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Core Values: Hilary Swank, who once won an Oscar, bores to the center of the Earth in effects-laden 'The Core.'

Cavity Search

Terranauts head for 'The Core'--find neither Pellucidar nor dinos

By Richard von Busack

WITH A FLOURISH, professor Excelsior whipped off the canvas and revealed an astounding steam-powered, submarine-shaped vessel with a powerful drill on its nose. "Gentlemen!" he shouted, "I give you ... the Iron Mole!" Explorers have been giving terra a human suppository since the days of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so Jon Amiel's The Core has good reason for the self-conscious approach in its ads. The self-same previews tell the story: a military experiment gone wrong halted Earth's rotating core. This shorted out the electromagnetic belt of protection that keeps us safe from cosmic rays, causing CGI-animated renovation of the Coliseum in Rome and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The highlight comes early: a flock of pigeons go haywire at Trafalgar Square, bombarding tourists in a sequence that seems to be a better version of a similar gag in 24 Hour Party People. Faced with all this electromagnetic mayhem, Earth has one chance: a team of scientists must drill into the center of the earth, their acting talents taxed to the limit by unimaginable heat and pressure. Once inside, they must restart the Earth's core with a large atomic bomb.

The Iron Mole in question--it's called the Virgil in honor of The Divine Comedy--is segmented like a jumbo Tootsie Roll, with self-sealing chambers, so viewers can be assured of one fatality every 20 minutes. The usual idea in these pictures is to give us someone that we hate and then feed him to the lava-creatures. We can tell Stanley Tucci--playing a hot-dog geophysicist who signs autographs--is a goner for his lack of humility; the same goes for the mission's commander, Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood), who patronizes Hilary Swank in the preliminary scenes of a space-shuttle landing in the Los Angeles River basin. (Space shuttle, Earth's core shuttle--it's all the same to today's Air Force officer.)

But then the people we sort of like get melted or crushed, and the film never recovers from the somber, newly serious tone. The other earthworms include Delroy Lindo as the warm, humane inventor and Swank herself, recreating Raquel Welch's role in Fantastic Voyage with a facility that deserves some kind of an award. Aaron Eckhart, after mocking macho in Neil LaBute's plays, is uneasy in the lead role, stuck between seriousness and comedy, just like The Core itself.

I really hoped the whole thing from beginning to end hadn't been intended as drama; the previews looked more like Mick Jackson's admirably silly Volcano than its more painful "realistic" rival Dante's Peak. But The Core drifts unmoored between comedy and adventure. Its approach is similar to the comedy relief in Armageddon, a kind of desperate joking, like too-cruel slapstick. There's nothing to wait for except for the light show. I'd figured that there'd be more to the center of the Earth than a vast cauldron of lemon pudding. Maybe they should have taken a pet duck along with them, like the guys in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The Core (PG-13), directed by Jon Amiel, written by Cooper Layne and John Rogers, photographed by John Lindley and starring Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci and Aaron Eckhart, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 27-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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