by Mel Valentin
What do you get when you cross "When Worlds Collide," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "Deep Impact?" You get Alex Proyas’ ("I, Robot," "Garage Days," "Dark City," "The Crow") latest film, "Knowing," an apocalyptic, science-fiction/mystery thriller starring the ubiquitous Nicholas Cage (eighteen lead roles in the last ten years) as an astrophysicist out to save his son, himself, and, if time allows, the world. "Knowing" fits Cage’s perplexing mid-career freefall into mediocrity: heavy-handed, unsubtle, and overwrought. And no, Proyas’ visual stylistics (e.g., several textbook-perfect set pieces) isn’t enough to elevate "Knowing" from the depths of its mediocre screenplay.Knowing centers on John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who’s still morning the loss of his wife in a fire. As a single father to a preteen son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), Koestler tries to balance his desire to protect Caleb from harm and encouraging Caleb’s natural curiosity about the world. On the 50th anniversary of Caleb’s elementary school, the school’s officials unearth a time capsule left by the first students at the school. While most of Caleb’s classmates get quaint drawings of “future” technology, Caleb receives a sheet of paper filled with numbers on both sides. It’s not until Koestler inadvertently spots the 9/11 and the death toll from that tragedy that he begins to suspect the numbers predicted natural and man-made disasters over the last fifty years.
"It's the end of the world as we know and Nicholas Cage feels fine."
Koestler matches the dates and casualty counts easily, but another set of numbers seem to escape his powers of analysis until the first of several calamities strike in Koestler’s proximity: a commercial airliner crashes near a local highway. The additional numbers give the latitude and longitude of each disaster. Koestler discovers the 50-year paper contains predictions for two more disasters only days away. Koestler decides to find Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), the daughter of the girl, Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), who wrote down the numbers fifty years earlier. With her help, Koestler hopes to stop or postpone one or both disasters before they happen. Meanwhile, Caleb begins to have nightmares involving a white-haired stranger (D.G. Maloney) and a forest fire.
With four credited screenwriters, Ryne Douglas Pearson (who also receives a story credit), Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, and Stuart Hazeldine, Knowing starts off promisingly enough, adding layers of tension and suspense as Koestler gets closer to resolving the questions surrounding Lucinda’s predictions and the stranger’s identity and purpose. Unfortunately, Proyas and his battalion of screenwriters had to come up with answers and once they do, it’s all downhill (toward the apocalypse) from there with plot elements borrowed from George Pal’s 1951 science-fiction film, When Worlds Collide, Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (a.k.a. the Other Asteroid Movie). Science fiction readers will also find elements borrowed from or, to be generous, inspired by Greg Bear’s 1987 end-of-the-world science-fiction novel, The Forge of God and Larry Niven’s 1977 science-fiction/disaster novel, Lucifer’s Hammer (co-written with Jerry Pournelle).
What’s really odd about Knowing, however, is how heavily Proyas and his screenwriters push the Christian symbolism (specifically the Old Testament). Koestler ‘s father is a Protestant pastor. They haven’t spoken for years, probably due to their differences over religion and science. While When World Collide was heavy on the Old Testament parallels (e.g., Noah’s Ark, God’s wrath) and casual racism, it was a product of its (intolerant) times. Everyone who boards the spaceship ark in When Worlds Collide also happens to be of the Caucasian persuasion. On a different, but related level, Proyas takes some of the ideas implicit in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (e.g., aliens, real or imagined, as the secular equivalent of angels, the “call” or vision of prophets) and makes them explicit in Knowing. There are more parallels, but discussing them further would mean giving away Knowing’s absurd ending and kitsch-heavy, laugh- or cringe-inducing final image.
What Knowing lacks in storytelling substance, it (almost) makes up for it through visual style. Proyas includes several spectacular (emphasis on the spectacle) standalone set pieces worthy of film school dissection. You’ve probably seen glimpses of a scene involving the crash of commercial airliner as Koestler looks on and, seconds later, tries to rescue survivors from the burning wreckage. Proyas shot this eight-minute scene in one take that took two days to map out and another two days to shoot. For the second, more conventionally shot and edited set piece, a derailed subway train crashes into another train and then plows through the subway station and helpless commuters. Proyas includes a shot from inside the derailed subway as it cuts down the commuters. Both scenes are surprisingly graphic, especially for a PG-13 rated film.As Koestler, Cage phones in yet another nuance-free performance. There was a point, somewhere after Cage won the Best Actor Oscar in 1995 for "Leaving Las Vegas" that he put acting aside and decided to take the big-money paydays and settle in to undemanding roles that played to his eccentric onscreen persona. That eccentricity, however, quickly became a limited range of verbal and physical tics. Other performances are more than passable, but none can be described as remarkable or even above-average (standard for genre films where set pieces tend to be more important than characters).
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originally posted: 03/20/09 04:22:48