Reviewed by Ken Fox

The similarities between this doomsday adventure and Michael Bay's overblown ARMAGEDDON are too numerous to ignore; the crucial difference is that this one is actually pretty good. The premise, however, is the same: Devastating natural phenomena strike Earth's major cities, inspiring a crew of unlikely heroes to save the world from imminent destruction. In Boston, citizens with pacemakers suddenly drop dead. In London, flocks of pigeons that normally navigate according to the Earth's magnetic field swarm in a disoriented frenzy. A momentary communications blip over California nearly sends the Space Shuttle Endeavor, piloted by Commander Richard Iverson (Bruce Greenwood) and Major Rebecca "Beck" Childs (Hilary Swank), crashing into downtown Los Angeles. Alarmed, the Department of Defense yanks geomagnetics expert Joshua Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) out of his classroom and into the Pentagon. Dr. Keyes isn't sure what's going on, but has a hunch it might mean the end of the world. He suspects that the Earth's core, which normally spins at a rate of 1,000 mph and creates a vital electromagnetic planetary shield, has stopped, leaving Earth's inhabitants vulnerable to cosmic radiation, devastating lightning super storms and all manner of EM mayhem. Keyes warns that if the core doesn't start turning again soon, the sun's rays will toast Earth like a marshmallow. The Pentagon pulls together a crack team of six "terranauts" to burrow through Earth's mantle in "Virgil" — a sort of subterranean submarine with a supersonic drill bit — to jumpstart the core with a 1,000-megaton nuclear blast. Accompanying Keyes to the center of the Earth are pilots Iverson and Beck; Dr. Serge Leveque (Tcheky Karyo), who'll handle the nuclear devices; Virgil's builder, Dr. Ed Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo); and scientific superstar Conrad Zinsky (Stanley Tucci), the crew's Dr. Smith — he knows more about the problem than he's letting on. Director John Amiel dispenses with the rah-rah unilateralism of Bay's flag-waver in favor of a less rosy picture of science prostituting itself to a defense department more concerned with mutually assured destruction than the future of the human race. The film cleverly combines the conventions of such end-of-the-world thrillers as THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE with the claustrophobic action of a submarine adventure, and a good cast lifts what might have been just another disaster picture out of the genre pile. Unfortunately, the underground goings-on are periodically interrupted by cartoonish renderings of major cities destroyed by really bad weather — disturbing spectacles at a time when entertaining such thoughts has ceased to be a form of entertainment.