Typically I’d avoid all spoilers when talking about a film, but the only way to talk about this movie is to put it all out there. So if you’d prefer to retain innocent — a state of being prized by Knowing — then you might want to (shudder) just skip to the number at the end.
Knowing is a hilarious movie. My response was initially to make a bunch of jokes about it: Nic Cage’s determined over-acting; the aliens who look like cosplaying devotees of Angel‘s Spike (or like Jody Hill in The Foot Fist Way); the visions of an M.I.T. campus almost totally devoid of Asian students; The Rapture in two hours, as re-enacted by bunnies. I went so far as to write two joke reviews — one of them is even fairly funny — before I decided to approach the movie on it’s own terms. Because Knowing is so close to being a film I could love. So close.
Knowing, directed by Dark City and I, Robot‘s Alex Proyas, is also a more ambitious movie that you’d expect. It’s a movie in the vein of wild schlock classics like Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent and God Told Me To, rather than one cut from the mold of big dumb disaster flicks like Independence Day. That it is, itself, dumb in the final tally is wildly unfortunate. This movie is too long and too dull to go into the schlock pantheon. Or, in fact, into anything but the ever-growing, perpetually disappointing ‘nice try’ pile.
John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is a professor of astrophysics at M.I.T. with a simple worldview: shit happens. Still reeling from the untimely death of his wife, a crisis of faith and split from his religious father, Koestler raises his precocious son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) while wandering through life in a daze. His concept of a chaotic universe is challenged when Caleb’s school opens a time capsule containing, among banal drawings of the ‘future’, a 50-year old list of numbers, which accurately predicts decades worth of major disasters.
Koestler quickly turns from skeptic to believer when a plane crashes right in front of him, fulfilling one of the few promises left on the number list. As it happens, the number list is a communication from aliens; judging by the full course of the film, these aliens likely brought us to earth in the first place, and have been illustrated through history as angels.
Which leads to questions. When these alien/angels seem bent on perpetuating the human race, why do they code their message in a language so obscure as a data string and upon a medium so ephemeral as a child’s drawing? What makes a disaster list-worthy? When the end of the world isn’t a man-made thing, why will the aliens only take the innocent? Why does Rose Byrne, who plays perhaps one of the few sane female genre sidekicks in recent memory, end up looking so crazy?
The central concept is the nature of religion when god and science turn out to be sides of the same coin. Predestination, which posits a timeline preordained by God, and determinism, in which all events are determined by prior occurrences, become one and the same. Faith is a matter of cold acceptance and everything can be perceived if you know how to look for (or at) it.
If Knowing really took to that theory and ran with it, I’d be thrilled. Instead it tosses out non sequitur images (aliens who emit 10,000 watts of light from their throat) and empty puzzles (are the black rocks that turn up really supposed to mean anything) and whimpers to a close with the sort of sci-fi image of Eden that might have graced a hundred throwaway books.
(That image does include the movie’s best joke: the two kids who are ‘saved’ are actually holding rabbits, meant either to be a food source in the New Eden or a suggestion that they need to get fuckin’.)
Instead of working the ideas, the movie angles for audience attention with big explosions; there’s the airplane crash, and the actual end of the world. But what loses us isn’t the heady concepts in between the loud bangs, but dreary scenes packed with extended exposition.
Meanwhile, prepare for the grandstanding of Nic Cage, who plays every moment as if it is his last. His cries (“The caves won’t save us!”) are almost worthy of The Happening, and he finally turns to face his fate not with faith reborn, or cautious acceptance, or even active resentment, but the same dull readyness to get on with it that I felt during the movie’s endless second hour.