April 10, 2003

Rotten to the Core

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In the opening scene, we see a businessman drop dead onto a glass table in front of some potential clients. Then the curtains of the room are drawn back, revealing chaos in the streets, as people are dying everywhere. Next scene, it’s Dr. Joshua Keyes (Eckhart), teaching bored students about electro-magnetism at the University of Chicago. He’s soon whisked out of class by some nice fellows in military uniforms, who then take him to see these dead bodies. A General Purcell (Richard Jenkins) asks Dr. Keyes to attempt an explanation as to why these people have died. Using his own presence as a clue, Dr. Keyes determines (in under a minute, no less), that every one of the casualties had a pacemaker. After assuring General Purcell that there’s no way a weapon could’ve killed these people by targeting their pacemaker, Dr. Keyes is then sent on his way with a thank you. Not confusing at all.

But Dr. Keyes’s curiosity has been piqued after all that, and I guess ours is supposed to have been too. After painstaking research, Dr. Keyes shows his results to a certain famous physicist, Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci, wonderfully pompous), who tries to assure Dr. Keyes that there is no way his research could be correct. Eventually we find out that Dr. Keyes was correct, that the core of the earth had stopped spinning. When this line was delivered, the whole theatre just started laughing. Never a good sign.

It’s not just the ridiculous premise that makes this movie ridiculous, but also the bad script, bad special effects (though some of them were good, so I can’t rag on that aspect too much), and the campy characters. For example, in the role of Rat, the best computer hacker in the world, is D.J. Qualls, most remembered for being the nerdy, skinny kid from the movie Road Trip. Qualls’s character is one big hacker stereotype, right down to the oily skin and jones for Hot Pockets. My favorite line of Rat’s is when he says that he’s going to “Hack the planet.” While campy characters can be great, they generally work better in campy movies.

The actors in this movie actually deserve a lot of credit for making this movie tolerable and in many ways fun. As I said, Tucci is wonderful as the guy that we all hate, and Swank brings some real emotion to the movie. Eckhart is adorable as the scientist trying to be tough, though not easily recognizable without the biker moustache and sideburns he donned in Erin Brockovich. These actors can’t help that the science in this film was completely preposterous and mostly made up, or so my Engineering friend informed me. Not that most people would know what the heck the actors were talking about, but it just makes one lose respect for the movie when you know it’s completely wrong.

Speaking of losing respect, I’m not sure where director Jon Amiel went wrong. He’s an English grad from Cambridge University and has quite a few beautiful films to his name. Queen of Hearts opened at the Cannes Film Festival and won quite a few prestigious awards, while Tune in Tomorrow won the Prix Publique at the Deauville Film Festival. Then Amiel came to Hollywood and made Entrapment. All I can think is that he must have had gobs of money thrown at him.

At some points it seems as if the movie is trying to be a serious action movie and go for the dramatic feel that leaves you clutching either your armrest, or the arm of the person next to you. There were quite a few deaths in the film, and some of them were quite heart-wrenching. Other deaths were dealt with in an almost comical way, prompting me to laugh at a character’s demise. This is a real problem with the film. If it could have chosen to be silly and to laugh at its own ridiculous nature, then it would have been much better. That did come through in some scenes, but not nearly enough.

Definitely a weak point in the movie was the tense climax, where the survivors of the trip to the core of the earth are rushing back to the surface, and then there’s a sixteen hour break. Now, that tends to take away some of the tension and immediacy generated in a tightly timed scene. An easy way to avoid that would have been cutting straight to the people still on the surface of the earth, leaving tension as to whether or not the survivors made it back to the surface.

I had a laugh watching this movie, though that’s probably not what the director intended. At least it wasn’t just a plain bad movie, but fun and easy to mock. With all the bad movies I’ve seen lately, that’s how I’m beginning to measure them, on their own special scale. And on that scale, this definitely wasn’t the worst movie ever (that dubious distinction goes to Bringing Down the House). However, I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it.

Archived article by Sue Karp