Do you have any idea how great it is to walk into a movie that you don't have great expectations for and be completely surprised by how good it is? It does not happen often, but when it does, it is like getting punched in the face with a brick. Knowing is one of those movies. Despite having a rather terrible title and a lackluster collection of trailers, Knowing has proven to be one of the stronger entries through the first three months of 2009, not to mention a film that is capable of inspiring some deep thoughts (none of which I will be able to fully bring to the table here). Do not let the fact that Nicolas Cage is the lead sway you, he takes charge of the film, playing the skeptic in all of us and goes a long way toward reminding us why he is an Oscar winner.
I must admit that when I saw the first trailer for Knowing and glimpsed the uninspired poster (which looks like it was lifted from Spielberg's War of the Worlds) I was left decidedly flat. When you look at Nicolas Cage's recent track record, you will find such winners as Next, Bangkok Dangerous, and Ghost Rider, nothing that you could consider to be all that intelligent (although, I do enjoy a couple of them). Could he carry an intelligent science fiction film? Then you can factor in director Alex Proyas, does he still have an artistic core to him? He delivered with early films such as The Crow and Dark City (the latter was named the best film of 1998 by Roger Ebert), but his last film was a Hollywood-infected take on classic Isaac Asimov source material, I, Robot.
As Knowing unfolded before me, I was drawn deeper and deeper into the tale. This is a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There is a delicious slow burn quality permeating each frame. You are only given what you need to know, and even then it is barely enough. Knowing forces you to engage, to become involved, but it does so in such a way that you may not even be aware of it at first.
On the surface, the story appears to be one that you have seen many times before, and that is part of the brilliance. It is an original story that comes in the guise of the familiar. That is how you get hooked. It is an insidious plot to get in your head and win you over.
The story centers on a sheet covered in numbers that was written by a young girl fifty years ago and placed in a time capsule. As the capsule is uncovered in the present day, John Koestler's (Cage) son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), gets said sheet and does not quite know what to make of it. John takes a look at it, and almost by accident discovers a pattern. It appears that hidden in the number strings are dates — dates that line up with real world tragedies. And next to the dates appear the accurate number of casualties. Of course, this freaks John out; and when he goes to his friends who teach with him at MIT (he is a professor of astrophysics), they tell him he is seeing what he wants to see.
Problems continue when the next date on the list comes true. This cements the list as being real in John's mind. He becomes a man possessed trying to figure out the connection between the list and him. Why did he get it? Can something be done? What happens when the numbers end?
This is the type of movie that you do not want to read too much about. There is a lot going on. It brings all manner of religious, scientific, and philosophical questions to the table. What is the price of knowing? If you knew the end was coming and could do nothing about it, would you really want to know? I'm not so sure I would.
The performances are solid all around, with Nicolas Cage giving one of his best in years. He is not my favorite by a long shot, but there is definitely something about him that leads him to good work in this sort of role. He has a face that is perfectly suited for carrying the weight of the world on it. Very few can show weary determination like he can, and he does it here perfectly.
Also of note are the performances of the two children, Chandler Canterbury as Caleb and Lara Robinson in a dual role as Lucinda Embry and Abby Wayland. Both of them do fine work for youngsters. I was completely sold by their performances.
As for the direction? Alex Proyas is in top form, rebounding from his side trip to Hollywood-land. Reminiscent of Dark City, yet distinctly different, fresh, and original, it is an experience as much as it is a fascinating tale. He knows how to pull the strings just so, keeping them tight, but allowing a little bit of give so the audience can make the necessary leaps themselves.
About halfway through the film, I began to wonder if they had what it took to go all the way with what they were implying. There is this build-up to the final moments when questions are answered, more are raised, and you are expelled back into the night, unsure of what it is you just experienced. Well, that and thinking about the pair of visceral set pieces that hit hard and leave you shaken and stirred in the midst of the philosophical pursuits. Then you can start thinking about the lack of a romantic subplot (which is a good thing), just how tightly wound the exercise is even when things are moving slowly. This is what going to the movies is all about.
Bottom line. Wow. I know you are likely wanting me to tell you more about the story, but that would not be a good idea. I went in with low expectations, more or less expecting another Next. What I got was so much more than I could have imagined. This is a film made with minimal studio interference. It is firing on all creative cylinders, and the end result is fantastic.