Is life totally random and meaningless? Or is there some predestination, and thus purpose, behind everything? Knowing, opening today, ponders this question and splits the difference: everything is predestined, but it's still all meaningless.
At least that's the impression I came away with after watching this Nicolas Cage vehicle. The film, directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City, iRobot) tries hard to impress you with its deep themes about the meaning of our existence, but it's let down by a sledgehammery script, and one of Cage's worst performances on record. (And bear in mind, I liked Ghost Rider. Yeah, really.)
Oh, and there will be spoilers in this review. I'm predicting it, because I have a giant sheet of random numbers, and if you circle some of them randomly you get the words "SPOILERS AHEAD".
Nic Cage plays John Koestler, an MIT professor who's the worst astrophysicist in the universe. Early on, we get to watch him teaching a class, and it's like a bad freshman philosophy bull session, taught by a burned-out stoner. For some reason, instead of actually, you know, teaching some astrophysics, Koestler wants to ramble about predestination versus total randomness in the universe. "Tell me about the sun," Cage says, tossing a model of the sun at one of his students. "It's hot," the student says. Dude, no way. So, is it just random chance that we're exactly the right distance from the sun to allow complex life to develop? (This is what's known in the business as foreshadowing.)
Koestler is obsessed with questions of fate versus free will, because his wife died in a hotel fire, leaving him alone with his precocious son Caleb, who's got that form of aspergers that smart kids always have in the movies. The movie tries hard to give us a lot of character development by shorthand. Like, John and Caleb have a weird hand-jive thing they do while they chant "You and me, together forever." Except that John is never actually there for Caleb, because he's an alcoholic screw-up. One of John's colleagues wants to fix him up on a date with a female professor whom he calls "Miss Ph Double-Ds." Oh, and John is estranged from his own father, a pastor who talks with a fake Boston brahmin accent. "Oh, the son of a pastor, the son of a pastor," John chants at one point while pulling a face. John doesn't believe in God, because of that hotel fire thingy.
So yes, eventually the plot kicks into gear and we're all glad the painful character development is over. Caleb's school digs up a time capsule, which we saw being buried in 1959, and Caleb gets a sheet of numbers which a crazy Wednesday Addams girl scrawled 50 years earlier. Somehow, John figures out all those numbers predict every major disaster of the past 50 years, plus a few disasters yet to come. (You're not supposed to wonder how so many disasters could fit on one piece of paper.)
At this point, the film starts referencing 9/11 pretty heavily. Remember when it was considered a huge taboo for movies to touch on 9/11? Watching parts of this movie, I felt nostalgic for those days. The first disaster that Koestler identifies on the sheet of numbers is 9/11. And then he gets caught up in a plane crash that's somewhat reminiscent of UA 93. Then Koestler figures out that another disaster is due to take place in Manhattan, and meanwhile the terror rating has been raised. So John tries to notify Homeland Security about his prediction, to no avail. He goes to New York, and spots a shifty-looking Arab man, whom he chases through the subway. The Arab turns out to be a guy who stole some DVDs, and then the subway train crashes due to driver error. Cage and the other survivors climb out of the ruined subway, in a cloud of smoke and ash, and they're all covered with white ash, so that they look like postapocalyptic mimes. And then we see shots of heroic firefighters. Other movies I've seen recently which touched on 9/11 have felt interesting, or cathartic, or tasteful, but this just felt a bit gratuitous for some reason.
Actually, though, the movie really only comes to life when there's a disaster taking place. During a few great set pieces - the plane crash, the train crash and one or two others - the movie gains a sense of life and becomes fun to watch. We follow Cage as he runs through flames and rubble and screaming people, in long tracking shots that reminded me of the end of Children Of Men. The disaster sequences only account for about 15-20 minutes of the movie's two-hour running length, but they're almost worth the price of admission. Proyas obviously puts most of his heart into those moments.
Meanwhile, the other big strand in the movie is that spooky shit is going down. The creepy girl who wrote down those numbers heard scary cacophonous whispers in her ears, and John's son Caleb hears them too. So does the girl's granddaughter, whom John and Caleb meet up with at some point. (Oh, and Rose Byrne plays the 1959 girl's daughter, who's been tormented by her mother's weird Cassandra complex.) And there are weird goth albino dudes hanging around the kids, staring at them and trying to claim them or something. Also, there are weird pebbles. It all turns out to be something different than you expect, in a very woo-woo "spiritual" ending that reminded me of Mission To Mars or the Keanu version of Day The Earth Stood Still. There was one fantastic moment when the kids are each handed white rabbits - and I thought maybe bunnies would turn out to be the movie's secret villains. (What if Anya from Buffy was right? Bunnies! Bunnies! It must be bunnies! But sadly, no.)
One of the great pleasures of Knowing is picking apart all of the movie's weird plot holes and bits of unprocessed nonsense. For a film that insists, over and over, that everything makes sense and that you could predict the future if you only knew enough facts, the movie actually depends on the audience not thinking very hard about its premise, especially once the big twist in the premise is revealed.
But that's not the film's biggest problem - plenty of movies make no sense, and are still awesome to watch. (Like, say, Push, from the same distributor, which came out last month.) Rather, the biggest problem is that the film is such a genre smorgasbord, it sort of loses cohesion. It's a mystery thriller, where we have to figure out what these numbers mean. No, wait, it's a horror movie, with the staring albinos and their deranged whispering. Or, no, it's a disaster movie about planes trains and automobiles going FOOM. Or no, it's a spiritual growth movie, where we finally open up and discover the meaning behind everything. To be fair, some of my favorite movies are genre mashups, and I like a movie that changes gears in the middle. But it just doesn't quite work in this film, because the shifts are handled awkwardly, and none of these individual segments feels that original. It all felt like a mashup of several movies I'd seen before.
For all that, I didn't hate Knowing, or even dislike it that much. It had a certain energy, and Nic Cage's dopey facial expressions are always fun to watch, and the disaster segments really are first class. There are a couple of genuinely surprising twists here and there, and the part of the ending that's not "spiritual" is weirdly satisfying. Proyas keeps upping the ante, until the apocalyptic finish feels genuine apocalyptic and huge. Rose Byrne doesn't have much to do in the film, but she's engaging whenever she's on screen.
Plus, I suspect that if you really love random spooky shit, or apparently meaningless clues that turn out to be the key to everything, or spiritual endings, then you'll be more drawn into this movie than I was. You may even find that it explains everything - and find that its apparently random tonal and narrative shifts form a secret pattern, which you can use to predict everything in the universe. Or maybe not.