Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On DVD: "Knowing"

So I know I’m late to the party on this one, but when did Nicolas Cage turn into such a terrible actor? And by that, I don’t mean bad in bad movies; he’s clearly aware that Bangkok Dangerous and Ghost Rider and those National Treasure movies are garbage, and appears to “act” accordingly. But it was once safe to assume that, given a decent script (like Adaptation or Lord of War or Matchstick Men), he’d put forth a little effort. However, his latest film, Knowing, is a serviceable enough sci-fi thriller with a fairly ingenious concept at its core, and his is a horrifyingly poor performance. In scene after scene, he veers between his two modes (sleepwalking and bug-eyed yelling), recites his lines dutifully but without inspiration, and generally seems to wish he were somewhere else. From his work here, you’d never guess that this was an Academy Award-winning actor and well-paid movie star; you’d think he was the secretary of the drama club, who stepped into the leading role of the high school play when the star got mono.

It appears that he’s gotten so used to phoning it in that he doesn’t recognize a flawed script that he could help by doing a bit of acting. Or maybe he just got confused, as Knowing’s plot sounds, at first blush, like a cross between Next and National Treasure. A grabber of an opening reveals the basic premise: in 1959, a young girl (Lara Robinson) puts a page of seemingly random numbers into a time capsule that her grade school is burying, to be opened 50 years later. Flash forward to the present day; MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) has a son (Chandler Canterbury) who attends the school, and when each of the current students is given a letter from the past, he gets the scrawl of numbers. Koestler starts to examine the document, and when a series of numbers spelling out 9/11/2001 pops out at him, he goes to the Internet and starts to crunch some numbers. He finds, to his horror, that the young girl predicted every major catastrophe of the subsequent half-century, down to the number of people killed. And there are three events, one of them major, within the next few days.

Knowing is helmed by director Alex Proyas, of the impressive Dark City and the far-less-impressive I, Robot. His style is slick and trim; he is undoubtedly a capable technician, and has a couple of virtuoso sequences here. The first, where Koestler takes the document apart and realizes the data it contains, has a thrilling, paranoid kick to it. It’s reminiscent of similar great scenes in Blow-Out or The Conversation, even if it contains too many familiar visual cues—when someone’s discovering crazy shit, they surely must be holding a highball glass full of booze, so that when the biggest shock reveal occurs, it can crash to the floor in slow motion. That Proyas can still score with that stock shot speaks volumes about his skill as a craftsman.

His other standout moment comes when Koestler realizes he’s about to witness the next prophesized event, and Proyas shoots it all in one shot, Children of Men-style. It’s a jaw-dropper of a scene; it takes your breath away, the technique is so absorbing. That scene depends considerably on computer effects, but most of them work, though a later scene on the New York subway doesn’t fare nearly as well. I’ve not seen CGI that slack since Air Force One—it’s like we’re suddenly watching a second-tier video game.

That fumble aside, Proyas’ direction is mostly tight and serviceable, though he should have recognized that the screenplay needed more work. The plot itself is so ingenious that you heartily wish the other aspects of the screenplay weren’t so undercooked. Much of the dialogue is clunky and obvious, leaving the actors to trip over awkward exposition and declarative nonsense. Rose Byrne can’t seem to figure out what the hell to do with her underwritten role, though Canterbury is a likably no-frills child actor. He takes the script’s odd (and unsuccessful) turn to the supernatural with a shrug and does the best he can with it.

But its switch to science-fiction in the shoot-the-works third act doesn’t play, primarily because the effectiveness of the film to that point is tied directly to its grounding in our specific (often explicit) reality. It rather paints itself into a corner in terms of the logical outcome (and gives us at least part of a ballsy ending on the order of The Mist), but tries to have it both ways with the somewhat fraudulent “twist.” And the climax might have worked on paper, but not with Cage melodramatically falling to his knees and wandering around in a bug-eyed stupor as Marco Beltrami’s bombastic score wanders in and sits on the movie’s head. Proyas deserves credit for attempting to work in more subtext and philosophy than expected throughout the picture, and for trying to push it into a darker, less expected place by its end. But the sequence misses its punch, and ultimately dithers away its last chance at pulling its interesting pieces together.

Knowing is full of interesting ideas and clever notions, but the fundamental thinness of the screenplay and the stunning ineptitude of the Nicolas Cage performance keep it from going much of anywhere. Director Proyas can put together a slam-bang set piece with skill and deliver occasional jolts, but the film doesn’t amount to much more than a weeknight rental.

"Knowing" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 7th.


  1. Spot on review. I was able to gloss over most of the flaws because the core concept was so gripping. I didn't remember any trailers, and I saw it about five weeks into its run, so I went into this with low expectations.

    (Don't watch the trailer! The one continuous shot is in there would spoil the surprise)

    I loved the no holds barred first ending. The end ending was a little too sugary sweet considering what just happened.

  2. Agreed. I wish they'd have had the balls to end it a couple of minutes earlier.