Thursday, April 02, 2009


Nicolas Cage in a new sci-fi action-thriller could only mean disaster. That was the mindset accompanying me as I walked into the theatre to watch Knowing. Imagine my surprise when I found myself totally gripped by the premise and the story. It shouldn’t have been that surprising though: the ever-ambitious filmmaker, Alex Proyas, who was responsible for both The Crow and Dark City, directed Knowing. And for all that one may tear Knowing down, nobody can deny Proyas’ ambition. It’s a disaster film built on a unique premise that attempts to explore themes of determinism, religious faith, and the scientifically inexplicable.

Knowing stars Nicolas Cage as John Koestler, a professor at MIT. At a ceremony at his son’s school a fifty year-old time capsule is pulled out of the ground. Each student is given an envelope from the capsule. While most students get drawings in their envelopes, John’s son, Caleb, receives a piece of paper with a nearly endless series of numbers scrawled all over it. John soon discovers that the numbers are actually dates, death tolls and coordinates of every major disaster over the last fifty years, including several that have yet to happen. The film follows John as he tries to prevent the disasters and save the world from destruction prophesized by the final string of numbers.

Allow me to get the problems of the film out of the way first. The acting, across the board, is horrendous. Nicolas Cage has rarely been less convincing, and Rose Byrne, one of my favourite actresses, has been left to screaming incessantly and being a general pox on the film. The supporting players are mostly just as terrible, and that makes it very difficult for the film to sell its premise and larger themes. There are also instances of poor effects work; low budget and big CG effects do not go well together. Lastly, there is a serious structural problem in the writing of the film: the narrative focus is placed on Cage’s character, but the focus of the plot is on his son. It’s a problem that becomes more apparent after the ending of the film and calls into question the purpose of all that occurred throughout the film, including the entire point of deciphering the numbers.

But even with these major issues threatening to completely derail it, the film succeeds. Knowing is incredibly tense and the premise and unraveling of the plot is amazingly engaging. The direction, particularly of the disaster sequences, is mostly stellar. A scene in which John witnesses a plane crash is remarkably effective: in a single take we see a plane crash and all the accompanying horrors, including people being burned alive, with John completely powerless to stop the seemingly inevitable. Another sequence in a subway station is equally thrilling. Proyas clearly understands how to put together a great action sequence.

Proyas also understands pacing and tone. Knowing is a film that never really lets up, and there is always a sense of underlying dread leading to the brilliant ending of the film. The finale of the film is spectacular and goes a long way in developing the complex themes that are toyed with during the rest of the film. I can see it turning a lot of the audience off of the film, but I think the ending takes the film to a whole other level, and is appropriate both for the story as well as the larger themes of the film.

There is a lot not to like in Knowing. In many ways the film is complete mess, and in some ways (the acting) a minor disaster, but in the end I think there is a lot to like in the film. It is smart and tense and fascinating, and ultimately it’s really entertaining. That’s a lot more than can be said of a lot of recent action or sci-fi films, and on some level the sheer ambition of the film must be commended. Would I call Knowing a great film? Not at all. But there certainly is greatness buried somewhere inside it, and if you can’t find that you’ll at least be kept very entertained for two hours. Let’s just hope Nicolas Cage stays as far away from Alex Proyas’ next film as possible.

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