Knowing (United States, 2009)

March 18, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Knowing Poster

Knowing is a classic case of a movie that is crammed with interesting ideas but is unable to conceptualize them in a compelling fashion. Knowing doesn't fail because of a lack of ambition or scope but because of flaws in execution. The movie tries to accomplish a lot of things, but it doesn't do many of them well. The structure is confused, with a setup that is long and uninvolving, a middle section that is largely unnecessary, and an ending that is rushed. There are numerous red herrings; in fact, the first 90 minutes could be classified as such. The allegorical conclusion is also disappointing, mainly because it is anticlimactic. As cinematic failures go, at least this one is interesting in some aspects, but not to the degree that I can recommend it.

The film opens with a prologue set in 1959 at a Massachusetts elementary school. A time capsule is buried on school grounds with the view that it won't be opened until 2009. Each student is asked to submit a drawing depicting their idea of what the world will look in 50 years. Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) is hearing voices and they instruct her regarding what she should put on her sheet: a seemingly random series of numbers. A half-century later, once the capsule is opened, that sheet comes into the possession of Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury), who shows it to his astrophysicist father, John (Nicolas Cage). John becomes obsessed by the paper and determines that it's a "crib sheet" listing all of the major disasters that have occurred over the past 50 years: date, death, latitude, longitude. Three future catastrophes are listed, and John is obsessed with trying to prevent these, to the point where he tracks down Lucinda's daughter, Diana (Rose Bryne), and granddaughter, Abby (Lara Robinson, doing double duty), in the hope that they can somehow help. Meanwhile, mysterious strangers watch John and Caleb from afar, whispering in the night.

For a while, Knowing touches on some interesting ideas, including questions about fate, chance, and predestination. There's also the concept of numbers forming the ultimate, underlying foundation of the universe - a belief that is shared by some mathematicians and mystics alike. Unfortunately, although the screenplay spends an inordinate amount of time with numerology and questions of whether the future can be known or predicted, these elements don't have a lot to do with the narrative's final trajectory. They are tangential obfuscations - ways to misdirect the audience and make the resolution "surprising."

The director is Alex Proyas, whose previous efforts include The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot. Knowing represents the weakest script he has worked on to date. He squeezes some atmosphere from it (not unlike that which permeated The Crow and Dark City) and there are some generally creepy moments involving the strangers in the woods (recalling Dark City), but all these aspects accomplish is to make the film seem like less of a time-waster. The disaster sequences are effectively staged, although the heavy reliance upon CGI is evident. The train crash, for example, is less convincing than something similar in Die Hard with a Vengeance. Knowing also concludes with a needlessly spectacular effects sequence where something simpler and less ostentatious might have been more poignant.

There's a sense that characters often act in certain ways for no reason other than that's what the script needs. For example, there's a scene in which John races to the projected disaster site in New York City and starts yelling at a random cop that the area needs to be cordoned off. This is followed by a silly chase, lots of special effects, and ultimately no ramifications. The point of the scene is to give us a close-up view of the crash, but it's a complete throw-away. The character of Diana is introduced awkwardly and no attempt is made to integrate her into the story in a meaningful manner. And the leap of logic made by John regarding a field trip to the elementary school's basement (which results in him extracting a door) is the kind of thing that would make Sherlock Holmes envious. The titters heard from the audience during this scene are reasonable.

Nicolas Cage is in manic, pseudo action hero mode, which is fine except that he never radiates much in the way of humanity. We recognize that John loves his son because we are told that by the screenplay, not because Cage sells it. The character never feels fully formed, but it's possible that a lot of stuff got left on the cutting room floor. (Knowing feels like a much longer movie that was gutted to trim it down to two hours.) Rose Byrne channels Jennifer Connelly; it's easier to empathize with her than with Cage. Fortunately, the film doesn't try to force a romance where one would not be appropriate.

Because it's not a run-of-the-mill dumb disaster movie, Knowing proves to be more frustrating than simplistic fare like Independence Day or Armageddon. There is potential here for something thought-provoking, viscerally exciting, and ultimately transcendent. But there are too many problems with the script for Proyas to develop things to the point where we can see more than the skeleton of a missed opportunity. Science fiction fans will feel gypped, disaster movie fans will appreciate about 10 minutes of screen time and be bored by the rest, and no one else will care. The marketing campaign will put a few butts in seats but it's hard to imagine many of those viewers being satisfied on any level. Someone should have known better.

Knowing (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1