Knowing

2009, Movie, PG-13, 121 mins

Review

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To say that Knowing is one of the worst movies Nic Cage has ever starred in risks making it sound way more tolerable and benign than it really is. Cage has built his career on films for which quality is not really a relevant issue -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Not to be overly specific about it or anything, but some movie critics might have even signed up to review Knowing because they actually kind of enjoyed some of Cage's more ridiculous work, including but not limited to Con Air, Face/Off, and National Treasure. Which isn't to defend these films on a cinematic level. But Cage does often choose projects that aren't just bad, they're awesomely bad, streaked with a certain silliness and over-the-top charm that makes them inexplicably endearing, especially to viewers who like B-movies in the first place. All that being said, Knowing is a really, really terrible movie. It's not hilariously bad, it's not bad-but-fun, it's just a miserable 122 minutes. And that goes for all audience types -- whether they be earnest viewers, fans of camp, or woodland creatures (who are depicted, in one craptastic scene among many, on fire).

To understand why forest animals are depicted engulfed in flames, and why Knowing is awful (but not so awful it's great) you need to know the story. Cage plays John Koestler, a widowed dad/MIT astrophysicist whose eight-year-old son, Caleb, has discovered a string of numbers that turn out to be the dates of every major disaster in the past 50 years, complete with death tolls. John shows the list to his cosmologist buddy, who engages him in a brief, super-simplistic debate about chaos vs. determinism. It turns out that John lost his faith when his wife died, and he had a falling out with his minister father! That explanation needs to be given with an exclamation point, because the movie throws it into the dialogue with all the grace of a bag full of hammers, thrown onto your skull from the church balcony by your well-meaning pastor, who heard you like movies and he just wrote a screenplay that he can't WAIT for you to read! But the shoehorned mentions of faith do serve a purpose -- so that director Alex Proyas can later take a cue from the M. Night Shyamalan playbook, and punch you in the face with a contrived spiritual ending that will allow everything in the story to make sense, as long as you're willing to accept a ludicrous plot twist that, in itself, makes no sense at all. Except that when Shyamalan does it, it's cute.

We discover that there are dates on the list that haven't happened yet, and they all take place within a few days. So now, Nic Cage has to run around in that ridiculous George Washington haircut, trying to prevent disasters that play on the viewers' 9/11 trauma so pathetically, it looks like the movie's storyboards were made up from photos taken from the September 12th AP Wire. A plane crash by a highway kicks things off, followed by a huge subway accident, with aftermath shots of survivors and rescue workers emerging from opaque clouds of debris -- like the front page of every newspaper in America that week, except with Cage inserted into the picture. This is followed by a wide shot of confused citizens and paramedics meandering around a huge stretch of New York city street, and even though this image is another obvious grab for our 9/11 emotional recall, Proyas doesn't want to take any chances, so the camera pans up from the carnage to a flapping American flag in the foreground.

The cheap emotional blackmail doesn't stop there; there's the aforementioned depiction of flaming wildlife, pictured during a vision of a forest fire, and the film later makes a play for your global warming paranoia, with a heat- and fire-ravaged city succumbing to riots full of scary men in bandanas and tank tops. And for a film with so much endless exposition, each insanely long disaster scene features way more violence and gore than these kinds of movies usually employ. Remember that part in Titanic when the ship goes vertical, and that guy falls across the deck and hits a propeller on his way down? It's like every catastrophe sequence was modeled from beginning to end after the gruesome impact (so to speak) of that one moment. The plane crash carnage goes on for minutes, with screaming people running around in agony and (of course) on fire. And in the bizarrely elongated subway scene, Proyas takes the time to add a few extra frames to the short life of each casualty as the runaway car plows into the crowd, so that each person who's mowed down is actually shown getting crushed, usually with their very own thud and blood spatter. There's even a first-person shot from inside the front of the train, so you can see the barrage of victims pummeling into the glass.

It reaches for a kind of gritty realism that doesn't work because 1) it's not a gritty or realistic movie, it's an escapist, lowest-common-denominator flick with shampoo-commercial dialogue and a guy who does a "you complete me"-style sign language exchange with his kid, and 2) the CG sucks, so all of this graphic injury and death -- while weirdly unnerving on a conceptual level - looks, at best, like a high-end cartoon, or at worst, like a low-end video game. The plot also gets jaw-droppingly crazier at an exponential rate, making the fantastical premise of a prophetic sequence of numbers seem like the soberest and most realistic pitch in movie history. And that's a relative observation -- the story feels stupidly ridiculous, even for Nicolas Cage, an actor who made two different movies about finding a treasure map hidden in the Constitution. If you can't get your head around that, here are some specifics, but be warned: SPOILERS FOLLOW!

The number string's final event is an apocalyptic "super"-solar flare -- an eruption on the sun's surface several million times larger than the ones that actually happen (those who've seen The Poseidon Adventure will recognize this as the planetary equivalent of the Rogue Wave). To be fair, this is a disaster movie, so you can't really bitch about a super-solar flare, unless you bitched about Bruce Willis in a spacesuit, drilling a hole in an asteroid to put a nuclear bomb inside -- in which case you need to stop seeing disaster movies. But you can bitch about the fact that Cage's kid ends up being "chosen" by some creepy but chiseled, male-model-looking aliens to start a new world, and that these super-fabulous creatures sprout actual angel wings as they levitate the little boy (along with a little girl and two bunnies) into a flowery-looking spaceship, leaving Nic Cage to drive back into the burning, miserable city (THIS IS THE RAPTURE, GET IT?!) and show up at his parents' house, so the family can exchange less than 15 seconds of dialogue about eternal life before coming together for a group hug as the world is shown exploding in an epic sequence of mediocre CG. Meanwhile, on a distant planet where the special-effects budget is even worse, two children frolic with their two white bunnies in a sprawling field of bulbous, cell-animation-looking wheat, toward a glowing tree of life.

SPOILERS END HERE

If that description still sounds so absurd that it must be delightful, just trust in the fact that some levels of terribleness can't be committed to the written word. There are kitsch fanatics and crazy people out there who will probably see it anyway (the same segment of people who liked Battlefield Earth), but all others take heed -- Knowing is the path to eternal pain. leave a comment --Cammila Albertson

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