Sci-fi, yes, but science too

Special to The Times

The core of Earth has stopped spinning. Massive destruction threatens life as we know it. Who you gonna call? Scientists, of course.

Admittedly, the premise of the new film “The Core” -- a team of scientists is sent to the center of the Earth in a specially designed ship to jump-start the whirling mass of molten metal that forms the core -- sounds pretty far-fetched. But the filmmakers say that while “The Core” is firmly rooted in fiction, it has a stronger footing in actual science than one might expect.

“I really felt like I wanted to reclaim this genre,” explains director John Amiel, “reclaim it from visual effects on behalf of storytelling, emotions and some real ideas. If you’ve got a big rock the size of Texas about to smash into the Earth, you get a bunch of big guys to blow it up. That’s simple. In this, there’s a lot of science. And not just the science to describe the predicament, but the science you need to define the solution.”

From outer to inner space


Cooper Layne, a writer and producer, first had the idea to “turn the space program upside down” after a visit to a Hawaiian volcano. Taking the concept to veteran producer David Foster, who was behind such films as Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” they later turned to writer John Rogers, a member of that small subset of screenwriters with a degree in physics. The production eventually hired a number of scientific consultants, including Richard Terrile, a planetary astronomer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked on such films as “2010" and “Solaris.”

Voicing a sentiment echoed by many members of the production team, Rogers says, “I really wanted to do a science-fiction film like I enjoyed as a kid -- a group of really smart people trying to figure out how to save the world through force of brain power as opposed to just willpower and charm. Real answers come from sticking to the true science. That’s where the cool stuff comes from.”

All the same, everyone involved admits there are points where the film is more sci-fi than sci fact.

As Rogers explains, “The big cheat is the ship is impossible.”


“In reality, the temperature you could withstand,” elaborates Layne, “but the pressure would be too much for any materials we currently have. The main objection from the scientists was the pressure. Hopefully the biggest fudge is the furthest thing from people’s minds.”

In a knowing wink, the material used in the film to make the ship is referred to as “Unobtainium.” This term is used by engineers and scientists to describe a necessary material that is theoretically cheap, available and easy to reproduce though not yet actually in existence.

Terrile also admits that there are certain inaccuracies in the film that just couldn’t be fixed. “Clearly there are stretches one must accept. One must accept there is a problem with the Earth’s core, that there is something humans can do, that there is technology available to go down there and that we would send a piloted crew. These are rather broad reaches, and each one requires a bit of finesse in technology or knowledge. You have to take worst-case scenarios to their ultimate worst case. That’s the challenge, to make it credible but not absolutely scientifically accurate, because you can’t do that. This is science fiction, it’s not science fact.”

Which leads to the question: Does the audience care? Do people really know or notice if something is scientifically accurate?


“I think audiences are becoming more sophisticated,” Terrile says. “Even unconsciously, audiences know when something is not quite right or is sloppy, like a continuity error. Ultimately all the special effects and all the science should be totally transparent to them.”

Rogers agrees, noting that “audiences are smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for. Do they notice when one thing is wrong, two things are wrong? Not really. But when you’re off in fantasy land with the technology, it distances you from the people in that environment. I think people notice when it’s all whiz-bang science fantasy. Lazy science trivializes serious drama.”

Chasing down the theory

Coincidentally, while production was finishing last summer, Foster noticed a Discover magazine cover story on a new theory about the Earth’s core. This led the production to J. Marvin Herndon, a San Diego scientist who has been publishing articles positing that the core is in essence a giant nuclear reactor -- a belief not widely shared by other scientists. He envisions the possibility of the core’s eventual shutdown with repercussions eerily similar to those in the film.


Both Herndon and the production team were surprised to find others confirming their ideas about the possibilities for the world’s demise.

“When he called he was actually kind of spooked,” Rogers says, “like, ‘Who are you people? All this is in my paper.’ It was nice for me because in his view we hadn’t gone that far off the real science even when we had to dramatize things. When he came to us, it was a kind of nice validation.”

Herndon presents a timeline for the slowdown of the core at anywhere from 100 to 100 million years, a reasonable window in planetary terms. Though his theories have yet to be picked up by the larger scientific community, they demonstrate how little we truly know about the inner workings of our own planet.

“The Earth’s core is the same size as the planet Mars,” Terrile explains. “We know a lot more about Mars than we do about the Earth’s core, even though it’s tens of millions of miles away. The quickest path to the unknown is straight down.”