Thursday, April 2, 2009

Knowing (2009)

I had this post ready to go up yesterday but, as I was defending a movie that has recieved nearly universally negative reviews, I thought it best not to post on April Fool's Day.

The basic premise behind Knowing reads like a dumb numerology thriller. Nicolas Cage plays a scientist who comes into possession of a list of numbers – fresh from a time capsule – that line up accurately to the date of every global catastrophe of the past fifty years. In execution, as directed by Alex Proyas, Knowing is often chilling, sometimes even frightening; it generates great apocalyptic dread as the sky steadily grows redder as the film progresses. I’m not sure the plot makes total sense but the actors bring such commitment to the material which is just a little emotionally smarter than other similar features as it grapples in a surprisingly, ahem, knowing way with issues of spirituality.

Cage plays a widower having an existential crisis of purpose, which is especially troubling to his only child, a young boy (Chandler Canterbury) still grieving over the recent death of his mother. It’s also troubling to Cage’s father (Alan Hopgood), a reverend, to whom he hasn’t spoken in years, and his sister (Nadia Townsend) who, in an early scene, gently offers to pray for him. Then the list arrives, along with a newfound sense of purpose when he discovers that there are a handful of dates that are still in the future (although I was never exactly comprehending the way that purpose was suposed to help keep the events from happening). The way the knowledge of the list interacts with various characters is intriguing, as when Cage speaks with a colleague or a haunted woman played by Rose Byrne (with a face almost scarily thin) who enters the plot as well, but I’d hate to spoil it too much. The scene where Cage figures out the pattern, I must confess, gave me a jolt, even though I had been thoroughly informed by the advertising of the pattern's nature.

The movie then turns into a creep-fest with lurking strangers, haunting clues, and some very well-done special effect disaster sequences. The first, a plane crash, plays out in a single, smooth, unbroken take so convincing I barely felt like I was watching effects. The second disaster is much more obviously special effects but it’s so fast and intense that I didn’t care. In both cases, my eyes widened and I straightened in my seat as a result of their fantastical verisimilitude. I didn’t entirely understand why Cage, at one point learning the coordinates of a disaster, would rush towards it but sometimes, if a thriller’s working for you, things like that can be glossed over. And this one was working for me. It’s filled with great tension and creep-outs along with a nice twist on an it’s-only-a-cat moment. It sets up a grim premise (“What happens when the numbers run out?”) and then proceeds to push it farther and darker and stranger than I thought it would have the guts to go.

This is not a flawless film. The ending is a little strangely conceived (for those who’ve seen it, I’m not talking about the heat wave, I’m talking about the multiple vessels without multiple seen couples) and afterwards I could pick out additional possible plot holes. This is not a great science fiction film, like the director’s previous Dark City, but it’s in a similar spirit, taking on interesting questions (of faith and science this time) and exploring their emotional implications in a serious way.

Like Roger Ebert, I am at a loss as to the extremely negative reaction the film has received. It’s not always great art, not quite a cohesive whole (and I certainly didn’t like it as much as Mr. Ebert) but the movie is a fairly good example of a semi-smart B-movie popcorn thriller. It wants to raise philosophical questions while providing some excuses for good scares and for eyes to pop. In that, it succeeds.

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