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In the 15 years since its debut, The Core has become an exemplar of bad science onscreen. There are countless posts online which analyse the many ways that this film plays fast and loose with the laws of physics. However, science fiction stories rely on a suspension of disbelief, not scientific accuracy, within the worlds they invent. Audiences may be more forgiving of bad science where the storytelling is strong. For that reason, bad science alone cannot explain why The Core flopped on release in March 2003, making just over 12 million dollars on its opening weekend according to figures from BoxOfficeMojo.com.
The Core’s plot is a quest to prevent Earth’s destruction. The planet’s core has stopped rotating and without its motion, the surface’s protection from deadly solar radiation is collapsing. All life on Earth will be dead within the year unless the world’s best scientists and the US military can solve the problem. Their solution is a journey to the centre of the earth where they’ll jumpstart the planet using a nuclear detonation. To achieve this, a group of ‘terranauts’ must drill through the planet’s insides in a subterranean submarine designed to withstand the pressure and heat of the inferno below.
That outline does suggest a striking resemblance to Armageddon, the 1998 Michael Bay film where Bruce Willis saves the world by drilling a hole into an asteroid. Similarities aside, The Core fails to lean into the inherent silliness of its plot and produce the full-on craziness that Armageddon manages to wring out of its end of world scenario. The Core’s obligatory scenes of destruction play out in London, Rome and San Francisco but come across as flat and devoid of any real sense of mayhem. Partly, this comes from an over-reliance on CGI, most of which hasn’t aged well. Virgil, the subterranean submarine, resembles an armoured worm floating through some trippy lava lamp more than it does a ship voyaging into the deep unknown underground.
Problems also result from the predictability of the film’s set up. Once the team is assembled, it’s obvious who the sacrifices will be along the way (spoiler: it’s not the young white Americans). This makes it harder to root for the main characters who are themselves one note scientist stereotypes. For example, there’s the dishevelled college professor, the famous egotistical researcher, the French weapons expert, the socially awkward hacker, the engineer obsessed with his ship and the brilliant astronaut. The cast which features Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank and Stanley Tucci do their best with the limited material on offer.
The Core then is a genre B-movie which makes no claim towards great film-making. Instead, it could be one of those films that’s so bad, it’s actually good. Despite its many flaws, The Core is never unwatchable and in places, it’s fun. If the runtime had been cut down by 30 minutes, it might have been a decent science-fiction action adventure.
Watching it now, The Core’s gender politics appear very confused. There are only two major female characters here and while both are in positions of authority, neither is really allowed to do much. Stickley (Alfre Woodrad), may be Mission Director but she’s side-lined by limited screen time. Then there’s Beck (Hilary Swank), the brilliant astronaut and only woman onboard Virgil. It’s a neat flip that she is the calmest and most capable person there while the men yell and break down in hysterics. Yet, Beck’s skills are the ones which are questioned most consistently throughout the film with the suggestion that she’s an overachiever whose confidence is unearned. It’s disheartening to watch this film knock Swank’s character down instead of celebrating her as a capable and ambitious female character.
Poor storytelling and an overly long running time probably contributed more to The Core’s failure at the box office than its bad science. However, if you’re willing to tolerate its numerous limitations, it’s a fun and silly watch.