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Entries in Knowing [2008] (1)

Friday
Apr012011

Knowing (2008)

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Much has been written about the Hollywood anomaly known as Nicolas Cage.  Like Gary Busey, he's an Oscar-winning former golden child who abandoned a career of meaty, interesting performances and used his reputation to coast through a decade-and-a-half of mostly ham-fisted crap (unlike Busey, Cage doesn't have the benefit of an auto-accident-induced brain injury to explain the turn).  What's so unique about Cage is that he's pretty much the same guy in every film now, but depending on the quality of the project--or, more to the point, the "Cage-iness" of the character he plays in the project--his modern films sometimes surpass the wackily sub-par (Season of the Witch) and enter genius territory (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans).

Then there's Alex ProyasKnowing, a movie both enhanced and crippled by Cage's involvement. At a glance, the story is ridiculous: MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) discovers that a sheet of paper his son brings home from an unearthed time capsule contains the date, location, and body count of every major catastrophe of the last fifty years.  There are a few items on the list that have yet to occur, allowing Knowing to turn into a disaster-porn version of National Treasure.

Proyas and screenwriters Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, and Stiles White throw in a deceased wife for Cage and his son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), to mourn in the midst of the world-ending freakishness--kind of like Signs, without the hydrophobic aliens.  Yes, there are also aliens in this movie, but instead of the traditional bug-eyed "grays", they're humanoids whose ideas about Earth fashion were apparently informed by Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner.  This creepy, silent pack of trench-coat-wearing loboto-noids stalk John and Caleb throughout the film, and it's not until the end that we figure out why.  For the most part, they're just creepy hors d'oeuvres meant to keep us snacking during the few scenes when stuff isn't blowing up spectacularly.

Confidently navigating this melange of sci-fi movie clichés is Cage, who plays Wistful, Rage-fueled Alcoholic like nobody's business.  He imbues John with wisdom, regret and curiosity in a handful of scenes and somehow manages not to undo all that good work by screaming into cell phones and throwing back whiskey like he's still researching Leaving Las Vegas.  Both modes are equally effective, but the fact that he keeps flipping the switch casts a slightly camp shadow over the whole affair.  He's not helped by co-star Canterbury, who has to be one of the worst child actors to ever stink up a major motion picture.  I'm only going by this performance, mind you, but, Jesus, is this kid bad.  Imagine Charlie Brown with a bedwetting problem and an inability to remember lines, and you'll come close to understanding the stiffness falling out of your screen every time he slouches into frame (I'm not willing to throw down the Jake Lloyd gauntlet just yet, but my arm's definitely getting twitchy).

I can't be sure whether it was Cage's influence or the filmmakers', but this uneven-acting bug even infects the usually reliable Rose Byrne, who plays Diana Wayland, the daughter of the girl who wrote the prophetic paper as a child.  Byrne has two modes here: Skeptical Mother and Hysterical Mother.  One is funny; one is hilarious, and I'll leave it to you to decide which is which--my jury's still deliberating.  I get why her character is the way she is, but if the actress had dialed the frenzy back a bit instead of succumbing to it, we might have had at least one wholly sympathetic character instead of a handful of half-likeable ones.

"Well, Ian, when planes start falling from the sky and subway trains go off the rails, killing hundreds of people in bursts of fire, blood, and metal, let's see how you react!"

Fair enough.  I'll grant that there's a lot of awful stuff that happens in Knowing that would probably freak me out, were they to actually occur.  And Proyas shines in his depiction of unimaginably tragic events. But the amazing effects work and sound design are offset by goofy shit, like John stumbling through fresh plane wreckage like he's looking for an empty coke stall or Diana's theatrical screaming and convulsing as the aliens drive away with her daughter and Chandler.  Again, maybe people will really be like that at the end of days, but Knowing's vision of the future is less like Armageddon and more like an improv class.

Does this sound like a negative review?  Reading it over, yeah, it kind of does.  But I won't take back a word of it, even though I really enjoyed this film.  Though not entirely original, I dug the sci-fi and disaster elements.  Though packed with weird acting choices, I appreciated Cage and Canterbury's father/son chemistry; especially in their last scene together--which, because it didn't involve a lot of talking, allowed me to concentrate on wiping away some tears.  I even got into the aliens' ultimate objective, which has been this movie's most contentious point.  You can look at the final scene as a hokey religious metaphor, or you can look at it as a brilliant bit of cultural reverse-engineering (forgive me as I tiptoe around a spoiler).  On first viewing, I was in the former camp; the second time around, I saw things a little differently--and I'll cop to that having something to do, I think, with the fact that I'm a dad now.

Is Knowing an inconsistent, big-budget mess?  Sure.  But it has enough compelling nuggets of science fiction to elevate it above the usual studio garbage, and I'd bet that's why Cage got involved.  This is a quirky movie that is alternately serious and impossible to take seriously, but it stands by its convictions and doesn't care whether or not you prefer conventional, happy endings.  In this way, Knowing is not just a movie starring Nicolas Cage, it's Nicolas Cage: The Movie.