Knowing (2009)
Director: Alex Proyas
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury
Running Time: 2 hrs, 1 min
Rated: PG-13

Review by Brother Reed

I just can’t take Nicolas Cage seriously any more. I’m not sure exactly why. Oh, who am I kidding? I know why. It’s the whole “Wicker Man” fiasco. Now that I have seen this man running around in a bear suit punching women in the face (a questionable career move but undoubtedly amusing) it’s just harder to picture him in a serious dramatic role. That’s too bad, too, because Cage has actually been in some great movies since he got started in the early 80’s and turned in a few notable performances as well. Even in this decade he’s done Adaptation, Matchstick Men, and Lord of War, all of which should have elevated his career to the point where Ghost Rider, Next, and Bangkok Dangerous would not have been necessary. Perhaps they weren’t. Perhaps even in his pre-castle-crisis days he simply enjoyed B-movies and undercooked sci-fi. But I made a mistake, too. I didn’t have enough respect for the influence said B movies and undercooked sci-fi have on me. I’m a sucker for a great idea so when I heard about Knowing I turned a blind eye to Cage’s concerned-looking visage on the poster and bought a ticket anyway.

Knowing is directed by Alex Proyas, who also made the overlooked Dark City back in the late 90’s. This film is less original and visionary than Dark City, though it does share a similar foreboding. With Knowing I expected a kind of action-oriented blockbuster using its themes as a springboard to bombastic sequences. In some sense this remains true, and Knowing does have at least three impressive centerpieces. What surprised more were the dark edges of this film, the startling and sometimes nightmarish premonitions. Proyas has actually constructed an ambitious project that starts with one troubled family and expands to include ideas as grand and fundamental as the fate of human kind. Whether this film is up to the task is another question.

Knowing starts out in the 1950’s at an elementary school where children are being encouraged to draw pictures of what they believe the future will be like. These drawings, along with other relics from their current era, will be placed in a time capsule to be opened 50 years later by students in the same school. Predictably, most of the kids are drawing nice pictures of robots, spaceships, and flying cars, tell-tale signs that the future is not yet upon us (we don’t even have hoverboards). But there is one girl who isn’t coloring spaceships. Instead, Lucinda feverishly scrawls row after row of numbers until time runs out for the assignment and her teacher interrupts her. The teacher is a little put-out by her creation but nevertheless includes it in the time capsule. Later, Lucinda is found wide-eyed and hair askew scratching at a closet door somewhere in the school, crazed and bleeding. What does it all mean?

Fast-forward 50 years and we see Nicolas Cage as John, a university professor, one of the less believable things this movie wants us to swallow. His wife has died, leaving him bitter and questioning; and he has some connection to his son, Caleb, though he remains overprotective. Caleb, of course, goes to the school shown in the opening. As all the kids are given a picture to look at, Caleb receives the cryptic series of numbers drawn by young Lucinda all those years ago. This in turn falls into the hands of his father who, interested in the idea of fate verses randomness, sees a single grouping of numbers he thinks he recognizes: 9-11-01. Intrigued by this and apparently fueled by drunken insomnia, John starts to see order in the numerical string. By morning, he has determined that the sheet is a warning – a list of all major global disasters in the last 50 years, in sequence, complete with the date they occurred and the number of people who died. And there are more on the way.

There are problems of course. Not all the numbers are accounted for. They are either random or mean something yet undetermined. John’s colleague at the university cautions him against his baseless numerology. If he’s right, though, what are the implications? Is the future set? Can knowing what is going to happen change anything? And what of the end of the list? Was this as far as the fifth-grade psychic could see, or is there no more to be seen? Why is Caleb hearing voices, and who are the mysterious strangers who keep showing up at John’s home? It’s the stuff of great mystery and at least good science fiction.

If you missed Knowing during its theatrical release, you missed one of the best motivations for seeing the film. The disaster scenes are extremely effective on the big screen. They are jarring and unexpected in their immediacy. Even with as much CG as this movie uses, most of it looks good and compliments the aesthetic of the film. The notable exception was way too much unnecessary CG fire. Is it too expensive to have real fire these days? Even then, the scene as a whole is highly impacting and overcomes some smaller faults. Perhaps the moment that most stood out to me was a surreal encounter in Caleb’s bedroom. One of the mysterious strangers approaches him, having entered the house undetected. He directs the young boy’s attention out of his attic window where he sees a horrific vision of a burning forest, complete with flaming moose. In my humble opinion, this is an underused motif in modern film. There need to be more movies with flaming moose.

That scene also signaled a shift in tone that changed my thoughts about where the story was headed. Eventually John meets up with a woman played by Rose Byrne who is a relative of loopy Lucinda, the predictor of all these tragedies. Together they race to figure out the truth encoded in the numbers, but the truth may be too terrible for them all. It may also be too outrageous for audiences. If you fully enjoy and appreciate the ending to this film, you will be in a great minority. At my showing, people in the back rows audibly voiced their opinion – “This is bulls**t” – and walked out just before the credits rolled. I stayed, somewhat interested in what Knowing thinks it’s about, but ultimately left cold by an idea that seems hokey. I feel as though I have seen this conclusion before.

That’s not to say it isn’t at all effective, but somehow the movie’s themes never seem to reach an agreement. Knowing is filled with Biblical and religious symbolism. On the fate vs. randomness spectrum, the film seems to come down on the side of determinism. Honestly I find that somewhat refreshing. Post-modernism has brought us all the nihilistic absurdism we can handle. Every other film is about how life lacks meaning, or is what you make it. Knowing’s story is far from reassuring, but it does at least acknowledge a higher intelligence and plan beyond the scope of man that it might be possible to understand at least in part. There’s an aspect of salvation that comes through either enlightenment or simply being chosen. In addition, it was good to see a minister and his believing daughter made out to be respectful and confident, rather than cooky and off-putting. I can’t see one clear path through all of the story threads and can only conclude that some measure of ambiguity was intended to allow us our own debates. Whether this works for you or not will depend largely on your own preconceived notions, as well as your tolerance for a little cheesy Hollywood showmanship.

For me, the movie never went past being a spectacle. It never became something I could inhabit and think seriously about. I enjoy being challenged to consider questions of determinism and faith, but I felt the vessel here was a bit flimsy. The crisp colorful style of the movie continually struck me as kind of synthetic, much as did Dark City though for a better reason. If Knowing reminded me of anything it was last year’s remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which is not a compliment. Although Nicolas Cage is a better leading man than Keanu Reeves, his performance here is uneven at best. When in a heated argument he screams “The caves won’t save us! Nothing can!,” I couldn’t help but laugh. In one scene he hits a tree with his baseball bat in the funniest show of impotent aggression since William H. Macy scraped his car in Fargo. Rose Byrne unfortunately falls into some of the same traps. I’m tempted to fault the screenplay but ultimately feel the blame is shared. There’s nothing truly new in Knowing. It’s a perplexing but hollow experience propped up on the strength of a few excellent scenes and a lot of flashy graphics and paranoia. As a blockbuster it’s passable, but as science fiction it falls short of its intentions. At least it aspired to greatness. Many movies don’t give us that.