would only make back half of its $60 million budget. A bona fide flop. Considering it was just as big a flop with the critics, the failure of "The Core" was merely seen as the marketplace justly rejecting a subpar effort. But bad movies are not all created equal, as any "Troll 2" cultist will tell you. Unintentional camp can be just as valuable as intentional camp, often more so. A film that's willing to wallow in over-the-top acting, implausible plots, and a gleeful disregard for good taste sometimes hits just the right spot. And it falls upon the viewing public to catch the bad ones -- on Netflix, on cable, in the living rooms of hungover friends -- and let everybody know what we missed.

Oftentimes, good-bad-movies from the mainstream are the hardest to catch. We're much more forgiving towards low-budget schlock. It's that little John Waters on our shoulder telling us that one man's low-budget trash is another man's favorite low-budget trash. We tend to dance on the graves of big-studio failures. They already benefit from so much unearned success, we figure; better enjoy those failures while they last. But sometimes ... oh, sometimes we get a "The Long Kiss Goodnight," still my ideal good-bad movie, the one  against which all others must be measured. How was I to know that "The Core" belonged, if not right up there with it, at least on the same shelf?

I could go on all day about whose fault this was (yours), but the reason we’re gathered here today is so that I can tell you, on the occasion of the film’s tenth anniversary, ten reasons why "The Core" is pretty great (if also terrible).

1.) It's Dumb, But Makes You Feel Smart

Let's not make any bones about it: this is dumb. The idea is that the inner core of the Earth has stopped spinning, and the pseudoscience of the film tells you that this causes things like electromagnetic pulses that kill anybody with a pacemaker on the spot, flocks of mad pigeons suddenly dive-bombing into buildings and lightning strikes that reduce Rome to cinders. How accurate is the science? One geological physicist we asked responded with a resounding "WHO CARES?" The point is that it has the general feel of plausibility without over-explaining itself. It's not going to make you re-think its premise every two seconds, allowing you to feel generally smarter than the movie without making you feel foolish for even watching, as opposed to, say, "The Happening."

2.) The Mishmash of Blockbuster Genres Borders on Stylish

The first 20 minutes or so feel like an unholy marriage between Roland Emmerich and Alfred Hitchcock, a vibe that really comes to life during the bird attack. There's a strong horror feel running through these early scenes, followed by all the disaster movie clichés (assembling the team from their lecture halls and assorted humble beginnings) once things clearly become about The End of the World As We Know It. Once the team formulates the plan -- naturally, they're going to drill into the earth's core and set off a whole bunch of nukes which will start the core rotating again -- we move into an airplane/spaceship adventure, with all of those attendant clichés.

Everything is unfussily cribbed from other movies, from Richard Jenkins as the trigger-happy and mercurial military man, to Hilary Swank as the unsure rookie pilot, to Stanley Tucci as the arrogant superstar of science (Dr. Ian Malcolm rides again!). The genre mismatch cheapens the story and ultimately rules out any true chances for innovation, but it also makes the twists and turns of the plot much easier to roll with. Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" is a far more formally and intellectually rigorous telling of this same tale (albeit in space), but when that movie takes a hard left in the final act, everything falls apart and there's a sense that all that momentum has been lost. "The Core" aims much, much lower (literally and figuratively), making it a lesser movie but an easier watch. Don't make me work for my fun-bad movie, is what I'm saying.

3.) The Cast

Look, low-budget bad movies are great, but at some point, I end up feeling guilty mocking the meager talents of untalented actors. No such worry here! Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard, future Oscar nominees Stanley “Are you the Salmon Girl” Tucci and Richard Jenkins, critically acclaimed Aaron Eckhart and Delroy Lindo -- there’s an all-star cast navigating this stinker. Swank would go on to win her second Oscar the very next year! Speaking of which, I understand that Benicio Del Toro and Ken Watanabe gave fine performances in their respective films that year, but a nomination for Tucci -- doing some career-best scenery chewing, and I mean that sincerely -- would have allowed the following scene to be his Oscar clip, and we'd be all the better for it:

4.) Hack Heaven

It's worth mentioning that this movie was released the same year that the third and final "Matrix" film. By that point, more than half of us had already abandoned our AOL accounts, were paying bills online, and ordering our DVDs through Netflix. The internet was pretty well normalized. Tell that to the approximation of "hacker" culture embodied by DJ Qualls in "The Core." With his underground 'net persona ("The Rat") and nerdly demands for Xena tapes and Hot Pockets, he couldn't be more '90s retrograde if he were chasing Sandra Bullock around Los Angeles. "Nobody controls the 'net!" Qualls tells his square would-be employers when they ask him to keep the planet from finding out about the whole Earth's core problem. But control it he does!

5.) Speaking of Science and Technology ...

Even in good movies, we learn to just accept the science and move on. Delroy Lindo not only created a laser than can blast holes through mountains, but also a material that can withstand the hottest temperatures known to man? Awesome! I always thought he could! The added little benefit is that Lindo calls his new element "Unobtanium." Unlike James Cameron, however, this movie has the good sense to laugh about it.

6.) Terrible CGI


A neo-classic staple of enjoyable bad movies. The lightning storm in Rome had me expecting Raiden to start fighting Sub Zero in the Mortal Kombat tournament. And once things move into the center of the Earth? Forget it. A setpiece inside a pocket of giant crystal shards looks like Dr. Who, and not even good Dr. Who. (I'm assuming there IS good Dr. Who. I've been assured such a thing exists.)

7.) Terrible Dialogue

A classic classic element. And if Jenkins shouting "How could this have happened?!" like a disappointed dad when told that the Earth's core has stopped spinning doesn't do it for you, there's the following control-room exchange:

Academy Award Nominee Alfre Woodard: "You have to give me more time!"

Academy Award Nominee Richard Jenkins: "THERE IS NO MORE TIME!"

8.) Dramatic Deaths

If you've ever seen any disaster movie from "Armageddon" to "The Day After Tomorrow" to "Independence Day," you know that the Earth don't get saved unless a whole lot of people first make their peace with friends or family with whom they've recently had discord, then charge off into a series of heroic deaths, followed soon after by their living compadres with their various hands on various panes of glass, pleading with them not to go.

9.) San Francisco Bites It

Nothing against San Francisco, of course. It just seems like whenever a movie wants to completely wipe a city out without having to deal with the logistics of how America would function without a New York or a Washington D.C., San Francisco is always the sacrificial lamb. It's all those landmarks, really. Irresistible. Anyway, R.I.P., Golden Gate Bridge:

10.) Dustin Hoffman Hates It

In 2009, Dustin Hoffman led a campaign to reject science-fiction movies that fly in the face of good science. In a poll of hundreds of scientists about the worst science in sci-fi films, "The Core" was voted the worst. THE WORST! Don't you want to see the worst???