Rotten to the core

Film - Philip Kerr finds plenty of bad-taste moments to enjoy in a preposterous disaster movie

Remember Armageddon? Yes, of course you do. No, not the place where the heavenly armies of George "Burning" Bush will defeat the demon-led armies of evil. Praise the Lord! I mean the homoerotic movie that starred Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck as a pair of rough-neck oil drillers who land a spacecraft on an asteroid that is on a collision course with earth, and drop a nuclear warhead into its core. Well, The Core is pretty much the same movie, only dumber. This time, we are asked to believe that the earth's core - "the stone in the middle of the peach", runs the L'Oreal-commercial-style "science" that sets up this preposterous picture - has stopped spinning, and needs to be kick-started with a nuclear warhead. This is the explanation for all sorts of electromagnetic phenomena that help to make this picture a barrel of unintentional laughs.

Take the bit where the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is melted by microwave radiation from the sun. Anyone who has ever been to San Francisco will know this must be a joke - the sun never shines in San Francisco. And then there's the bit where Rome, the Eternal City, is reduced to a heap of burning polystyrene and smoking balsa wood (surely the same model used by the producers of Quo Vadis? for the scene where Peter Ustinov torched the city while plucking his lyre) after an electrical storm catches the Pope napping, and rolls out of the clouds like the Second Coming. I guess the film-makers would have destroyed Paris, too, except that they already nuked it when they made Independence Day. (And Americans wonder why the French don't like them.)

Incidentally, I can't help noticing that, for once, there is no threat to New York City, which makes me think that the poor souls who live there can't take it any more. It's not so very long ago that New York was the most important city in the world, and was always being threatened by terrorists, giant dinosaurs and overgrown gorillas. No more. Destroy Rome, sure, that's fine - they're just Italians; but, to borrow a phrase of Basil Fawlty's: "Don't mention New York."

Generally speaking, I quite like things that are in bad taste. The main reason I joined the Labour Party was so that I could do a Bernie Ecclestone and write to David Triesman offering the 1000 Club ten grand if, right now, the government withdraws our troops from Iraq. Bad taste is part of the fun of this job. If I wasn't the NS critic, I would only ever see good films; and I would certainly have missed my favourite moment in The Core, which is the near-disastrous landing of the space shuttle.

Driven off course by an electromagnetic pulse from the earth's core (at least I think that's what happened) the shuttle, glowing an attractive shade of white-hot, re-enters the atmosphere not over the desert but - shock! horror! - over Los Angeles. And, for one exciting moment, I thought we were going to see it crash into the back lot at Paramount Pictures, which is where this cinematic turkey was launched. Sadly, however, the shuttle is piloted by Hilary Swank, who is much too good-looking to die (or, it would seem, to act), and she manages to land the craft in the LA River, about a mile from where Jack Nicholson has his nose filleted in Chinatown, and where Arnie goes for a motorcycle ride in Terminator 2. So the crew are all OK and the shuttle survives to fly another day. Phew! Talk about tense. Now that's what I call bad taste.

"How could this happen?" asks the dork in charge of the National Security Agency, staring at the peach. (Remember the peach?) Naturally, right from the start, we know who is responsible for screwing up the earth's core. The US military. And given the number of movies in which this has happened before (most famously, Dr Strangelove - which perhaps started the ball rolling on US military incompetence on a cosmic scale), you wonder how the people of the United States - who are not as stupid as we sometimes like to paint them - can continue to allow the Pentagon and its creatures to rule their wonderful country.

This is a terrible film but, as disaster movies go, it's also a lot of fun, provided you check your brain in at the cinema door. Just for the record, I happen to think that the best disaster movie ever made was Val Guest's 1961 classic B-picture, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Given the obvious constraints of its budget, that now looks like a masterpiece of atmosphere and suspense, in comparison with the effects-heavy movie that is The Core.

The Core (12a) is on general release