Knowing (2009) / Sci Fi-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing images and brief strong language
Running time: 121 min.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, D.G. Maloney
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Rune Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Review published July 13, 2009
In 1959, a young girl named Lucinda Embry (Robinson) becomes obsessed with a series of seemingly random numbers that are being channeled through her from an unknown source. She might be crazy, or she might be prophetic, as her series of numbers is put into a time vault at her school to be opened 50 years later. It's now 2009, and Caleb Koestler (Canterbury, Benjamin Button), a current student at the same school, receives the envelope to open, keeping the page of numbers, only to be found by his widower, alcoholic father, John (Cage, National Treasure 2), a professor of Astrophysics at MIT, who soon deciphers the meaning. It appears that the numbers correspond to tragedies that have occurred, and are yet to occur. At the same time, John and Caleb begin seeing a group of strange men hanging around them, watching them, leaving behind strange rocks and whispering things into the mind of Caleb that appear to put him in a trance. John wants to get to the bottom of the meaning, and to try to avert the prophesied tragedies, but to do that he must go to the source of the numbers and find out what happened to Lucinda Embry, which he must do with the help of her daughter, Diana (Byrne, 28 Weeks Later).
Knowing is the kind of movie that has an earnest theme that is wholly overcooked, whereby the concepts behind the thematic material of the piece suck all of the creativity and entertainment value from the rudimentary storyline in order to facilitate the constant revelations of the mystery at the heart of the plot. How much your interest is held largely depends on how much interest you have in knowing what's behind all of the strange goings-on. How much you ultimately like the film will be determined by the explanation offered, and whether you feel the explanation justified over 90 minutes of slow-trickle plot elements in order to get to the destination.
How much I personally tend to enjoy these kinds of movies is also influenced by how much I buy into the notion of the small stuff -- character interactions, motivations, and basic believability from a human reaction standpoint. Knowing reminds me of an M. Night Shyamalan outing, and suffers from the same storytelling disease of trying to cram too much significance into everything you see, to the point where we see every character as a vessel and every development as another contrivance to service the allegorical plot, which is slavishly adhered to in order to spin forth the high-concept machination at the heart of the idea for the story. The more you manipulate characters and situations, the less believable they become, and the less interested we are in their plight as major events begin to occur. When scenes fly by with cataclysmic tragedies, and you feel nothing -- no danger, no awe, no sadness -- something is fundamentally askew in the balance of story vs. plot.
Also like Shyamalan's works, the less you buy into it, the more you will find yourself amused by the silliness of it all, and the fact that the makers of the film expect us to take their cooked-up concepts and bad story devices seriously. It's another bad gimmick movie for star Nicolas Cage, who appears to be carving out a unique niche as an actor to star in some of the most laughable high-concept thrillers of the last few years. Although the sense of mystery is what keeps the film going, the fact that it follows predictable patterns ends up with us being ahead of the film in knowing what the revelations are going to be before they are actually revealed. Even if you don't guess what's going to happen exactly, you still know when and where something will, which mutes the surprise element.
One other factor that merits mentioning, both positively and negatively, is the look of the film. For a small-scale thriller involving a man and son trying to stay alive, the interjection of impending worldwide catastrophe, and galactic interference, begins to take hold, particularly in scenes that show great tragic events. Before we get to the blow-all-doors-off conclusion, there are two big death and destruction scenes involving a plane crash and a subway train derailment. In both cases, they are very well conceived, with harrowing visions of how awful and depressing such events can be, from the mass carnage to the burning bodies, with people begging for assistance to stay alive. And yet, as good as the special effects are from a detail standpoint, they are still very artificial looking. The scene of the subway train crashing through concrete and steel, running over innocent people as it runs havoc through the boarding platform, is chock full of obvious CGI elements. When you can see the artifice of the construct, the physical details don't seem to matter much, and it is far less effective from a shock or scare standpoint.
There will be some viewers who remember the intriguing work director Alex Proyas (I Robot) put forward in mystery-sci fi thrillers with the cult films Dark City and The Crow will be viewing to see more of the same. There is a continuation of themes here, but mostly this film feels like he's exploring a great deal of ground already covered, especially when you see the strange men who are quite different than human. Proyas appears more interested in delivering the concepts than in a good story, and Knowing falls short of Dark City for the fact that this film hinges more on the delivery of the answers to the mystery, whereas Dark City gives you a twist that forces you to reevaluate everything that has come before.
Admittedly, a film like Knowing is a very difficult one to pull off given the ambitious ideas and subject matter. It would take a real visionary along the caliber of a Stanley Kubrick to elevate this material to great success. Alas, with the clunky screenwriting and limited budget, as well as Proyas's emphasis on form over content, Knowing ends up being little more then an intriguing misfire that often encroaches into laughably bad filmmaking territory even when the concepts behind these moments are brilliant. It's difficult to reach for the heavens in your story when the plot itself is, both literally and figuratively, by the numbers.
©2009 Vince Leo