(PG-13) 2 1/2 stars

The Core is essentially a flip-flop version of Armageddon, a preposterous save-the-world movie. Where Armageddon had a rag-tag team of astronauts journeying into space to nuke a "Texas-sized" asteroid headed straight for us, The Core sends an ultra-brainy group of "terranauts" into the ground to save the Earth by using nukes to jump-start the stalled core of the planet.

Big, stupid effects-filled movies can be entertaining diversions and The Core certainly has its moments. But the specter of the Sept. 11 atrocities, the recent space shuttle explosion and a numbing third act combine to sap much of the fun from this tall tale.

Once upon a time, a space shuttle making an emergency landing would simply have made for thrill-packed viewing. But instead of enjoying the film's outlandish shuttle set piece, I was wrenched out of the story by thoughts of the recent explosion of the Columbia.

Entertainment Weekly asked director Jon Amiel about the scene and he said, "When the Columbia disaster happened, we thought seriously about what we should do. We finally felt that in our sequence, you not only see the crew surviving, but many other lives are saved by their heroism. We thought the sequence stood as a testament to what these guys do."

As is the norm with this kind of movie, a couple of landmarks are destroyed. In this case, the Colosseum blows up and the Golden Gate Bridge collapses. Questioned about the decision to present such images to post-Sept. 11 audiences, Amiel told EW, "We're making an end-of-the-world movie. You need to see events of global scale happening. I could blow up a mountain range, but it doesn't have the same effect as seeing a beloved city destroyed. Yet we were very careful about images of human suffering. There's no blood in the film. There's no evisceration. We were careful to tell our story in a way that hopefully maximized the poignancy of the event but minimized the images of human suffering."

Fine, but when those bloodless scenes occurred, I left the story and flashed back to that horrible morning in 2001. Maybe I'm hypersensitive. I used to love watching famous places blow up in movies. Certainly, I wasn't alone.

The creators of the comic book series based on Mars Attacks were bombarded with letters from fans begging them to destroy their hometown landmarks. They finally turned it into a contest where, each issue, the invading aliens would explode the most notable buildings in the city of the winner's choosing.

It was fun then, back in the days before it started happening for real. But enough about that. If the scenes work for you, great. And if you find them disquieting, welcome to my world.

The story goes like this: The core of our planet has stopped rotating (the reason is not revealed until late in the film, though ads for the movie state it loud and clear). As a result, the planet's electromagnetic field begins to deteriorate. Breaks in the field trigger nightmares around the globe: Thirty-two Bostonians with pacemakers, all in a 10-block radius, suddenly drop dead; hundreds of navigation-impaired birds in London's Trafalgar Square crash into buildings and vehicles; the landmarks in Rome and San Francisco are destroyed.

A plan is hastily devised. Geophysicist Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) and a group of scientists will head for the center of the Earth in a ship piloted by Maj. Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank) and Cmdr. Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood). There they will detonate a nuclear bomb that, in theory, will reactivate the core and save the world.

Standouts in the impressive cast are Stanley Tucci, enjoyable as an effete geophysicist with a massive ego, D.J. Qualls as the ultimate computer geek ("If I do this, I"m going to need an unlimited supply of Xena tapes and Hot Pockets.") and Delroy Lindo as a scientist as grizzly as he is brilliant. The other actors add what color they can to standard-issue characters. Special effects start off strong, but get progressively chintzier as the production advances.

The script also gets worse as time proceeds. The third act is the low point, as the moment for heroic sacrifice arrives and the filmmakers try to get serious. The barrage of technobabble and the massive gaps in the film's internal logic becomes enervating. I'm willing to accept the notion of a ship capable of withstanding outside air pressure of 800,000 pounds per square inch, but don't expect me to keep a straight face when a character successfully ventures outside. Ultimately, The Core just sputters to a close.


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