Web Extra Friday, April 11

Watching The Core: A movie review

Geotimes went to the movies with four geophysicists from the Carnegie Institution of Washington to see the new blockbuster movie The Core. The event was an experiment for all, being Geotimes' first movie review. With Hollywood blaming its newest apocalypse on Earth's core, we couldn't resist.

In the movie, Earth's core has stopped "spinning" thanks to a secret government screw-up. As a result, the planet's magnetic field begins to weaken, causing all sorts of problems. People die suddenly, birds become navigationally inept, and compasses drift off course. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Major Beck Childs (Hillary Swank) helps save the shuttle Endeavor from crashing into downtown Los Angeles by using old-fashioned geometry, a map and a pencil to plot a better landing course.

The cast of The Core, beginning lower left and going clockwise: Hilary Swank, Aaron Eckhart, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, Tcheky Karyo and Bruce Greenwood. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Beck then joins our hero geophysicist Josh Keys (Aaron Eckhart) to help save the planet itself. The two are part of a team of "terranauts" who must drill their way to the interior of Earth and set off nuclear bombs in its outer core. This they believe will return the core's natural "spin" and reset the magnetic field. As they begin their journey, the weather takes a turn for the worse and the unusual. Beautiful auroras are seen every night in Washington, D.C., for example, and lightning storms ravage cities around the world. The threat of solar radiation burning the planet to cinders begins in San Francisco.

Joining me at the movies was Director emeritus Hatten Yoder from the Geophysical Laboratory, who admitted he hadn't seen a movie in a theater in more than 15 years. Would he again after The Core? From the department of Terrestrial Magnetism was post-doc Steven Hauck and staff members David James and Alan Linde, whose wife Caroline Linde also joined us.

As we bought a bucket of popcorn to share, James explained his criteria for a quality science fiction film. "The primary requirement for a good science fiction movie is one leap of faith. Once you accept that, everything else bridges scientifically, logically and consistently. Otherwise the movie doesn't seem believable."

That didn't bode well for The Core, but James was willing to give it a go. As we sat down, I gave everyone a prime directive: To watch for copies of Geotimes in office scenes. Paramount Pictures had requested past issues of Geotimes to use as background props.

The lights in the theater dimmed and Yoder turned to whisper, "I hope these people brought their asbestos suits. It gets hot down here, [in the core]." Indeed, 3,500 degrees Celsius, he added.

The Core begins in London with a series of unexplained deaths and a dramatic frenzy of pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Then the scene turns to geophysicist Josh Keys at the University of Chicago. "Sound waves lose frequency as they travel through denser material," he says to a classroom of students. What was that, Keys? "I think he was referring to attenuation," Linde explained after the movie. "But you can't change frequency, just amplitude." Uh-oh, not even 10 minutes into the show and the leaps of faith are starting. No wonder Keys' Geology 101 students are falling asleep or doing their nails.

Thankfully the FBI pulls Keys from his class to bring him and his French buddy Serge Levesque (Tcheky Karyo) — who we learn later is not only a biochemist, but also an atomic weapons expert — in to help them explain the mysterious deaths and cool Hitchcock-like pigeon behavior. As it turns out, only people with pace-makers died.

Back in the geology office, a graduate student explains the bird-storm phenomenon: "Ions in birds' brains align with the magnetic field on Earth." Remember that sentence. I'm not certain, but I think it is the only time in the movie where Earth's magnetic field is not mistakenly referred to as an electromagnetic field. This inaccuracy irritated the Carnegie geophysicists throughout the film.

The movie takes its time developing the characters before throwing them together to adventure into Earth's outer core. When the mission begins, the movie provides its own perspective on what the Earth's interior might look like and how these brilliant people with varing backgrounds might interact.

In a discussion following the movie Linde asked, "What's this about an electromagnetic field?"

"That was garbage," Hauck responded.

"That was a complete basic screw-up," Linde returned.

James explained the movie-makers' mistake: "It's a magnetic field but electormagneatic phenomena is associated with..." he looked to Hauck.

"The ionosphere," Hauck replied.

Linde boiled it down, "Fundamentally, Earth has a magnetic field and all the other stuff is a consequence of that."

What other leaps of faith did the movie demand?

The Core Web site accurately shows the reversal of Earth's magnetic field taking 1,500 years — only they inaccurately refer to it as the electromagnetic field. Photo modified from Paramount Pictures The Core.

Did the movie get anything correct?

"The core is about the size of Mars," Hauck said.

The thicknesses of the crust, mantle and core were also on target and as far as fruit goes, a peach is a pretty good analogy to Earth. All agreed, too, that the scene with the shuttle is the best one in the entire movie — although I would have to watch it again to check that Major Childs got her latitude and longitude correct. In reality, the Los Angeles River is between 33 and 34 degrees north latitude, and 118 degrees west longitude. If anyone else goes to see this movie please let me know what she scribbled down as the latitude and longitude for the landing. The Carnegie geophysicists and I aren't interested in watching The Core twice. And none of us saw an issue of Geotimes lying around, but then maybe that's alright.

Christina Reed


The Core Web site has real science links to follow and is fun to investigate after watching the movie.

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