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Journeys to the center of the Earth usually don’t take place at the end of March, at least not in Movieland. So with this week’s opening of The Core, one suspects that Hollywood is trying to start the

summer-blockbuster season earlier than ever—or that the mere rescuing of all mankind wasn’t quite enough to earn the flick popcorn status. After all, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank aren’t exactly marquee names to the blow-’em-up set.

But though The Core is, in the end, disappointing, you do get a little bang for your post-Oscars buck. Director Jon Amiel defended the questionable timing of his doomsday story’s most prominent elements—among its best special effects are the destruction of international landmarks and a space-shuttle crash-landing—by saying that no blood is shed during these sequences. What may save the movie from sensitive finger-waggers, though, will also likely ensure that it doesn’t reach Armageddon or Independence Day popularity: Besides holding the carnage, Amiel left out the personality.

Eckhart is generic geophysicist Josh Keyes, a college professor who is recruited to be part of a government think tank after 32 people within a 10-mile radius of Boston simultaneously drop dead. When a mixed-up flock of pigeons begins to rain down on passers-by in London a little while later—a frenetic scene in which each thump of a bird into wall or window hits like a punch to the gut—Keyes turns to famed scientist Conrad Zimsky (a dandified Stanley Tucci) to corroborate his theory of an electromagnetic disturbance in, yes, the Earth’s core. It seems a ring of molten metal has stopped spinning, and unless a jump-start can be arranged within three months, the planet will burn up in a year’s time.

Luckily, one of Zimsky’s former partners has spent years developing a vehicle that has the capacity to both dig thousands of miles under the ocean floor and withstand the weight of the world. No matter that Ed Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo) tells the government that the vessel, Virgil, won’t be ready for another decade: The sum of $50 billion is offered, and the “terranauts”—including scientist Sergei Leveque (Tchéky Karyo) and NASA pilots Maj. Rebecca “Beck” Childs (Swank) and Cmdr. Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood)—are prepared to launch practically the next day.

This fast-forward to the action, before even the film’s midpoint, is where both character and plot development come to a halt. Tucci’s stuck-on-himself Zimsky is the only personality with any zip, a well-promoted (and surprisingly well-coiffed) intellectual with groupies and a propensity to spew bullshit such as “It’s as if we’re diving through the memories of the planet” as he chronicles the trip. Rebecca is cocksure, but not to an entertaining, Ben Affleck-esque extreme; Brazzleton is proud of his achievement and spiteful of Zimsky, but he doesn’t talk much. None of the ‘nauts express any fear or doubt before boarding the experimental craft—apparently they aren’t concerned that they’re about to blast through hot lava sans helmets or protective clothing—and given that there’s no romance and little feel of camaraderie, a couple of wisecracking robots could’ve achieved similar results while also trimming some bucks off the budget.

The Core’s effects, however, are uniformly impressive. Rebecca and Iverson’s emergency landing of their space shuttle in a Los Angeles riverbed is breathtaking—the massive shuttle flying over a ballpark and highways is as spectacular a sight as ID4’s White House-looming UFO. The fall of Rome via a wicked lightning storm and the close-up melting of the Golden Gate Bridge are also highlights. Underground, Virgil’s through-the-sea dive and fiery in-earth burrowing are believably rendered, though imagination was in short supply when the filmmakers created the odd, spiky landscape for a brief stop in a giant geode. With nothing but dull dialogue and nonemotion to break up the FX, though, The Core collapses under its own weightlessness.

In Dreamcatcher, by contrast, the possible end of the world is high on both characterization and bloodshed. The two-hour-plus movie, adapted from the 620-page Stephen King novel, divides easily into halves: the intriguing, leisurely paced Stand by Me setup, smartly centered on the longtime friendship of four preternaturally gifted pals; and the Creepshow-esque second act, a splatterfest of aliens, infection, and military force that seems more the product of young boys’ imaginations than that of a seasoned horror writer.

A few months after Jonesy (Damian Lewis) is hit by a truck and nearly dies—a scene vicious in its abruptness—he and friends Henry (Thomas Jane), Beaver (Jason Lee), and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) gather at a Derry, Maine, cabin they’ve been visiting together for 20 years. They speak cryptically but lovingly of another friend, Duddits, a mentally challenged boy whom they view as otherworldly. And no wonder: Duddits is the source of their telekinetic ability. Each is shown using his power individually, though together they’re just regular Joes, swearing, drinking, and reminiscing with a natural rapport convincingly conveyed by the ensemble cast.

It’s soon apparent, however, that this year’s respite won’t be all fun: Jonesy takes in a frostbitten, gaseous woodsman who shows up at the cabin after becoming lost, and Henry and Pete happen upon a seemingly dead woman in the snow after Henry loses control of his truck (another well-filmed, gut-wrenching crash). Then there are the animals—rabbits, deer, and bear alike suddenly start heading for the hills in droves. Soon enough, a helicopter crew announces to the befuddled and creeped-out Jonesy and Beaver that the area is under quarantine.

The source of the mayhem is more disappointing than a sewer-dwelling clown, and there’s no way to put it delicately: Out of the woodsman’s ass comes a giant, angry worm, with a toothy vagina for a head and the ability to turn into a more traditional almond-noggined alien when it really wants to intimidate. After its introduction—in a relatively suspenseful, if gross, bathroom scene—all restraint and logical development that director Lawrence (The Big Chill) Kasdan has heretofore demonstrated are forgotten.

Col. Abraham Kurtz (Morgan Freeman) is introduced as the military man who’s been fighting these aliens for decades and has gone a bit crazy because of it, though the film fails to impart any of his knowledge to the audience members, who are never enlightened as to where these aliens came from, what they want, or when they’ve attacked before. A scene in which Kurtz and his assistant, Capt. Underhill (a subdued Tom Sizemore), fly over a colony of Big Heads as they deliver siren songs of “Help us, we’re not infected” is intriguing but leads nowhere. Instead, Kurtz’s mission to kill everyone quarantined becomes the focus of the film. Oh, and Jonesy is overtaken by sinister alien personality Mr. Grey and goes all Gollum on us, holding both sides of conversations that aren’t very illuminating, either.

The edge that Dreamcatcher has over The Core is that, despite the fact that it likewise crumbles, it never takes itself too seriously to begin with. The dialogue turns increasingly campy as the situation goes south, to such a degree that everyone involved must have been well aware of its ridiculousness: When Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg) is finally brought out to help save humanity from the monsters, Henry interprets what sounds like “Www wum kwww da wood” as “‘One worm kills the world?’ My God!” Dreamcatcher may also very well be the only film in history in which belching and flatulence not only are integral to the story, but also come off as both funny and scary. And though the inevitable mano a mano showdown may seem better suited to a late-night cable movie than the mindful story you started out watching, it still ends up being fun. CP