Film * Jon Amiel * Science Apocalypse * 2003
I thought I enjoyed disaster movies. I really did. There’s a clever way to enjoy most of them, which generally has to do with not thinking particularly hard about what’s happening on screen. Most of the time, there’s enough enjoyable dumb stuff going on that it’s easy to dismiss some of the more, ah, unlikely moments. It needs to be stupid in a fun way, is what I’m saying. Early on in The Core, our steely heroine lands the Space Shuttle on the fucking Los Angeles River. That’s the kind of dumb nonsense I can get behind! Sadly, that’s mostly what this movie is lacking. For a disaster movie, there is very little disaster happening here.
So let’s count it up. I’m not worried about spoiling anything here: the world doesn’t end. Hooray! There, that’s out of the way, so let’s see what kind of disastrous things happen because of reasons. Pigeons attack London, Lightening blows up Rome, and some kind of sun-laser snaps the Golden Gate Bridge in two and fries most of San Francisco. The total screen time of these events is maybe five minutes total. A proper disaster movie is about widespread destruction and humans having to overcome the (usually) localized dissolution of civilization. Here, the actual major events that happen are pretty much an afterthought to the bulk of the movie. Like, okay, Rome and San Francisco are pretty much dust, but no one will know about it because the most stereotypical “hacker” ever created kept the news off the Internet. With his hot Windows 3.1 viruses, or something. I don’t know, I really hate this movie. Okay, so if it’s not a disaster movie, what is it?
Good question. If you squint really hard, I suppose you could mistake it for a science drama. Of course, it is neither scientific nor dramatic, which kind of puts a damper on that conclusion. In fact, that’s the major issue with The Core. I don’t care if the science is sound, or if the story is predictable, or if the characters are dumb and poorly acted. What I do care about is a concrete premise of threat. It doesn’t have to be realistic, but it has to be a visible menace. The idea behind the movie Volcano, which I’ll get to eventually, doesn’t make any sense at all. But I can see the volcano, and the lava, and Tommy Lee Jones having a reason to do things. Here things are more esoteric, and therefore there is less of a reason for me to get invested in anything. Lava, earthquakes, tidal waves… these things are obvious. Magnetic fields? Not so much. So not only does the movie have to explain what it’s even talking about, but it has to show it. And quite frankly, The Core sucks at it. None of the explanations scan even a little bit. Even if you don’t know anything about science, the internal logic of the movie just keeps looping in on itself until even that tiny bit of suspension of disbelief needed for a disaster flick is impossible. Furthermore, it looks like garbage. If nothing else, a good disaster movie gives us a ridiculous spectacle to gawk at. Most of this movie is watching a robot-worm fly through a psychedelic screen-saver. It’s the worst.
There’s plenty more vitriol to be hurled at this fucking thing, but I imagine it’s taken a fair amount of criticism since 2003. Besides, the real challenge here is to find something worth talking about in relation to the apocalyptic spirit of the times. And it’s here! Of course like the rest of the movie this aspect of the story is clunky and deeply unsatisfying, but at least someone tried. Kind of. Anyway, what I’m referring to is “Project Destiny,” which is the super-secret government mega-project that is referred to in hushed tones throughout the movie. Essentially, it’s a machine that can create localized earthquakes which can be used to destroy enemy installations or cities. Or something. As it’s explained, the United States military was directed to create this project because some other country did and we need it because the tenants of mutually assured destruction demand it.
Like every other aspect of this movie, this concept is immediately flawed even on its own terms. Why would we need a crazy earthquake machine when we already have nuclear weapons? Really, we’re unleashing wide-spread destruction and we’re worried about a little fallout? There is already a perfectly acceptable means to destroy civilization without resorting to a weird fantasy like this. Further, this movie came out in 2003. It is abundantly clear that creating a giant death machine is outside the abilities of Al Qaeda. The threat of mutually assured destruction mostly went away with the Soviet Union. Granted, modern Russia’s actions have been alarming of late and it would be presumptive to declare that we’re past a suicidal stand-off between nuclear powers. However, not only is The Core not that smart, it’s also a story being told right after 9/11. The fears and anxieties of the time had nothing to do with a rival superpower, which makes this theme particularly odd.
I suppose an argument could be made that The Core is being nostalgic with its anxieties. Like, remember the good old days when all we had to worry about the widespread destruction of all life on Earth? More likely the story was written by people who grew up during the Cold War and were unable to process the changing geo-political landscape. The movie ends with Mr. “Hot Pockets and Xena tapes” Rat using his super-advanced hacker techniques to tell the Internet what the big bad government has been up to. I suspect this is supposed to make the audience feel like cool subversives for being on the side of science or whatever. Mostly the ending just made me excited that I didn’t have to watch it anymore.