Not everyone liked him, but as a longtime fan of the late author, I mean it as a compliment to say that Knowing is the Michael Crichton sci-fi thriller that never was. My favorite of his novels was Sphere, and Knowing is similar: it's got one of Crichton's signature, paper-thin potboiler mysteries, but grafted onto it are brilliant, interesting ideas that go from curious to thrilling to outright terrifying. It's no surprise that story creator Ryne Douglas Pearson is a novelist himself. On the other hand, despite Dark City's Alex Proyas at the helm, it also plays like most of the movies adapted from Crichton's books: loud, clunky, badly cast action pictures that threaten to suck the intrigue out of the coolest concepts. Never have I been so blown away by what a movie was attempting to show me while simultaneously being so disappointed by the execution.
Part of the problem is Nicolas Cage. Even as his career takes some terrible turns, I don't think he's lost his touch (The Weather Man remains criminally underrated), but his seemingly mellow demeanor always clashes with repeated attempts to do noisy action blockbusters. His character, an MIT professor named John Koestler (complete with police-style ID badge), stumbles upon a pattern in a page full of numbers his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) pulls out of a school time capsule, and as John begins to believe in the increasingly deadly ramifications of his discovery, Cage's acting gets goofier and goofier. When he yells, I think The Wicker Man, while his wide-eyed terror brings up flashes of Raising Arizona. Neither serves the movie. I also wonder if he's aware of the running joke about his hair (both Rotten Tomatoes and Entertainment Weekly ran pieces about it thanks to Knowing). His coif here is especially dumb, which seems to be designed, for whatever reason, to accentuate his increasing baldness.
Like Cage's performance, the movie's weaker points lack subtlety. Marco Beltrami's score is a keyboard-pounding mess of dire notes that beat the audience like a sledgehammer, and a subplot involving John's religious father is equally jangly and overbearing. Anyone personally affected by September 11th will also want stay at home. A few of the references are merely corny (a flag flies meaningfully over an incident in NYC), but don't let the trailers fool you: the plane crash might force some viewers out of the theater. I have never witnessed a live plane crash, and I hope I never do, but anyone who sees Knowing will get a disturbing vision of what it might be like. It's relatively bloodless, but it's seriously intense, and I'm surprised the tone of the scene (and others) managed to get past the MPAA with a PG-13 rating.
True-life parallels aside, however, tone is the major thing the movie does well. The crash may disturb you, and it will remind people of 9/11, but Proyas isn't exploiting it for fun or action. He wants you to be as shaken as John is, and he succeeds. Knowing is also frequently scary. There's a scene where John searches the apartment of the girl who put the note in the time capsule with the help of her daughter Diana (Rose Byrne), and though the revelation they discover in her bedroom is fairly obvious, it's overwhelmingly creepy. I get chills just thinking about it. Similarly, the inclusion of mysterious, pale-skinned people in black coats (Proyas should consider suing himself) initially seems like a hammy mistake, but he wrings more than a couple of disturbing moments from their iris-free eyes and unblinking stares. If only the movie was better, he might have made both one of the year's best sci-fi and horror films in one fell swoop.
The main question in Knowing is whether the universe is deterministic: are we here because of a meticulous grand scheme, or is it pure chance? The movie's concept poses the question almost reflexively. What are the odds that an MIT mathemetician would get the note? For that matter, what are the odds that it gets from his son's hands to him at all? Is the information John learns from decoding the message usable, or will nature conspire to make it happen regardless of what he does, and might the numbers already account for his involvement? Beyond the philosophical, however, these questions pose a conundrum: the movie kinda sucks, but the line of thought it creates is awesome. Does that make it a good movie? In its favor, Knowing only asks the questions instead of answering them (it's likely to be cited as concrete evidence in both sides of the "deterministic" debate, which is a small triumph), but the bottom line is I was thinking about these questions instead of watching the movie, which can't be Proyas's intent.
The ending, arguably the most intriguing part of the film, goes to risky places without hesitation, and on the page, where the reader has the freedom to envision things any way they want, it could have been the finishing touch that made Knowing a classic. Yet in the theater, I was checking my watch, laughed at things that weren't meant to be funny, and thought about the special effects instead of what was happening to the characters. William Goldman said in a book I once read that making a movie is just "the factory putting together the car", and if you've hired the right people, you'll get a good result. There are a lot of good people working on Knowing, but the car that comes out looks like a Porsche and drives like a Yugo. It's not worth spending ten bucks on. Let's hope there's a novelization.
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