Nonsensical thriller mixes supernatural, science, science fiction, religious prophecy, Nicolas Cage, whatever was on hand
Directed by Alex Proyas
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne
Warning: This review contains spoilers. Seriously. Lots of them. I don’t normally give out spoilers. Studios hate when reviewers do that. So do a lot of moviegoers. But I simply can’t insult the new techno-supernatural-whatsis thriller Knowing without giving away its few meager secrets. If you really want to see Knowing, I suggest you spend your 10 bucks on 10 Big Beef Burritos at Taco Bell or give it to charity or throw it in a wishing well—something useful instead. If you really, really want to see Knowing, I suggest you stop reading this review right now.
In 2007, the Jim Carrey thriller The Number 23 tried to convince us that numbers are scary. They aren’t. In any way. Not even a little. Eighteen! See. You didn’t even flinch. Despite the ample evidence left behind by the failure of The Number 23, Knowing treads a similar path. Nicolas Cage—an actor who was once highly regarded but who should now never take on roles in which he’s called upon to be numb, stunned, shell-shocked or otherwise dead-eyed and slack-jawed—stars as John Koestler. John is a professor of astrophysics at MIT. In addition to his “sure to be useful as a plot device” job, John is issued a set of character traits straight out of chapter two of The Neophyte Screenwriter’s Handbook. He’s recently widowed. He stays up at night drinking whiskey to indicate his sadness. His estranged father is a priest, denoting a need for spiritual fulfillment that can be exploited for a “character arc” later on. And he’s saddled with a precocious young son who spits witty one-liners and uses big words.
One fateful day, John’s offspring pulls a 50-year-old letter from a time capsule buried at his elementary school. The letter consists of a long string of numbers. Intrigued, John begins analyzing the numbers and comes to believe they are predictions, noting the date, location and body count of every disaster in the last five decades. The scary part? There are still three predictions to go.
Very early on, the film establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that the predictions are accurate and unavoidable. Basically, there’s nothing John can do. The last prediction, of course, prognosticates the end of the world. Here, then, is one of our spoilers. Although basically everyone would assume, given the premise, that’s what this film is building to, the script actually keeps that revelation in the bag until at least two-thirds of the way through. Guys, the freaking poster is a picture of the Earth blowing up; you’re not surprising anyone with that particular plot development. In fact, viewers can expect to experience their own mystical powers of precognition, guessing virtually every plot twist Knowing has to offer.
Despite the fact that the world is going to end and there’s not a damn thing John can do about it, he spends the entire movie running around trying to prevent the end of the world by ... running around, I guess. Honestly, Nicolas Cage has got nothing to do in this inert chunk of celluloid. He dashes around the country. He crunches numbers. He investigates the history of the mysterious young girl who made these strange predictions. All of which amounts to nothing. He shows up at the sites of several disasters, allowing the filmmakers to showcase some very expensive CGI plane crashes and the like. He stares slack-jawed and dead-eyed as scores of people explode or are squashed by heavy machinery. But even these infrequent money shots feel more like showy demo reels from a special effects company looking for work than seamlessly integrated sequences in a well thought-out film.
Director Alex Proyas, whose skills have been better utilized in more imaginative films like Dark City and The Crow, tries to keep audience interest up by manufacturing a lot of portentous tension. Some poor symphony’s string section works overtime providing ominous cello tones and shivering violins. There are lots are dark, foreboding shots—mostly of numbers. The script even throws in that old standby, the Mysterious Stranger in Black to stand across the street and stare ominously at the main character’s house every couple of scenes.
Eventually, one of the film’s five credited screenwriters figures out this turkey has got nowhere to fly. With no way out of its “Yup, the world’s gonna end” premise, the script offers up one of the laziest, most ham-handed uses of deus ex machina in the history of cinema. Odds are you’ll spend the last 20 minutes saying to yourself, “Lord, I hope this doesn’t go where I think it’s going.” It does. Out of nowhere, the film takes a hard right turn into goofy sci-fi and we get a visit by glowing celestial beings. (Are they aliens? Are they angels? Screw it, let’s fudge the line and appeal to End Times Christians as well as New Age wackos!) In a sequence stolen directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, bald, glowing saviors drop out of the sky and take John’s kid away in their pimped-out space chariots. Why? Cause, you know, he’s “special” or something. I was sorely expecting to hear the familiar strains of “Come Sail Away” by Styx during this climactic scene but was sadly unrewarded. According to this film’s nonsensical logic, these Heavenly Strangers were the ones who implanted the prophetic message 50 years ago. Why? What the hell good did it do anyone? Thanks for giving the near-indecipherable warning that “the Earth will be destroyed and we’re all doomed no matter what” to a crazy second grader.
Sometimes, honestly, it’s better not to know.