Knowing gives off strong vibes from the ludicrous (but still somewhat fun in a guilty pleasure sort of way) The Number 23. Both films deal with a mystery surrounding numbers, and both are set up using mystery after mystery to intrigue the viewer along the way. But where The Number 23 sort of just strung along the audience to a silly and unsatisfying ending, Knowing, although still not that much better on the conclusion front, is far more exciting, intriguing and satisfying; this is the first really good Nicolas Cage movie in at least three or four years.
In 1959 a group of school children were given a task to draw what they think the future is going to look like, and their drawings are put in a time capsule that's to be opened 50 years later. In 2009, a new group of school children open the capsule to see what the drawings show, and while most are just simple children's drawings, one is a page full of numbers. Nicolas Cage plays John Koestler, a teacher and the father of the young boy who receives the numbered piece of paper. He realises that each few numbers in the sequence have accurately predicted every major global disaster between 1959 and 2009, in perfect sequence. But three sets of numbers show dates that are in the future, and John must try and figure out what to do about the events that have yet to unfold.
Where The Number 23 used its premise in a really gimmicky way, Knowing almost strives against that, and a lot else of what you would expect from a thriller like this. On paper, the premise is indeed a bit gimmicky, but director Alex Proyas is clearly knowledgeable about this, and he makes the best of fact that savvy audiences will expect some tiresome, ridiculous thriller by trying some really unexpected things. He sets up everything very well, creating intrigue and interest from the get-go, and once settled into the pace, he keeps that consistent and entirely satisfying.
Although not a film which calls for high level acting skills, Cage is the best he's been in a good while. He acts as a reflection of how the audience is thinking while watching – miffed, suspicious, curious – and plays the part at just the right level. He doesn't fall into the trap of overplaying things, not overacting and or getting into some of the ridiculous territory we've seen in such recent films as Bangkok Dangerous and Next (another film that this plot is very reminiscent of). Although his love for his son is only really put across to the audience because the screenplay tells us, with Cage never really getting us emotionally invested, he does what's needed when it comes to obsessing over these numbers, or running around trying to solve just what the hell's going on.
One would expect a thriller like this to go for a wide audience appeal, and subsequently have it do well at the box office. But kudos to Proyas and company for not going down that road, for going their own way with it and showing the necessary death, carnage, and sometimes even downright frightening scenes needed. There are at least a handful of very effective examples of the latter throughout the film.
Knowing touches on numerous concepts such as fate, chance, determinism, and the meaning of our existence on earth, and does so adequately. Although not as fleshed out as they could be, for this type of film they really don't need to be for it to feel satisfying. Those looking for deep-rooted meaning in their storytelling might go away from Knowing a bit disappointed, but the point of the whole thing is to entertain with its intrigue, and Knowing does that very well.
Mention must be made of the impressive use of the relatively low budget (at least for a modern day movie of this type). With just $50 million to work with (who'd have thought a few decades ago that such a number could be considered on the low end of the Hollywood money scale?), the filmmakers give us some flat out awe-inspiring disaster scenes that rival most higher budgeted films in not only excitement, but in sheer quality of the effects (which were done by Tatopoulos Studios).
What annoyingly lets the film down, however, is the explanation behind what these predictions mean. Although they end on an unusually cynical and pessimistic note which is very much welcome in a sea of modern day happy endings, the overall explanation is lazy and rushed and the only thing that feels in any way unsatisfying. Not to give anything away, but anyone familiar with Proyas' previous sci-fi work (such as I, Robot and Dark City) may be able to guess what it is (although, strangely, in the movie it's not at all predictable).
Knowing is a surprisingly intriguing, exciting, inventive, and overall very worthwhile slice of cinematic thrills that is ambitious without getting ahead of itself. Proyas really does know how to make an entertaining motion picture, but also one which stimulates the mind and gets us to be more mentally active than a lot of other more generic thrillers would. A lot of critics may snub their nose at this kind of thing, but I see no problem with calling it a great time at the movies, one that's both fun and intellectually engaging.