Knowing (review)

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I almost want to tell you, “Don’t miss Knowing,” because it’s so ridiculous — and so ridiculous in such an original way — that you kinda have to see it to believe that anyone actually conceived this idea, and then that anyone actually tried to pull it off. It’s like this: Imagine that the nitwits who wrote those preposterous Left Behind apocalyptic end-times fantasies decided to try their pens at something X-Files-y… or what they thought would be X-Files-y. It might look a lot like this alternately dull and unintentionally hilarious blend of self-important tripe: half science fiction as people who don’t understand science fiction see it, and half pseudo-religious nonsense that thinks it’s comforting and doesn’t realize how downright creepy it is.
Not creepy in a good way, of course: accidentally and inadvertently creepy by way of people who think the ideas that We Are Being Watched Over and Everything Happens For A Reason are reassuring and soothing. It’s not the viewpoint per se that’s the problem here — that would be a whole ’nother debate — but how it’s presented, as overblown and portentous as those cell-phone TV ads about “dead zones” that send up the clichés of suspense movies, even when the way the story is told would seem to be interfering with what the movie hopes to leave you with by the time it’s over.

Knowing ain’t a joke, though: it’s solemn-serious. The world is about to end, you know. Or maybe just sumthin’ bad for Nic Cage, Astrophysicist!, who trains up his college students in Quantum Philosophy 101 by telling them “I think shit just happens.” This is quite clearly countered by the fact that it took five people — Ryne Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, Stuart Hazeldine, and director Alex Proyas (I, Robot, Garage Days) — presumably working with intent and deliberation, to come up with all this. This shit did not “just happen,” though much of it feels so random that, again — as with its inability to decide where it should be going all-horror-movie on us — Knowing works to undermine itself. The one line of dialogue that infuriated me the most — “My scientific mind is telling me to have nothing more to do with this,” a scientist pal tells Cage’s astrophysicist, “and yours should too” — I can almost forgive, because clearly Knowing is not aimed at anyone with even a slightly scientific bent of mind, who would laugh at the upside-downness of such a suggestion, that a scientific mind would balk at a mystery instead of being intrigued by it. But I can’t forgive that same friend telling Cage (Bangkok Dangerous, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) that he “sounds pretty crazy, even for you.” What is the Cage character’s history of craziness? There isn’t one. It’s a line that sounds good in a trailer but makes no sense whatsoever within context.

The mystery, and what non-crazy Cage sounds crazy about, even for him, is this: He and his young son (played by the cute as a button and impressive monikered Chandler Canterbury: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) stumble across a numerological prophecy in a time capsule at the kid’s school. Cage figures out that the numbers scrawled across a couple of pieces of paper by a kid 50 years earlier in fact refer to every major disaster for the coming half century to follow. Which, plausibility about predicting the future aside, shouldn’t work for the plot: Cage confirms his suspicions by comparing the 50-year-old numbers on the paper to the news reports he finds on the Internet. That assumes that we always know the precise body count of a major disaster — which we don’t. So even if the predictions are entirely accurate, Cage shouldn’t be able to lock down every one of them as accurate. (This glop also assumes that one could list details of every incident for half a century in which as few as 48 people are killed on only two pieces of paper, which seems ridiculous, too.)

The problems with this aren’t just about nitpicking details: it connects to the film’s entire philosophy. The numerological predictions reach the present day before the numbers run out, which means that a few Something Bads are still to come, and soon. As Cage runs around trying to stop the upcoming disasters, he (and his son) are dogged by weird spectral blond men-in-black angel types who drive old sedans — this is one of the funniest of the not-supposed-to-be-funny bits — and by the end of the film, there is the implication that much of what has occurred has been directed, and all of it has been foreseen by some very powerful entities. (That’s not really much of a spoiler — the entire premise is based on the time-capsule predictions being accurate, after all.) And if that is the case, and if Knowing is, in the end, meant to be, in one regard, comforting and reassuring, then why does the movie ignore many obvious questions about the motives of these supposedly beneficent entities, like: Why did they arrange things as they did, instead of in ways that would have been infinitely more beneficent?

If I thought this was a deliberate goal of Knowing — to ask provocative and sinister questions about some cherished religious notions — I’d applaud the movie. But this is clearly not the case. The planned point of Knowing, it seems, is twofold: To allow Proyas a few deeply disturbing opportunities to indulge in disaster porn; man, does he love him some planes exploding and people — and animals! — on fire. (It’s equally disturbing to know that the MPAA has concluded, by giving this flick a PG-13 rating, that people burning or exploding into clouds of blood and flesh is more suitable for children than one too many utterances of the work fuck, which is always enough to earn an otherwise innocuous movie an R.) And to indulge in an ending that is quite literally pulled out of the thinnest of air.

I have a clever turn of phrase to describe that ending, except it really would be a spoiler to reveal it now. (I’ll post it soon.) But that ending is very, very funny, and so unique — if ludicrous — that only a newly invented phrase can encapsulate it. If you are tempted to Knowing, and are them tempted to walk out halfway through the overly long runtime, don’t: You’ll appreciate the laugh at the finale.

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