RIORI Vol 3, Installment 48: Breck Eisner’s “Sahara” (2005)


Sahara


The Players…

Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lennie James, Lambert Wilson, Rainn Wilson (no relation) and William H Macy, with Glynn Turman and Delroy Lindo.


The Story…

While investigating the history of a lost Civil War treasure ship in Egypt, adventurer Dirk Pitt stumbles upon an epidemic that’s contaminating the water table. And the story goes ever deeper, with evil industrialists, power hungry warlords and even the desert itself hell-bent on keeping Pitt from his quarry and stemming the epidemic.

Just yer typical day at NUMA.


The Rant…

When I was li’l kid, VCRs were a big deal.

In the early to mid 80s these miraculous home video watching gizmos were (finally) sold at reasonable prices. A decent machine could set you back $400 in 80s dollars. Not everyone in your neighborhood to afford one though, despite all the video rentals popping up everywhere. There were videos a-plenty to be rented at Blockbuster, The Wall, Hollywood Video, your local supermarket, the veterinarian, Neptune, etc. But of course you still had to have the damned player. What to do? What to do?

One could rent a unit for an unreasonable price in questionable condition for maybe 24 hours. More if you were sly enough to rent one when Daylight Savings ended. But that was a crapshoot with an emphasis on crap. Back in the Stone Age my dad rented a machine and a bunch of flicks to watch for my tenth birthday party. I’ll spare you the details. My dad got the overheated thingamabob to work with a hack akin to jamming a matchbook in your car’s tape deck (and if that analogy doesn’t date me, no girl ever will). Not long after that we got our own VHS. Better safe and alla dat.

Another popular remedy for the video deprived was a neighborhood viewing party. The folks who had the VCR would invite friends over with a selection of rented tapes. Votes were taken, snacks were eaten, and a consensus was reached on to watch that night. Democracy in action. Warms your heart to be in these United States. Amen.

*Where the f*ck is he going with this? I swore I saw Penelope Cruz’ name up there. Get to it.*

Getting to it. It was at one of these particular parties that I first caught Raiders Of The Lost Ark. My buddies’ folks got a fresh machine and they invited my ‘rents, my sisters and me to hunker down in front of the boob tube for a night’s insanity. First time I got see Indy in action. The whip. The hat. The snakes. Boy howdy.

I didn’t get it.

Settle down. I was ten. I mean, I had a vague idea of what was going on well before the Nazis’ faces melted like chocolate bunnies in a blast furnace. I mostly wondered what Han Solo was up to in the desert there. The guy who made the film—Spiel-something. Maybe you’ve heard of him—did that flick I saw with the boy and his pet alien which I found funny and also made me fall in love with Drew Barrymore. I was six. Don’t judge me.

Anywho, that big rock thing was cool. The rest of Raiders failed me. I was ten then. I had bigger concerns regarding where’d I’d score more Nerds candy and when the local pool would open for the summer. Them Lego models ain’t gonna build themselves, neither.

So I saw it, mostly just to know I saw it. Bucket list entry number jillion in the can. But just because I didn’t “get” Raiders didn’t mean I didn’t dig it. Well, not in the traditional way. Either due to the ragtag video/audio quality of the movie, I got it into my sugar-deprived, pre-puber skull that action movies should look like this. I don’t mean how Raiders looked. I mean the aesthetic. Adventure movies should look grainy, ragtag and knockabout. It enhanced the rough-and-ready flavor of Raiders for me. I may not have gotten the movie, but I did like what I saw. Melting Nazis and all.

I guess it’s hindered my views on adventure flicks over the past three decades. I could’ve gotten behind a lot more films like Raiders if I wasn’t looking through a cracked TV screen. I have, but the weird bite I got from Indy’s first cinematic adventure (or The Thief Of Baghdad, or the live-action The Jungle Book, or the original Clash Of The Titans) left an indelible mark on my movie mind. Adventure movies should be scruffy, ramshackle, unpretentious and devoid of anything slick. They should be all about gee whiz bucky gizmo splash and dash and flair. No sweetening. Never sweetening. Never shine the corners. Keep it grubby. Make it earthy, chewy even. Indiana Jones was filthy and sweaty for the better part of Raiders (so was Marion if you thing about it). I liked the grime. Sure, the action was cool even if the plot eluded my juvenile mind, but I thought the whiz-bang was better for the quality of the video, audio and (now understood to be) DIY special effects.

Ain’t nostalgia great? And I never got beat up by bullies and had my GoBots stolen. Weep.

Keeping my palsied view on how adventure films should look and feel, I’ve kept my eyes out for some glints from the sun, regardless of when a film was released. Trying to combat my myopia I guess. Beyond that ten-year-old-kiddie bias I still am a sucker for silly swashbuckling. At heart, who isn’t that loves movies?

That being said, no surprise here that during my movie sifting, Raiders kindred spirit Sahara caught my attention. Story sounded cool. Exotic locations. 12st Century swashbuckling. Hell, Matt McConaughey starring as an action hero? With Steve Zahn no less as his derring-do sidekick no less (I’m as shocked as you are)? Into the queue with you, Sahara.

Did the flick match up with the hazy, grainy memory of yours truly’s rough-and-ready ideals?

Definitely sorta…


The Natural Underwater &  Marine Agency (or NAMBLA. Sorry, couldn’t resist), better known as NUMA, is the authority concerning undersea excavation for lost treasures and edifices from ancient civilizations. Underwater archaeologists is a simpler and more apt title for their elite crew. And the most elite—and most driven—diver is Dirk Pitt (McConaughey). Sure, uncovering lost history on the ocean floor is wonderful for science and scholars, but at heart Pitt is a treasure hunter, a modern day pirate. But instead of stealing elicit booty it’s the thrill of the hunt that drives him. It’s that rush that’s taken him and his NUMA crew to the Sahara in search of a lost treasure ship. The CSS Texas, a Civil War Confederate ironclad that disappeared from the historical record 130 years ago. As well as the planet.

Wait a minute. Ironclads weren’t designed for ocean-going travel. And to Africa no less? What’s up with that?

There’s the mystery. The Texas was laden with thousands of dollars in gold coinage, ostensibly minted to “fund” the CSA’s desperate armed forces. Locating such a score is too much for Pitt to resist, no matter how cockamamie the historical record is. There’s a lost ship packed to the gunwales with gold out there in the Sahara, and by God Pitt and the NUMA crew are going to find it!

It’s never that easy.

World Health Organization (not NAMBLA) Dr Eva Rojas (Cruz) has more pressing matters on her mind. Bigger than lost gold. A terrible plague has been ripping through Mali, leaving its victims blind, crazed and ultimately dead. She and her associate Dr Frank Hopper (Turman) suspect something more sinister is afoot with this epidemic. It’s spread too fast, too sudden to be considered a natural phenomenon. Rojas decides it’s necessary to travel deeper into Mali to better assess the damage. But Mali is war-torn, thanks to the charismatic and psychotic Major Kazim (James) who appears to have some personal stakes in keeping this plague—and any potential treatment—off any record.

When Dr Rojas digs a little too deeply Kazim’s thugs aim to take her out. Only by happenstance NUMA and Pitt come to her rescue. Eva finds herself on NUMA’s flagship and welcomed aboard by Pitt’s goofball aide-de-camp Algiers “Al” Giordano (Zahn). She explains her strange circumstances and Al figures that maybe his best bud Dirk and him might be able to lend a hand. Hell, they were going upriver anyway. Traveling into dangerous, fractured Mali to find a cure for a plague? No sweat.

So long as they find some lost treasure along the way…


Right here’s a prime example why RIORI exists. Sahara was too big to fail, and yet it did. Financially, if not with the fun factor. It has nothing really to do with gaging the movie’s quality, but it did pique my interest. Here’s the numbers.

If we recall The Standard, any clunky movie that hovers into my view might have a poor (but not necessarily awful) box office turnout. Sahara did indeed fit the bill under that criterion. But here’s the weird thing—maybe another telling thing about Hollyweird’s ever-increasing sense of overblown entitlement to more money for less art, and f*ck you general public—by the numbers the movie did do well at the theaters. At least on the surface.

In 2005, Sahara opened at number one at the box office. Good for the cast and crew. Opening weekend yielded almost $20 million. Again, not bad. The overall takeaway when the sun set was approximately $120 million. Impressive. Where’s the whole “sh*tty turnout” argument? That big buck-twenty is a lot of cheddar. ‘Splain dat away, Mr Smartass Movie Guy!

This is where that damned devil math comes in. Despite Sahara faring pretty well here and abroad, its gargantuan budget of $130 million for production and over $80 million in distribution expenses the film barely recouped half of its original budget. Sahara lost about $105 million at the end of the day, and contested by various accounting firms as to what the ultimate fallout was. I think there was even some government oversight committee slapped together to get to the financial bottom as to what’s up with certain big-budget flicks’ production waltzing with box office failure.

You can at least credit Sahara for originality in that regard.

Okay. Back to me being judgmental and vicious.

Sahara did offer the epic sweep of a globetrotting adventure movie, replete with intrigue, action, cool toys, a dashing hero, a Costello to his Abbott, and a nasty villain we love to hate. All necessary things, BTW (and having Cruz aboard didn’t hurt none, neither). However, it wasn’t terribly original. But what the hell? Sure, treasure hunt movies are not a new thing. Hell, all of the Indiana Jones movies were about our titular archaeologist pursuing some ancient, valuable trinket, gewgaw and/or dangerous religious doohickey. Well worn ground here. Even Dirk Pitt’s alter ego, adventure writer Clive Cussler might be pointed out in a line up for being a fart away from Ian Fleming. And I ain’t talking in the Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang sense. He wrote the source material, by the way. Not Fleming. Focus, people.

So yeah, Sahara didn’t score any points in the originality department. There are only so many ways you can toss that pizza, really. It was fun, though. Kinda. Watching it I wasn’t actively thinking about Indy, nor my antediluvian VHS days either. In all honestly it was hard to do either, but more on that later. It’s that dang “kinda” qualifier that plagued my viewing experience. I wanted to get into Sahara, but I found it a challenge to get and/or keep engaged in the movie. Let alone follow the complicated, if not byzantine plot. Plots.

I coined a phrase in my noggin watching Sahara, mindful of my criteria regarding adventure movies (including the grainy, rough-and-ready stuff): the flick had a certain flair, sorta there. It wasn’t like Sahara was trying hard to be Indy turf or a Roger Moore-era 007 experience (yes, I said Moore and not Connery. Ever see The Man With The Golden Gun? Boom). In fact it moved along pretty nicely, thank you.

Just not consistently.

That’s a big uh-oh considering adventure movies. Sahara felt, well, constipated. Struggling under its own weight. Other adventure films have a pretty straight line to follow. A to B quest, and whatever hijinks ensue to give it some necessary flair. Again with Raiders (let’s just use that as our yardstick. Not sure if a lot of you ever caught Alan Quartermain serials), Indy and Marion are off to find the Ark. There was no real need for her bar burning down. Nor Indy slugging it out with the bruiser under the flying wing. There’s a school of thought that suggests even Indy himself wasn’t essential to the plot (but who else could deliver those high decibel, meaty punches?). But they added spice—flair—to an otherwise pretty run-of-the-mill actioner.

Sahara has some of that flair (the opening scenes, Eva stuck in the well, the raid on the solar farm, Dirk and Al jerryrigging that “skiff”) but due to sluggish pacing in fits and starts—including the chase scenes, of which there are many—it gets all bogged down. A lull in the breeze whispers at the corners, and a lot of that is straying from the tried-and-true and definitely unoriginal formula of decent adventure films: following that straight line.

Sahara‘s plotting is rather convoluted. I mean it’s easy to follow where the story is going, but there are so many jerks and jabs it’s akin to watching a UFC match on Valium. That looked cool. What was it? Whatever. Pass the Doritos.

The waters got rather muddied with Sahara. I think I’m not making much sense here, getting to the very nubbin of truth, but the whole plot was schizo. Sahara‘s promises of straight action and adventure got dashed with the “evil corporation” story. I mean the “ravaging warlord” story. No, it was the whole “Civil War legend/river-runs” story that popped up in and out of the main plot proper (if there really was one). It was all tad tricky to follow. Sahara didn’t have a throughput. It had a chess match. With camels. That much I was certain. There were camels. And that nebbish from The Office, too.

I’m also not sure if the heavy, micro-managed story sunk a lot of Sahara‘s flair and fun. Like I said, those things were there. But under the weight of the story’s delivery, a lot of the verve and urgeny got lost in the mix. Most of the humor fell flat, as well as being too broad. Our cast, although competent if not likable, felt held back (save Zahn, who’s a great character actor. Too bad he doesn’t catch a lot of work. He’s hilarious). If director Eisner was aiming for a 21st Century Raiders feel, he did it with a muted style. Some flair, sorta there. Blame the scenarists.

What I’m getting at is that Sahara was somewhat low-key for a supposedly rowdy action/adventure. I think think I know why, too. Boink, big surprise. The ostensible alpha plot of Pitt and Co searching for the lost treasure ship swiftly gets sidelined by the beta plot about the plague. With that, the whole adventure film feel slips into a socio-politco-eco meditation Trojan Horsed onto my TV. If an action flick has a message, it shouldn’t be overt. Gets in the way of the explosions, distressed damsels and dancing tigers on angel dust. The plot got convoluted, the treasure hunt thing got backburner’d and my attention drifted too often.

You get what I’m screaming now? If my childhood standard of how adventure films should look, sound and especially feel then Sahara grew not rough and tumble enough. It came across as ultimately overwrought and overproduced, like when George Lucas would not. Quit. F*cking around with the original Star Wars trilogy. That’s another thing. Sahara‘s big budget execution left nary a whit of character. All that cash made damn sure that all the bells and whistles were in full blare as the kitchen sink got tossed out the window and hopefully stuck. Sahara tried to have its cake. Tried to make too much sense. A lot of the adventure stuff got lost with the many diverging and converging plot threads, too much exposition, simultaneous languid and ADHD pacing (with the precious few scenes of serious action) and trying to convey a message, before God. In that vein, too much expo kills an action movie. It’s called an action movie, remember? Shut up and dance, already.

Where was the scruffiness? The feeling of adventure? The underlying lo-fi ethos that didn’t rely on CGI? The quirks and jokes and plausible denial that, yeah, Indy can cling to that sub’s conning tower all the way across the Mediterranean? It was there once and a while (and what was there was great), but the output was dizzying, and not it a whip-cracking kind of way. All the cool sh*t got hampered by the stuff I just mentioned. All of Sahara‘s clean and dense delivery didn’t leave a lot of room for unnecessary bits like shooting the swordsman to expedite matters. Hey, we all cross the median once in a while.

In other words, Sahara lacked charm. With all the potential, where was the charm here? Sahara didn’t have much, if any, that’s what. It lacked spark. It didn’t have that homespun quality that I enjoy, if not expect in adventure movies. Sahara was excessive, overly laden with expo and a rather heavy-handed message. It was too long, or at least felt that way. Too many intertwining plot threads. Too complex for your average, workaday adventure flick. Too much time demanding audiences to think. Death at the box office there. Sahara could’ve been so much more, if only it used less.

I’ll reel it back. Sahara had its fair share of obvious bright points. On the good side, Sahara‘s casting was impeccable. C’mon. Raiders had a super cast, from Ford to Black to Elliot for Pete’s sake. Despite the swamp our heroes had to muck through, at least Eisner knew how to assemble a great adventuring cast. I feel it was the best part of the movie.

Matt (I’ll refer to him as that because I have a bitch of a time spelling McConaughey) was a damn good maverick hero. He sure seemed to like being Dirk Pitt (even though his delivery was a lot like Wooderson only with money and a boat. Still trying to score that almost out-of-reach opportunity. All right, all right, all right). Matt’s glee was infectious, and a far cry from his more “serious” roles as of late. You couldn’t wait to hang out with this Dirk guy, either across the ocean or at your neighborhood cookout. Matt was cocky without being a doosh. He was sharp in a MacGuyver sense. He played the whole leading man/rogue thing to the hilt. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Now Steve Zahn’s Al was a stitch. The guy’s come a long way since Caroline In The City. Right, he’s supposed to be Pitt’s best bud and sidekick. Zahn’s Al is played like an even balance between clueless and the man behind the curtain. Batman couldn’t truly be Batman without trusty Robin. Or Bucky Barnes. Even Clifford the big, red dog. Zahn got all the best lines, and toed the line between dolt and savant equally well. Who knew how vital the right ballcap could be in social interactions?

Cruz, despite being the implied lady in need of a hero, held herself well. Both with character and devotion to the cause (message) without overplaying her hand. Maybe like you, I got acquainted with Cruz via psychodrama Vanilla Sky or the hard-edged Blow. The woman could never carry a movie, but pair her with the right actors? Box office gold. She’s a very good supporting actress, protean in all her roles. Her Eva is no different. If you consider it, she is the impetus that gets Sahara off and running, not some lost Confederate gold. Despite the pregnant plot, Cruz’ Rojas was the most effervescent element to keep the movie afloat despite its own weight.

So needless to say, I loved Sahara‘s cast. Macy was fun. James was menacing. Lambert was slime. Wilson was the resident dork. Despite all the hallmarks of a straight ahead adventure film getting hot and heavy with Sahara, Eisner sure was a whiz when it came to working his chess board. It kept the film on track—albeit against the sandy grain of the story—which in turn allowed that vital flair now and again. Gave me enough hope to keep watching the thing.

It’s that kind of smarts that made Sahara so disappointing to me. I had to watch the movie twice (never a good sign) to both “get” the plot and see if I missed any flashes in the pan. I did and I didn’t. Overall, neglecting my myopic view regarding watching adventure flicks via sh*tty magnetic tape equating quality, Sahara was a good, bloated, overreaching flick with a great cast and a plot as thick as molasses in January with too big a budget to demand urgency. Like I said, schizo. Frustrating.

So thank you. This installment was brought to you courtesy of a little smear of Vaseline on the lens of memory. VHS sucks on toast against DVDs, Blu-Rays, YouTube feeds and bedeviled childhood wonder. Be kind, rewind.

*whip crack*

“I am so tired of being shot at!”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Sahara tried hard to be fun. But it tried. Half the time it was fun, then that pesky plot kept rearing its head. Mind the mixture. It’s good it fits and starts, but then that’s what I’ve heard about smack. Party at the Moon Tower then.


Stray Observations…

  • “Hey, my dad collects coins.”
  • I do love the 70s soundtrack.
  • That was the silliest chase scene ever.
  • That whole “Dirk Pitt Adventure” tag in the opening credits: was Sahara supposed to launch a franchise? For those not paying attention, it didn’t.
  • “You should put the money to better use…”
  • Breck? Isn’t that a kind of shampoo?
  • “I have some bad news about your boat…”
  • “Nobody cares about Africa!” All too true.
  • I gotta admit, the improvised windjammer scene made me smile.
  • “I’ll get the bomb. You get the girl.” “Deal.” Go! Team! Venture!
  • “Hi! How are ya?”

Next Installment…

You can’t keep anything quiet in a small down, be it an affair, a crime or an insistent need to abscond with millions of dollars to get the f*ck out of said small town. The Ice Harvest is on deck, folks. I’ll think of a more clever tagline the next time out. Peace and chicken grease, bitches.


RIORI Vol 3, Installment 46: Jon Amiel’s “The Core” (2003)


The Core


The Players…

Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood, with DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Tcheky Karyo and Alfre Woodard.


The Story…

The Earth’s inner core has stopped spinning, and scientist Josh Keyes with his fellow maverick seismologists must discover why before the planet literally falls apart. So by burrowing into the planet’s center in an elite vessel they might dig deep enough to get to (wait for it) the core of the crisis.

I warned you.


The Rant…

A funny thing happened on the way to the Blu-Ray player.

I initially meant to open this week’s salvo with a treatise on the ways and means of a proper disaster film. Then insomnia intervened and the 9-year old woke up multiple times to interrupt dad’s questionable movie watching practices.

It was late. Later than usual for me to hunker down in front of the screen with the disc, the notebook, the essential libations and my pen clutched in my hot little hand. Time for another evening of Press Your Luck via Netflix. It’s the stuff dreams are made of, or nightmares of a frustrated wifey who’d rather  canoodle that accept the vital nature of this blogger’s ongoing opus. Either way, I had beer and a lack of Pop-Tarts.

Whatever.

Midnight was nigh, and I was beat as well as falling behind with my chosen duties. Good thing I had the day off tomorrow; the flick was over two hours long! Could see the sun cracking the horizon by my timetable, including all the pretzels, bathroom breaks and cracking open more truth elixir. Let me tell you, with my nutty watching habits a 90 minute flick can stretch into three hours easily. I have to go outside to smoke, well into the next county it feels. And you can kill a guy anywhere. Go fig.

But twenty minutes into The Core I was interrupted in the worst way. We’re not talking power outages, scratches in the disc (which did happen once or twice truth be told. More on that sh*t later for those cinephiles who can’t afford streaming), or the neighbor kids jacked up on the Mountain Dew and wailing on their guitars for an impromptu garage band practice consisting of and only of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” remixed by Moby.

No. Worse. A nine-year old girl with insomnia. And dad one-third through the movie and halfway in the bag to boot. Not a Pop-Tart to be seen.

She was stressed out. Happens to kids of all ages. Mom started a new job and was gone most of the night. I clocked out late, too, but Grammy and Pop Pop were gracious enough to hold down the fort until I scooped her up. But Mom wasn’t around as she usually was. No one to chit chat with while Dad’s toiling away in the Seventh Level. Chicken nuggets for dinner again (and again). The general household dynamic torn asunder (and her stepsister kept away from yet another weekend visit by her dooshy daddy, but that’s another story). So yeah, kid’s stressed and therefore cannot seek slumber.

She’s vaguely aware of Dad’s clandestine movie habits and plopped down on the couch to both talk about her lousy sleep and wonder what the f*ck Daddy is watching. I explained to her the gist of the movie and asked (for the hell of it) if she’d join me. By that time the flick was on pause for an eternity, blaring a frozen shot of our heroes trying to extricate their high tech tunneling machine from within an enormous geode. For real. After I explained what a geode was I resumed the film. She watched for about ten minutes (The Core is PG-13 BTW, but I’m over 13 and figured it was okay for the kid to follow along. Don’t judge me) before abrupt protestations.

“It’s too loud! It’s too scary! I don’t know what’s going on!”

Through simple serendipity, a nine-year old girl with insomnia summed up the best mindset regarding a good disaster movie beyond any half-baked blather I could muster. Sure, she didn’t “get” the flick (PG-13 mind you. And shaddap) but her reaction purely illustrates how we should all watch a movie like The Core. In simpler terms, get bewildered and bamboozled. Then find more beer. It helps, believe me. Burp.

But in all seriousness, a good disaster flick should be loud, sometimes scary and make you unsure as to which way is up. A healthy dose of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to let your brain be scrambled into submission both help. Go along with it. Follow stupid down the rabbit hole. Allow some (partial) credence for Michael Bay’s oeuvre for a bit. Check your coat at the front desk. Eat the Oreo’s frosting first. Enjoy the bombast and the dumb, if only for two hours. Then you can get back to the Lars Von Trier binge watch. Don’t forget the Cheetos and the Dustbuster.

That being said, riddle me this. Did The Core takes nods from the pyrotechnics that came before? Was the same demented structure of chaos and creation take hold? Did Gene Hackman let go of that valve at the right time?

Perhaps. First, let’s dig a bit deeper…


Ill winds are blowing through Earth’s ionosphere. Solar winds.

Peculiar environmental phenomena have been popping up around the globe as of late. Auroras over Washington. Birds losing their ability to navigate. Earthquakes nowhere near tectonic activity. What’s worse Wi-Fi keeps crapping out everywhere. What the hell’s going on?

Dr John Keyes (Eckhart) has a theory. Being a seismologist, he’s pretty in touch with how the Earth eats, breathes and occasionally farts. By all the disparate chaos suddenly plaguing the planet, he has a theory. The outer core of the Earth, the part that controls its EMF, has stopped its rotation. That means in three months everything on Earth that is powered by electricity will halt. Within a year, the sun’s radiation will burn our world to a crisp. Ouch.

What to do to avoid this calamity? Well first, don’t panic. Second, convince the powers that be that this is an apocalyptic threat. Third, don’t panic, for surely there are a collective of science geeks out there who are sharp enough and nuts enough to correct the problem. Namely, and essentially jump-starting an entire planet. No sweat, right?

Keyes (with his maverick theories) gets indoctrinated into a military cabal—which is never a good sign—to initiate a mission to delve into Earth’s inner core to “reactivate” its rotation. Among Keyes’ rogue’s gallery, we have assembled quite the unique crew. We have Conrad Zinksy (Tucci), the preeminent seismologist on the planet to guide the insane mission to tunnel into the Earth (backed up with his supreme arrogance). His former, alienated genius Watson to his Holmes, Dr “Brazz” Brazelton (Lindo) has devised a means to travel into the Earth’s mantle—a nigh indestructible machine—and hopefully intervene with the globe’s eminent failure. And lastly, but not most leastly former space shuttle pilot Major Rebecca “Beck” Childs (Swank) to guide Brazz’ experiment home.

So we got the know-how, we got the tech and we got the mission. Get Earth’s core a-swirling again. But it’s never that easy, is it? ‘Course not. We gotta toss in some MIC intrigue and a giggling robot for the kiddies.

Wait. No giggling robot? Well is is a PG-13 flick after all. Movie sign!…


What I was rambling about earlier with my reluctant, sleepless sidekick holds true regarding disaster films. Too loud. To perilous. Confusion is scads. Believe it or not these are good things to have with such films. Suspension of belief is paramount.

If you were young enough to remember them (and sure as sh*t I wasn’t), TV mogul Irwin Allen of Lost In Space fame got a wild hair up his ass and got into the motion picture action. His notable contributions were The Poseidon AdventureThe Towering Inferno and to a lesser extent The Swarm (hell, at least that muckity-muck got Henry Fonda some work). All were a melange of let’s throw sh*t at a wall and see what sticks, hopefully running down to the floor in a gooey mess. A mess the audiences would love to slop around in.

To wit, Allen’s cinema schlockfests were dappled with a cast of thousands (often with name stars like Gene Hackman, the aforementioned Henry Fonda and even Paul Newman for pity’s sake), all put in perilous positions of penultimate tragedy with a lot of splash and dash in between to culminate in a satisfying ending. Lotsa pyrotechnics and histrionics in there for good measure, too. Plus a lot of cheesy dialogue to boot. Y’know, to lighten the load. Hoorahs all around.

All Allen’s potboilers are fun so long as you don’t think too much about you willingly subjected yourself to. That’s the key, and director Amiel tapped into this philosophy very keenly with The Core. Keep it fun, keep it fast, keep it dumb. In that order. Works well, which is why the peanut butter and jelly sandwich has endured for almost a century. Please trim off the crust. We don’t require anything that resembles substance here. It’s barely an afterthought.

Okay now. Where to begin? Allen’s cheesewheels always starred a mishmash of prominent actors (of their time) pitted against/collaborating with lesser knowns. Again, Amiel took notes. We have the notoriously reliable unreliable Aaron Eckhart as our reluctant hero. I have no love lost on Eckhart. Virtually every film he’s been in he seems out of place. Worse, like bewildered he’s even in a movie to begin with. How the hell did I end up here? Well, in Core, that flappable nature finally comes to good use. What I mean is that you ever catch Battle: Los Angeles? Right. I ain’t supposed to be here. Based on that, Core presents us with Eckhart’s best, most accessible acting until The Dark Knight got released. His skittish, nerdy scientist might be the go to for geek freak as soon as Jeff Goldblum retires. Eckhart here never overplays his hand. Read: he doesn’t ham it up, despite the fact that there are plenty of chances to chew the drywall. His Dr Keyes is the only solid voice of reason—therefore the pinion—which the movie turns. It’s almost as if Eckhart is aware that Core is an Allen rip-off, so he plays the part right. He’s our Dr John Robinson, minus a spine. Underdogs always play well at the ticket taker, don’cha know. Worked for me. I found his acting fun.

And fun is the watchword towards our remaining cast members. Be mindful that The Core‘s plot is ludicrous, so the actors better shape up to carry this farce to the bitter end with elan or at least  marginal competence. Overall, they’re likable. No, I mean it. For the film’s contexts the cast and crew of the Virgil are all enjoyable (even Tucci’s snot. I enjoyed his smarm). The key to this is stereotyping. I know, I was just as surprised as you are. If The Core is a nod to Allen disaster flicks, then there better be a disparate mishmash of oddballs and heroes at the ready, all of which possess that certain something that makes it all click. What is this magic ingredient?

Simple. Stereotyping.

Why do we stereotype? Because it’s easier and it’s quicker. With the rapid fire pace The Core delivers, really deep character study is superfluous. Just go along with the reluctant hero-moustache twirling rapscallion-maverick scientist-plotting MIC types. And a girl. Gotta have a girl. Helps if she’s pretty, and carrying around an Oscar adds a bit of street cred, too. The Core‘s casting is straight out of a John Hughes reunion, chockablock with all the dopey sci-fi stereotypes you can shake a stick at. And all of them reassuringly cheesy with faceplam-worthy dialogue to boot. Makes the mission go down a bit easier overall. So to speak.

Still with all the B-movie histrionics, wonky characters and implausible…everything, The Core is lacking in a few basic, first grade elements that could’ve elevated it to Irwin Allen fractured glory. I’m always talking about pacing here at RIORI. How it’s absolutely essential to drive the plot. Now The Core does have decent pacing, but there is some noticeable sputtering throughout the thing. To wit, is there such a thing as reserved urgency? If so, then this movie has it. Right, right, we know the Earth is doomed. The thinktank is working on a rescue plan. Things seem very dire. Then why are all these folks so damned rational about it? I know our crew is composed of steely military types and MIT misfits known to be more mindful that emotional. But this is a movie, too. If this were the ideal disaster flick, there’d be sufficient freak-outs countered by urgent emotional face-slapping to quell the rantings (“Forget him! He’s gone!” “No he’s not!” – Hicks and Vasquez from Aliens, BTW). Nope. Some shouting, but that’s about it.

An aside: despite the dynamite casting, we have a glaring issue. I don’t care about her Oscars. Hilary Swank seems really out of place here. Even if she got her start as The Next Karate Kid, action apparently isn’t her strong suit. Most of the film Beck seems wobbly, detached and wooden. The look on her face most of the time says, “Stupid agent.” Even Alfre Woodard—one of my fave actresses—who is on par with Swank’s dramatic chops snarls a lot better that Hilary does. Other than Swank, as I’ve pounded on, the rest of the cast was great.

One more thing for the bitch board: Amiel may have been trying to honor Allen’s disaster flicks with The Core, but overall his work came across as “Poor Man’s Emmerich.” Noodle that one. Sure, the action plays out smooth, but the direction was also kinda tame. It was as if Amiel was playing it safe, holding back. I know that sounds hard to believe after my glowing shiny shiny, but there’s this feeling of drawing the whole thing out (at 2 plus hours running time, this isn’t such a stretch. So to speak). A little too much roominess for all the ensuing pyrotechnics. It can make for a sort of uneven viewing experience, a la that “reserved urgency.” Emmerich throws everything and the kitchen sink out the freakin’ window with his bread and circuses. Amiel should’ve cranked up the nutty a bit more is all. Just sayin’.

Despite the dumb and corn (or perhaps because of it), I dug The Core. So to speak. I’ll stop that now. It’s a complete waste of time. The acting is silly. The story is demented. The F/X were awesome. Just toss the remote over your shoulder—after you’ve grabbed a cold six first—watch and let your cranium fill with Oreo filling. Some action movies are dramatic. Some are violent. And some are just unapologetically stupid. That being said, Irwin Allen would’ve approved of The Core.

Now if it only had a Leslie Nielsen cameo. Box office gold.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Its flaws make it great. Like with Pacific Rim, don’t think too hard about it. Just go with it. Better get two sixers for optimal viewing pleasure. Play it safe.


Stray Observations…

  • “There’s nothing on the other side of the equal sign.” I suck at math, too.
  • “Unobtainium?” Isn’t that the crap the bad guys were mining for in Avatar? Cameron, first the Harlan Ellison swipe and now this?
  • “God, I hate this sky.” F*cking smog I tell ya.
  • This must be the first disaster movie ever that has a simulator of an imaginary machine. Told you Amiel was kind of playing it safe.
  • “All right. I’m hitting him again.”
  • Wouldn’t Journey To The Center Of The Earth be a better title? Ah, right. Been done and has too many words for modern Pokemon Go audiences.
  • “After that it gets bad.”

Next Installment…

“Better leave her behind with The Kids Are All Right.”