A disaster movie featuring the Golden Gate Bridge gone slack as taffy and a space shuttle in re-entry distress should have viewers tearing out their hair, but The Core, with its undigestible fusion of worst-case earth science and leaden pacing, is oddly comforting. The mysterious stasis of the liquid portion of the earth’s core (click here for diagram) has caused magnetic fields to go haywire (pacemaker wearers keeling over in Boston) and permitted microwave radiation to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere (Rome undone in a day). But Elaine Scarry alarmism notwithstanding, Park’s Third Law of Complacency holds: If the doomsday road map is this labyrinthine, the threat from intraplanet constipation is likely not large.
Then again, after pigeons falling from the London sky, Hilary Swank in a non-cross-dressing role might be one of the signs of the apocalypse. She’s a gum-cracking NASA pilot enlisted to help navigate an enormous drill bit as it plunges through the earth’s mantle, bearing nukes to get the stuck matter swimming again. Much of The Core consists of Swank grimacing at a screen on which rubble appears, to be zapped or avoided; for the audience, it’s a bit like watching someone play endless rounds of 3-D Dig Dug. Others on board include Stanley Tucci as a pompous pop scientist and Aaron Eckhart as a well-muscled prof. “It’s as if we’re diving into the memory of the planet,” muses Tucci into his tape recorder. Periodic intertitles, meant to convey the enormity of the task, instead read like milestones to the Land of Nod (“35 hours in, 900 miles”).
The magma lashing the ship’s hull suggests less the end of the world than the iconography of Journey album covers; inside, a few too many doors slam hermetically shut, necessitating intermittent sacrifices. By the time the whales save the day, Greenpeace representatives will be located at the exits with pamphlets and contribution envelopes, and the first waggish marquee letterman will be substituting B for C.
Basic is much scarier than its sci-fi counterpart, to judge by this phrase found scrawled in my notebook: Travolta in shower. Disgraced DEA agent Tom Hardy (the film is nothing if not a reimagining of The Mayor of Casterbridge) is lured far from the madding crowd by an old military crony (Tim Daly) to solve a bizarre mystery: the apparent murder of the despised, maniacal Sergeant West (Samuel L. Jackson) and the subsequent bloodbath involving trainees on a “Green Hell” practice sortie, deep in the Panamanian jungle. Chronology conspires to keep the Pulp Fiction amigos apart, meaning Travolta mainly consorts with the official investigator, Lieutenant Osborne (Connie Nielsen), sporting an accent that’s Savannah by way of Schleswig-Holstein.
The mission’s two survivors (Dash Mihok and Giovanni Ribisi) land in a Rashomonotonous prisoner’s dilemma. Are they circumstantial allies—or part of a coke-smuggling operation? What to make of the eerie lemniscate design brandished by each interrogatee? Diluting the tension is the sheer number of names to be attached to grimy, half-seen faces.
Such confusion makes the script-flipping finale something of a respite, as it gives one an excuse to forget everything that’s happened. Fans of The Game and The Usual Suspects may relish Basic‘s orgy of 11th-hour carpet pulling. Nothing is as it appears, except the fact that nothing is as it appears. Alas: One hesitates to break the implicit publicist’s omertà by revealing the true grain of Basic‘s narrative frame, and so it is with some regret that I cannot detail how this is all a fever dream of Shaft’s, a jeu d’esprit concocted by that project’s star and director to tide us over till the sequel.