Knowing is okay.
Okay. Judging from the trailer and/or commercials for the film, it’s likely that you’re expecting some kind of paranoid thriller along the lines of The Number 23 or The Happening. That is actually a fairly accurate summarization of this film, although the difference between this one and the others is that Knowing is actually done sort of kind of not too terribly.
Which is not to say that it’s good.
It’s about an astrophysicist named John Koestler (Cage) who happens upon a page filled with seemingly random numbers, after it is unearthed in a time capsule at his son’s school. The numbers were written by a creepy little girl in a prologue, so we know that the paper must be important. Creepy children in movies are never merely insane: they serve as portents for the future. It’s not long before Koestler realizes that the numbers are actually predictions of deadly disasters that have happened during the last fifty years. The way he finds out this is simple: while drinking a beer, he happens to write down one set of numbers – 91120012996 – on a whiteboard and begins trying to cut it up into different combinations. A little online research reveals that 2996 people were killed in the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. Whoa!
As Koestler begins to uncover the riddle of the numbers, he has several questions. Who wrote these numbers, and how did she know the future? Why did HE find this paper at THIS exact time? And most pressingly, why does the paper seem to end – gulp – in this exact year? Koestler’s fears are compounded by the eerie, pale men that have been standing outside of his house in the dark and frightening his son.
The over-arching idea of Knowing is intriguing. What would you do with intimate knowledge of disastrous future events, and how would that affect your life in other ways? How could you live, knowing what the future would hold? Unfortunately, much like this year’s Watchmen, the movie seems content to merely nod toward these philosophical predicaments while serving instead a special effects laden thriller. It is a thrilling movie, don’t get me wrong (although the special effects are remarkably lame)… but whatever promise there is in the spiritual aspects of Koestler’s quest fizzles out quietly. Early in the film, Koestler mentions to his class that there are two major schools of thought about the future: determinism and randomness, design and chaos. After that exchange, the film hands the reins to the audience. “Here, we got it started, you can finish this line of thought.” That’s disappointing. As the plot spins ever more wildly out of control, eventually reaching into preposterousness, it’s difficult to look at the events as anything more than action and thrillz.
A lot of people are going to see Knowing looking for a laugh. Nicolas Cage has lost a lot of credibility in recent years by doing a string of less than stellar flicks (Next, The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider), and I’m sure that the unfairly low rating that this movie has on RottenTomatoes at the moment (25%) is in some ways a response to that. Cage certainly doesn’t match his greatest performances in Knowing, but he manages to hold his own. The few moments when the film slips into camp are attributable to sloppy writing in the script. The speed with which Koestler determines the nature of the numbers is accompanied by Cage scoffing, “Oh, come on.” It’s not that Cage has read the line poorly or acted badly. It’s that the script itself is unaware of the impossibilities that it is expecting its audience to accept. The way that characters react to problems is often at odds with what a real person would do. Problems in the film often feel like constructs of lazy writing than natural responses to given stimuli.
Even so, the tension builds gradually, making Knowing a real experience. Even if the film manages to ignore whatever philosophical implications the paper’s existence might hold, it’s still chock full of darkened dread. Plus, there are two or three major special effects sequences which, although extremely fake-looking, are easy to get immersed in and affected by. During these times, Proyas’ camera takes on a Cloverfield hand-held style that puts the viewer right into the action – spinning wildly to look at the devasating events taking place. It’s powerful. Whatever problems there are in Knowing (and there are problems, believe you me), no blame can be placed on the actors or on the sensibilities of the director.
No, I stand by what I said before. What makes this movie weak is the script itself. It too easily finds itself drifting toward absurd plot twists, simply because it can. The “surprising” ending isn’t as thoughtful or symbolic as it thinks it is. It’s simplistic. It’s cheap.
Yes, Knowing is not bad. But it’s not good either, as the effort put into the film ultimately crumbles under the weight of the plot. It’s an experience first and foremost, a gripping tale of immense tension. It’s not a movie to spend too much time thinking about later on, even though it has glimmers of hope. Knowing could have been a lot better, sure, but I’m okay with it just being okay.