It’s amazing how in the movies many incredible scientific discoveries are made by complete idiots. I mean, how many bumbling scientist characters have there been anyway? Today’s film, 1976’s “At the Earth’s Core,” features a scientist who barely has the brain power to walk in a straight line, yet somehow manages to invent a giant drilling machine that takes him into a hidden world beneath the ground.
The film begins with the launch of the “mole” by Dr. Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) and his financier, David Innes (Doug McClure). They are sent off by a big crowd of well wishers before lots of button pushing and lever pulling sends them deep into the earth. Before long, they arrive in a strange place that appears to be an underground jungle.
The place seems peaceful enough, that is, until they are being chased by strange dinosaur-like creatures. Soon they discover that there are, indeed, humans in this world, including the sexy Princess Dia (Caroline Munro). David is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately, Dia and the other humans are all slaves of an evil race of pig-people called the Sagaths. They waste no time in capturing David and the “Doc” as well.
It turns out that the Sagaths are just the lackeys of the Mahars, and evil race of telepathic lizard birds. They just blink their eyes and the pig-people do their evil bidding. This includes selecting female humans for the Mahar’s afternoon snack. David ends up seeing the full extent of their nastiness after he escapes and is shown a secret passage into their lair by a fellow escaped slave named Ra (Cy Grant). Unfortunately, when the pair tries to sneak back out, they walk right into the hands of the Sagaths. This gets them chained up in an arena for a gladiator style battle with some giant creatures. But, leave it to David, he manages to defeat the creature, free himself, and escape with the doctor. Next on the agenda is defeating the dreaded Jubal the Ugly One (Michael Crane), who has some sort of claim on Dia, and then the massive slave revolt against the Mahars.
“At the Earth’s Core” is based on a 1914 novel by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Sci-fi stories from this era are a lot fun, even when they take somewhat silly turns. Sorry, I just have a soft spot for giant monsters. This movie is full of them, all performed Godzilla-style by actors in rubber suits. Some of them are quite fierce, with all sorts of drool, snot, and bloody wounds dripping all over the place. Others are a bit clunky, especially the Mahars…you can’t really see the wires making them fly, but it’s all too obvious they are there. Effects wise, the film is a mixed bag. It is interesting to look at the effects in this film, considering that we were just a year away from “Star Wars” at this point. It illustrates what a leap forward that film was.
While we’re on the subject of “Star Wars,” we need to talk about Peter Cushing. Cushing was a great actor, I’ve mentioned that in other reviews. Unfortunately, this is not his finest moment. He plays Doctor Perry as such a bumbling doofus, there just isn’t even a sliver of belief that he could build a snowman, let alone machine that could travel to the earth’s core. He walks around with a hunched over penguin waddle that’s half Wolf Man half Charlie Chaplin and has the social skills of a 4-year-old. Granted, it’s a fantasy film, but his performance caused a major disconnect for me as a viewer. A weak moment from a usually fine actor.
Despite this, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The giant monsters are fun…a fire breathing frog, for example! If you don’t like giant monsters, you’ll like the steampunky contraption. And if that’s not your thing either…well, there’s Caroline Munro.