updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Core
Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, Bruce Greenwood, Alfre Woodard

While absolutely no one but the mothers of the filmmakers will be mentioning The Core at awards time next year, this sci-fi thriller is cheesy fun. It's the kind of movie you go to see when you want to sit back with a giant tub of popcorn and briefly escape the world's all-too-real problems.

The plot is your basic disaster scenario: The Earth's core has stopped spinning, and the planet's existence is imperiled. Six "terranauts," comprising two astronauts (Swank and Greenwood) and four scientists (Eckhart, Tucci, Lindo and Tchéky Karyo), head deep into the earth in an experimental vehicle. They plan to nuke the core back into rotation. Sound familiar? That's because Core is Armageddon (1998)—where Earth's saviors zoomed into space to zap a deadly meteor—in reverse, but minus a pounding soundtrack or dopey romantic subplot.

At heart, though, Core harkens back to the popular, special-effects-laden disaster flicks of the 1970s like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Assemble a crew, toss them into a threatening situation and allow just a few to survive. The only cliché missing is a cameo by O.J. Simpson.

The Core's appeal lies in its very predictability: Heroism will prevail amid cool special effects, and none of it is meant to be taken seriously. Movies like this are too absurd for actors to shine; the best they can do—and most manage here—is not to embarrass themselves. Swank, playing the craft's junior pilot, is all grim determination but thankfully manages a hint of amusement when barking howlers like "As long as we can surf these magma flows, we'll be okay." Eckhart, as the geophysics prof who first figures out what's amiss, hits the right note between earnestness and cowboy cool, jokingly referring to himself as "Apocalypse Boy." (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Escapist fun

Head of State
Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Lynn Whitfield, Tamala Jones

This slapdash comedy is about the first African-American selected to run for President by a major party. With just nine weeks to go before the election, Mays Gilliam (Rock), an obscure Washington, D.C., alderman, is tapped by party bigwigs after the original nominee dies. Gilliam is soon getting jiggy with voters, blaring hip-hop from his tour bus, speaking plainly ("How many of you work two jobs just so you can go broke?") and naming his outspoken older brother (Mac, playing his usual comically pugnacious self) as his running mate.

While fitfully amusing, State could be way sharper than it is. Rock, who cowrote and directed, too often goes for the easy laugh (mocking blowhard political hacks or having Washington's white elite boogie to Nelly's "Hot in Herre"). Several scenes, particularly those involving crowds, look ragged. Extras running toward the camera in what's supposed to be a panic should not be grinning like fools, just happy to be in a movie. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Gets our halfhearted vote

John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen, Brian Van Holt

Lately it seems like Travolta just can't pick 'em. While he's never boring to watch, his recent movies—think Domestic Disturbance and Swordfish (both 2001)—are such minor exercises in generic filmmaking that one wonders what he and his agent ever saw in the scripts.

Add Basic to the list. A suspense thriller more interested in keeping an audience guessing than making sense, it stars Travolta as a cocky ex-Army Ranger. He teams with an Army investigator (Nielsen) to look into the disappearance of a sadistic officer (Jackson) who may have been killed by his men during a training exercise.

Travolta swaggers about, bringing a glint of humor and panache to the tiresome proceedings. Nielsen employs a southern accent phony enough to make corn pone blush. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Basically bad

Raising Victor Vargas
Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte

Critic's Choice
[1 star]

It's the rare film about teens that gets them right. Raising Victor Vargas, a low-budget romantic comedy about Hispanic high schoolers living in Manhattan's Lower East Side, accomplishes that difficult task beautifully.

Victor (Rasuk), 15, who resides with two younger siblings in their grandmother's cramped apartment, fancies himself a lady-killer—despite his obvious lack of conquests. When he puts the moves on Judy (Marte) from the block, he learns what it really means to talk to a girl.

Watching Victor, as evocatively written and directed by first-time film-maker Peter Sollett, you know these kids. Maybe you grew up in a better neighborhood, were raised by two parents rather than a grandmother and used a vocabulary less awash in the vernacular, but the confused emotions Victor and Judy go through will be achingly familiar to anyone who ever passed through adolescence. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Victor victorious

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