I was with Knowing for about 35 minutes. That’s mostly because of its great opening, which director Alex Proyas packages in the style of a 90’s paranormal bottle episode. In 1959, a Boston elementary school begins a time capsule project, collecting from each of its students a picture of their own creation. Of course, little Lucinda Embry is furiously scrawling numbers on her sheet of paper. To hell with ponies. Against the backdrop of late 50’s cultural “moderation” and Lucinda’s classmates with their milquetoast wholesomeness, a child possessed by some terrible algebra demon is pretty F’ed. Especially when she can’t stop — like, “finishing the sequence with her fingernails on a closet door” can’t stop. This last reveal is such an X-Files cold open moment I half expected the theme to drop in outta nowhere.
When the time capsule is dug up exactly fifty years later, each student now receives one of those decades-old contributions. Caleb, the impersonal offspring of Physics Professor Nicolas Cage, is bequeathed little Lucinda’s chain of numbers. And then a strange pale man appears and things quickly go off the deep end. But hey! Knowing’s opening? Damn solid.
Professor Cage, a single parent following his wife’s tragically random death in a hotel fire, divides his time between grilling dogs with Caleb and holding nightly telescope viewings. So when he discovers the secret about Lucinda’s numbers — the numbers are dates and death tolls of major catastrophes from the last fifty years — one questions whether such a busy intellectual stumbled on the truth through pure chance (Cage is convinced everything is random) or… if he was destined to find it by some higher force. The latter option only begs the question of exactly what one does with advance knowledge of disasters. For Cage, it means wandering into the middle of a plane crash.
Now the only thing worse than a plane crash is when that plane crash looks really really fake, and this one looks baaad. A great deal of Knowing’s visuals look remarkably terrible for CGI only three years old. Fleeing forest animals are likely retreating to the Cabela’s PS2 game where they belong and blazing fires look primed for Sephiroth to stroll right through them. For a story whose crux tries to nail down life and faith at the center of a cold, dark universe, Knowing often appears constructed by those same lonely depressing forces. The acting certainly was. I hold no personal grudges against child actor (and probable Renaissance enthusiast) Chandler Canterbury, but Caleb fucking sucks. Canterbury’s performance is as flat and deadened as any bad child performance I’ve seen, and he’s clearly spreading it to his older, more seasoned co-stars.
That brings us to the man of the week. The role of “faithless science professor” probably offers little room for passion but Cage is really neutered here. When Cage tracks down Rose Byrne (the now grown daughter of little Lucinda) for answers, their awkward sunroof sitdown is hilariously bad. Cage’s dialogue sounds so forced I imagine Alex Proyas hiding under the table, holding a box cutter to Cage’s groin. Don’t ham this line up, Nic. DON’T DO IT. Proyas’ threats would at least explain why the dialogue was obviously dubbed over in post. Still unexplained is Cage’s decision to re-read those lines on a half bottle of Paxipan. If this lackluster interview is any indication, everyone involved was bored out of their skulls.
That’s surprising, considering how nutso this script gets. That creepy pale guy? Well there’s a whole of bunch of them, and they follow the Cage, Byrne and their children around for much of the second act, barfing out showers of light and dropping smooth black stones wherever they go. SPOILERS but they’re actually heralds from some distant planet of white trees and tentacled wheat fields, sent to evacuate every child on Earth before its impending doom. DOUBLE SPOILERS because little Lucinda’s final numbers? Yeah, they sorta predicted the end of the world. Apart from a massive super solar flare, the details are sparse, but Proyas and a trio of screenwriters don’t seem too concerned with answering their own questions. After all, these aliens transport life in glass-feathered whiffle balls, but by this point, you’ve said “fuck it” to logic long ago. Logic certainly didn’t govern Cage’s sudden change of character, when the Cage reconciles an estranged relationship with his pastor father. The shift in belief is abrupt, namely because the end of the freaking world drops outta nowhere, so Cage’s retreat rings more of desperation than true conversion, like a spineless pagan, serial-praying to every deity on his deathbed.
Knowing does offer a strong score from composer Marc Beltrami with a sound best described as “Arachnid Orchestra.” Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Too bad cantankerous plotting, a dull second act, duller child actors, and a waste of the great Ben Mendelsohn form nothing but a fascinating dud, and Beltrami’s work, often in refreshing odd time signatures, is squandered. It’s a damn shame since his music carries pathos and gravitas and psychological dread — qualities the rest of Knowing is remarkably oblivious to. Oh hey, irony. What are you up to this weekend?
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Want more Cage? You got it.