My Guilty Pleasure Movie: 2003's "The Core"
Many of us have them: favourite films that we know are terrible, but that we keep re-watching because we get a kick out of them. They often differ wildly in genre and filmmaking quality, but the movies have one thing in common – the fact that some, or many, elements are hilariously bad. These flicks are entertaining because we find their missteps funny, or because the movies make us feel smart when we know more than the people who created them.
For me, the movie that meets that description is the 2003 disaster pic The Core, directed by Jon Amiel. It follows Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank as they accompany a team of scientists trying to “restart” the Earth’s core. I happened to watch The Core again last night, I thought I’d tell you about its fantastic combination of embarrassing writing, over-the-top acting and an out-to-lunch scientific premise, and why I die laughing every time I watch it. Be sure to share your guilty-pleasure movies in the comments after the article!
I should explain that I’m a sucker for disaster movies. It might come from trying to overcome a childhood fear of natural disasters (inspired in no small part by the Discovery Channel), but I love watching films that depict the end of the world in all its implausible CGI mayhem. The first one I remember watching was 1996’s Twister, and since then I’ve taken in dozens of movies like Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow and more recently, 2012.
I enjoy these movies not so much out of a morbid interest in mass destruction, but an appreciation for how disaster flicks showcase so many of film’s most recognized clichés and themes. They make liberal use of the textbook stock characters: an underdog male hero who ends up saving impossibly large portions of civilization, an ex-wife character who is re-convinced of the hero’s worthiness and attractiveness by his acts of heroism, a brood of children who are reunited with their (previously) deadbeat father.
Then there’s the improbably good-looking scientists, the clueless politicians and military officers, and the countless “red-shirts” – cannon fodder characters who are earmarked for early deaths from the film’s introductory shots.
The Core has a variety of these people in spades. It avoids a “marital reunion” scenario, but we get lots of scientists, army types and disposable characters. Aaron Eckhart plays Dr. Josh Keyes, a geology expert who works in sonar manipulation (or something). He notices a series of strange electromagnetic phenomena. This can only mean the Earth’s core has stopped spinning, causing the breakdown of the EM field around the planet and endangering us from deadly solar radiation.
Despite a bit of requisite opposition from authorities, he and another scientist, the snarky Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci), convince everyone that they must tunnel to the centre of the Earth to kick-start the core with – what else – massive nuclear weapons!
“But,” Josh exclaims, in a war-room scene, “we can't!”. Never fear, assures Zimsky, “what if we could?”. That’s just an example of the laughable scriptwriting in this movie, which is rife with contradictory dialogue that makes you wonder if the writers re-read it once at all.
Never mind, because Zimsky conveniently knows of a hermit (Delroy Lindo) living in the desert, who has conveniently invented both the superlaser technology to drill through the planet and the magic material that can resist all temperatures and all pressures. Yay!
The hermit is issued a check for $15 billion and given three months to build a ship that will take a crew of six to the core, along with five 200-megaton nuclear bombs. (To put that in perspective, the largest weapon ever detonated was the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba, a Russian weapon that produced an eight-kilometre fireball).
Eckhart’s character teams up with the reclusive ship designer, two astronauts, a weapons specialist and Dr. Zimsky to accomplish the mission. Meanwhile, Rome is destroyed by a lightning “superstorm” and San Francisco is fried by a solar death ray, just in case viewers were jonesing for some global landmark obliteration.
When I watch disaster movies, I amuse myself by identifying these characters and situations early on, along with numerous other genre tropes. Most of the time, they're so transparent that you wonder if the movie is taking itself seriously. Three of my favourite disaster movie elements are what I’ll call the "Nuclear Weapons Are Good For Something Complex", the "Adam and Eve Requirement", and "Obi-Wan Kenobi Syndrome".
The first is very common, appearing in movies like Armageddon, Sunshine and The Core. Basically, it involves the United States government (and all the others, like they matter) believing that the only way to save the Earth is to blow up huge nuclear warheads. Of course, this has little grounding in reality, and some scientists will tell you that, if put into practice in the case of an imminent asteroid strike or other applicable disaster, it would just make things worse.
In disaster movies, it plays on the idea that all Americans know about their impressive, but strategically useless, nuclear stockpile left over from the Cold War. Now that the concept of a nuclear war is improbable, movies often incorporate the use of nuclear weapons to save the Earth, because, y’know, isn’t that an ironic and philanthropic use of bombs? Plus, you get to include big explosions in your movie!
The second trope is the Adam and Eve Requirement. I define it as this: in disaster movies, the hero must be left with an attractive female love interest with whom, in the case of everything going to hell, he could continue the human race (and not even be unhappy about it!).
The Core uses this a couple of times, most notably in the penultimate scene. Hilary Swank’s astronaut/pilot character, Major Rebecca Childs, and Eckhart’s Dr. Keyes are the only two surviving crew members (Don’t get mad at me for spoiling it – you had no hope of suspense in this movie, anyway!). They are seen lying together in the semi-ruined ship, framed as if they were in bed. This is all because there needs to be some sort of happy, procreative solution to cap off the movie, implying the beginning of a new era on the planet.
The third common occurrence is the Obi-Wan Kenobi Syndrome, named, of course, after the wise Jedi from Star Wars. In The Core, Dr. Brazzelton, the hermit scientist, acts like Obi-Wan Kenobi, living in the desert and providing the “magic” solution to the hero’s (and by extension, the world’s) problems.
Dr. Brazzelton’s particular contribution is his possession of all the technology necessary to build the ship to take the heroes to the titular core. Of course, once his function has been completed, Brazzelton is killed off (again, spoilers should be a non-issue in this movie) in a delightful pairing of the Obi-Wan Kenobi Syndrome with the “token black character” phenomenon of so many other movies.
Why are these disaster-movie themes, or stock characters, important to know? It has to do with the way they’re implemented from one movie to the next. Disaster movies (at least for me) are fun because they play Scrabble with these recurring building blocks, arranging them in new combinations around the apocalypse-scenario-du-jour. Viewers can sit back and identify them, and laugh at how transparent the clichés are.
There is still another way I enjoy movies like The Core. It's their hare-brained scientific theories, which are invariably discovered when the hero or geeky scientist stares at a previously insignificant object and has a plot-altering epiphany.
In The Core, it's claimed that if the EM failed, it would happen in small pockets at first. This would form the aforementioned solar death rays that go about melting bridges and then suddenly disappearing, once they’ve caused enough damage to summarize in a television news bulletin. According to The Core, you can also boost the yield of a nuclear warhead by 30% by laying a container of plutonium rods next to the bomb. Oh, dead pigeons falling from the sky can kill people and smash windows. What fun.
I hope that you’ll go check out this movie, if only so more people can share in the glee I experience whilst watching it. It is at once a great example of what filmmakers should avoid when shooting movies, and a remarkably satisfying movie-watching experience. Therefore, I can’t decide whether Hollywood should stop making these, or ensure they keep coming. I’m completely torn, but…I don’t think it’s the end of the world.
What do you think about terrible-quality guilty pleasure movies? Are disaster movies particularly susceptible to this label? I’d also like to hear about your own guilty-pleasure titles. Which films do you keep watching because they’re just bad? Let me know in the comments, and check out more of my film commentary: