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Knowing Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 21, 2009

    Knowing Review

    What happens when the numbers run out ...?

    It used to be that post-apocalyptic movies were ten-a-penny, but these days, in the wake of 9/11, it seems to be that those depicting the "coming storm" are what people find most fascinating. Couple this awe-inspiring concept with the supernatural or a science-fiction angle and suddenly you have a pitch that ignites the imagination of almost everybody on the planet. Belief systems may differ and cultural impressions of Judgement Day may arrive in all shapes and guises, but every single civilisation on the planet agrees upon one thing - that the world will end. The hows, whys and wherefores of such a holocaust are obviously a narrative-rich seedbed yet, perhaps inevitably, the best of such interpretations have always boiled down to the one potent ingredient that affects us all - the intimate acceptance of our own mortality, and that of our loved ones, in the unyielding face of calamity.

    When Alex Proyas, the acclaimed Australian director of The Crow, Dark City and I, Robot, took this idea - the coming of the end - and turned it into his next motion picture, he must have known that he would have something of a struggle on his hands. For when Knowing was released it may have scored reasonably well at the box office, but the movie was actually quite dismissed by critics, and even fans of his earlier work tended to agree that his fantastical scenario was eventually undermined and derailed by a conclusion that was deemed too far “out there”, or simply too sentimentally sappy. That's because Proyas' take on the story from Ryne Douglas Pearson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Juliet Snowden and Stiles White) perhaps attempted to embrace too much at once. The age-old conflict between science and religion may be obvious and ever-ripe for exploration, but filmmakers tend to come down on either one side or the other, and Proyas' hugely entertaining, if purposely melancholy, tale actually seeks to embrace the two, finding connections between both and, in a way, offering a “type” of solution to the identity of the angels whilst enforcing the validity of faith at the same time. Proyas is dabbling in those Big Questions that most other filmmakers and a fair portion of the audience tend to shy away from, and whether you like the theories that his film puts forward, or not, is largely immaterial in the grand scheme of the dark adventure that resides at the core of the story. That people take what they want from it is all part of the experience - and, personally, I love it when directors at least attempt to embrace some of the bigger issues of existence without lapsing into whimsy, or pretentiousness.

    Taking elements of The Day After Tomorrow, various Bible Code theories, lots of astrophysical speculation and a whole heap of diverse cultural prophecies, Knowing commences with the burial of a time capsule in quaint, apple-pie-eating Massachusetts, 1959. Cutting to the present day we find morose MIT astrophysics lecturer, John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) watching as his son, at the unearthing of the capsule in a big celebration, is handed one of the items that was sealed within it by his predecessors at the same school. Bizarrely, it is just a double-sided page with nothing but reams of numbers written all over it. Taking it home, John makes the unnerving discovery that the numbers all seem to refer to the dates and death-tolls of disasters that have taken place in the decades after the capsule was buried. Still mourning the loss of his wife, John is horrified to find that the hotel fire that claimed her life is listed amongst the numbers, as well. Reading further into the strange catalogue of premonitions only startles him all the more, as there are a couple of final entries that have yet to happen ... and they are coming up very soon.

    With time running out and only Koestler possessing the knowledge of these untold horrors to come, Proyas' movie accelerates through his increasingly anxious detective work, whilst his son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) is seemingly stalked by some weird “strangers” who whisper telepathically into his mind, as, all the while, the sense of inescapable doom looms ever closer. Eventually aided by Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), the daughter of the now-deceased girl who penned the prophecies fifty years before, it is up to John to decipher the final, unfinished entry on the list and work out how he and his son are somehow connected to the frightening phenomenon. But can he do it before it is too late?

    “We were both wrong. The numbers are a warning, but not just to me or any random group. They're a warning to everyone.”

    Well, you can say what you want about old Nic Cage - I know that I certainly have over the years. Though he was once very highly regarded, the actor now seems cursed with the ability to drag even the most seaworthy of filmic vessels beneath the waves of ridicule, and yet he remains, somewhat inconceivably, a box office draw. His performance as John Koestler, MIT Astrophysicist and grieving single father, has been heftily criticised already but, you know what, I'm going to go against the general flow here, because I think he does a bang-up job of bringing a very difficult and complex character to life and making him, at least, believable in a genre explosion of Big Ideas and crazy scenarios that effortlessly, and deliberately, push the boundaries of credibility all around him. Convincingly distraught and sullen, Cage imbues Koestler with plenty of foibles and fallibilities. Almost walking in on his son as he lies in bed watching a old video of his mother, Koestler remains outside, just peering through the gap in the door, a deep expression of devout agony etched across Cage's face. A painful conversation between John and Diana as they speed towards the location of what they hope will be another clue is weighed down with tragedy and suppressed anger. Cage has been blamed for sleepwalking through the role, but I feel he is performing exactly how the character would perform under the circumstances. Unashamed of his slight paunch, and with that usually errant hair of his under strict control this time, Cage makes his protagonist as un-heroic as he can possibly be, whilst, at the same time, allowing the events of the film to portray his true bravery along the way to the eventual revelation. During his first, enforced meeting with Diana, he is perfectly awkward and mad-sounding, his frantic desperation for answers when his cover is finally dropped authentically pinched with agitated urgency. We understand her concerns, but we totally buy into his near-raving demands, too. His refusal to argue with a scientist buddy over what these jottings all mean leads to him simply packing up his stuff and walking off-campus - no hissy-fit, no wasted breath. Again, this is entirely credible for a man who is tired, lonely, dejected and now clouded by fears that he cannot properly comprehend.

    It may take him a ridiculously long time to recognise the symbolism of the number string 91120012996 - at the flicks people were actually shouting out 9/11 to him - but Cage conveys inner turmoil and tremendous sensitivity whenever they are called for. Just watch how he hangs his head when he finally plucks up the courage to see his estranged father, and how he remains unable to actually face him even during their touching reunion. Yes, it is easy to mock the way that he looks, the way that he speaks and all those unfortunate horse-faced expressions in his repertoire, but Cage sells this role to me so completely that I was moved by many of the later scenes.

    And Troy's Rose Byrne is not as wasted as the initially reluctant and guarded Diana as some reviewers would like to have you think. In some ways, just as haunted as John, Diana's dilemma is possibly even deeper-set. She has lived with the knowledge of her mother's frightening foresight and obsessional behaviour all of her life, whereas John has only just come under its influence in the last couple of days. Byrne's character gets to react a little more cautionary, yet there is still the moment when a last-minute rift separates her from John and her decision brings with it tremendous repercussions. I accept that it is a thankless part, but Byrne does well to engage our empathy with it, just the same. Both child actors - Chandler Canterbury and Lara Robinson who plays Diana's daughter, Abby, as well as Diana's young mother as she appears in the 1959 prologue - are reasonable and manage to just about escape the usual kid-annoyances that genre pictures seem to bring out in such young performers. Canterbury is a moppet, for sure, yet his lack of depth throughout a fair chunk of the movie actually comes to depict a kid who has had to be strong and resilient in the face of terrible grief, and the lack of the usual whining that would accompany a child in his situation is quite refreshing. There is a definite resemblance between Lara Robinson and Rose Bryne, too, that really adds to the authenticity of their mother/daughter relationship. And, speaking of resemblances, it is also interesting to note that the older actress even comes to look a lot like Jennifer Connelly as she appeared in Proyas' earlier Dark City, only with much less weighty eyebrows! Proyas handles some scenes of child-jeopardy well enough, though it should be noted that the kids, themselves, never actually appear unduly stressed, which should let the parents amongst you, who can't help but make those heart-lurching associations of imagining their own kids in similar situations, off the hook. Canterbury does, however, deliver some lump-in-the-throat moments later on which will probably get to those same parents. They did me, that's for sure.

    “I keep seeing their faces... burning.”

    Another equally natural association that is made is with M. Night Shyamalan's frustratingly pretentious output. Things such as The Village and The Happening are, of course, absolute dross - rug-pulling flights of fancy that are, sadly, just plain stupid - but the egotistical filmmaker has also come up with a couple of gems in Signs and Unbreakable, and it is to Signs that Knowing gives, perhaps, its biggest nod. Both films deal with a man who has become spiritually adrift, and is grieving for a tragically lost wife and struggling with the day to day trauma of child-rearing - a man who must overcome intense personal disillusionment, familial barricades and, erm, the threat of Earth's destruction if he is to find his own personal redemption. Faith and consequence will play a major part in the rehabilitation of both, though the two lost dreamers will come to vastly different outcomes. Koestler, like Mel Gibson's lapsed preacher, Graham Hess, in Signs, will be tested not only by his own convictions, but by his own failings. Cage's character finds purpose and meaning in his quest to unravel the clues though, of course, he doesn't realise it at the time. The really clever thing is that, whilst watching the movie, you implicitly believe that the whole thing is his story, yet come the finale, you may have reason to think otherwise - and then, looking back upon the whole thing from a post-credits sanctuary, you could discover that you were probably right the first time round. In this, and many other ways, the film does play with preconceptions which, as it happens, is precisely the point of the story. Fate or coincidence. Determinism versus randomness, or “Chaos”, if you will. Whatever your viewpoint on life's pattern, you will find that all of these options collide in Knowing.

    “This isn't the end, son.”

    The common error with films like this is that those who have conceived the premise simply sit back, content in the knowledge that they have come up with a terrific hook, and then forget how to see it through, logically, to the end. Knowing has a splendid central idea but, as much as I enjoy what they have done with it, I can't help but think that Proyas and his writers had no real comprehension of how they were going to connect up all the various components. Oh, they may have had the ending in mind all along, as well, but it is how all those little stops along the route are arrived at that poses the most troublesome niggles. In fact, the daftness quotient of Knowing is literally sky-high and if you want to pick holes in it, you will find the plot an exceedingly target-rich environment. But I don't think that any of this matters. Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds also had a story that was fundamentally flawed, yet still worked on a number of other levels, and Knowing, like 2005's earth-shattering invasion movie, succeeds supremely on mood, if nothing else. Juggling the mysterious with the profound could, and does lead to all sorts of problems. Nobody could argue that Knowing doesn't exist largely on contrivance and convenience and that it often skips merrily over some quite glaring plot inconsistencies, but atmosphere is what counts in a film like this. You could call it a fantastical fable, if you like, but John Koestler's plight is precisely constructed to unravel reality or, at least, his notion of it ... so, really, once the platform of accepted physics has been cast to the wind, all bets are off. Proyas bases his plot in the real world of the here and the now, but to all intents and purposes, this disaster-ravaged landscape is a bubble that will soon burst and become something else entirely.

    “You know the heat we're experiencing now? Well, it's going to get worse. A lot worse.”

    Although some of the CG effects aren't quite as accomplished as you might like, kudos must go to the impact that they make - and I do mean impact. An airliner scything into the ground and spitting out burning passengers certainly lingers in the mind, as does a stag running, ablaze through a forest of fire. A show-stopping train derailment in a packed New York subway wows by virtue of showing us the hideous results of the platform massacre that ensues. An apocalyptic vision of a woodland inferno makes a distinct impression, but Proyas leaves his most awe-inspiring flames until the end. The inclusion of some strange little stones - oval-shaped nuggets of onyx - that are somehow connected to the impending Armageddon is a nice touch that, whilst never quite fully explained, add a dangerously enchanting frisson of the surreal.

    If the end of the world is coming, you can rest assured that it is not going to come quietly. And, to help accompany Proyas' depiction of it, Knowing also boasts one of the best original scores of the year, so far. I've praised composer Marco Beltrami many times on this site already - his scores for Hellboy and 3.10 To Yuma are simply outstanding - and this is no exception. Powerful, eerie and highly unsettling for the most part, he even wrestles with spellbinding rapture and searingly emotional poignancy and comes up trumps. But what this score really has going for it, besides a sense of impending shock and awe, is a couple of the most unusual, catchy and downright exciting action cues that have come along in quite some time. When John says to his sister, “Don't let him watch the TV,” the film's ensuing set-piece allows Beltrami to concoct a wonderful cue that commences in low urgency, with the buoyant sounds of the clarinet and bassoon punctuating the Herrmann-style strings, then builds up and up, gets faster and faster, and winds up incorporating the full orchestra in bashing, crashing fury. It is the kind of track that is so well syncopated with the on-screen action that the two mediums give each other life. He did much the same thing with Hellboy and the finale of I, Robot, too. And the other mesmerising cue comes when John, at the last minute, makes a sudden realisation regarding the scratches in a door. Again, existing in a wonderful filmic limbo, the editing, direction and imagery combine with the music to create a wonderfully energising set-piece, Beltrami's dexterous string section practically performing athletics to keep the relentless momentum.

    Alex Proyas has built up a delicious Twilight Zone mood in which to dazzle, provoke and mystify us, and where most recent genre-twisters - Push, Jumper etc - fail to inspire, his movie succeeds. That it flows extremely well is actually down to the pacing, the performances and the sheer fun that we, as spectacle-lovers, enjoy in the anticipation of yet more death and carnage coming along. That it also pitches religion, Fate and scientific waffle at one another like some high-brow wrestling tag-team only makes it more insanely irresistible to me. Perhaps Proyas works some kind of magic into his films that, like some of the characters in Knowing, only certain people pick up on. Which probably means that he'll be calling on me and Roger Ebert (his most fervent fan in all the world, it seems) again some time soon.

    Nowhere near as clever as it would like to be, Knowing is still extremely fine entertainment that, at least, aspires to set the world on fire.