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- Movie: Knowing
- Rating: PG-13
- Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend and D.G. Maloney
- Written By: Ryne Pearson, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White
- Directed By: Alex Proyas
- Distributor: Summit Entertainment
You're Better Off Not
By Rob Vaux
March 20, 2009
Nicolas Cage in Alex Proyas' KNOWING(2009).
© Summit Entertainment
There is a moment--we'll call it the Shyamalan Moment, in honor of its greatest practitioner--when you realize a given movie has completely left the rails. It only occurs when preceded by considerable potential, when a talented director has used his bag of tricks to snare us inexorably in his grasp. So intriguing is the set up and so fascinating are the questions it poses that we're willing to forgive a few bumps in the road. And when those bumps become something more serious--something that transforms all those good ideas into transcendently goofy nonsense--it takes a little while to sink in. Only during the Shyamalan Moment does the true extent of the damage become known. It's a wondrous revelation in its own way: we've shot for the moon and missed. Now there's nothing to do but enjoy the long trip down… and oh my is it steep.
Knowing's Shyamalan Moment comes with about thirty minutes left to go as star Nicholas Cage and co-star Rose Byrne scream at each other over the phone. The world may be coming to an end and cellular signals are supposed to be out of commission, yet here they are--all tearful and runny-nosed--hysterically going over their options. Cage, who can chew the scenery like nobody's business, has remained remarkably restrained up until this point. That stems in part from director Alex Proyas, who has the chops to keep him under wraps, and in part from Knowing's overall plot, which requires an eerie calm before this bombastic storm. Said eeriness--cunningly designed and effectively presented--becomes a baited hook, luring us in before hitting us with the forehead-slapping idiocy of the pay-off.
It starts out so promisingly. Fifty years ago, a time capsule was sealed at a Massachusetts elementary school containing drawings from the students depicting what they thought life would be like in the future. One little girl deposits something much different, however: a list of seemingly random numbers scrawled with feverish intensity on both sides of the page. When the capsule is opened in 2009, her letter goes to a young boy named Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury), whose father--MIT astrophysicist John Koestler (Cage)--discovers a curious pattern in the numbers. Each one depicts the time and place of a major disaster over the past five decades, including the number of people who died. Three dates at the end of the list have yet to occur and while Koestler is initially skeptical about their implications, the preceding numbers simply don't lie.
The bulk of Knowing hinges around those final three dates: what they signify for the world and how that little girl could come up with them. Proyas gradually builds on the scenario's initial fascination, tinged with horrifying implications and the occasional punch-to-your-gut reveal that takes the breath away. Indeed, it's so compelling that the odd lapses in logic, niggling story questions and occasional appearance of gaunt men in black pass by without comment… at least initially. Those men in black have a purpose, of course, just as the niggling questions have answers that must wait for the end to arrive. In the meantime, Proyas stokes our anticipation through an apocalyptic atmosphere of foreboding and dread, aided by the browns and grays of DP Simon Duggan and a script which knows how to push our buttons just right.
But sooner or later, patience runs thin and the eventual pay-off needs to justify such an exquisitely suspenseful wait. Knowing has one, to be sure… but not only does it fail to match what has come before, but it reduces the proceedings to overheated farce so quickly and demonstrably that you can't quite believe it's happened. In the space of an instant, the entire plotline becomes an exercise in futility--rendered pointless and absurd from the get-go and matched by the jaw-dropping realization that the imbecility onscreen isn't part of some elaborate prank.
Not that that isn't fun in a twisted sort of way, but that fun stems far more from schadenfreude than admiration. When it fades, it leaves a feeling of sadness and deflation behind. Proyas has real talent, and good or bad, his films strive to grapple with big ideas. Knowing certainly has its share, some more subtle than the fate vs. free will debate which occupies much of its dialogue. But if the picture in totem can't hold water, then all the effort and hard work in the world won't matter. To quote a sage of our era, there's a fine line between stupid and clever. Knowing walks it well enough for a time, but the staggering totality with which it finally slips erases all memory of its better elements. There's nothing to do but shake your head in awestruck wonder: as much for its squandered beginning as for its truly ridiculous conclusion.