Summit Entertainment // 2009 // 121 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 7th, 2009
What happens when the numbers run out?
Alex Proyas deserves better. He deserves to be Michael Bay. He deserves to be Shawn Levy. He deserves to be the creator of clever blockbusters, unlike any number of infamous Hollywood hacks who seem to always find work, while their filmmaking betters -- Terry Gilliam, David Lynch -- struggle to secure financing and distribution for their latest flights of fancy. With The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot under his belt, you'd think it would be easy for this man to dial up a mainstream movie deal. But for some reason, he is underappreciated, his unique spin on genre generalities less valued than the sloppy offshoots of others. So it is with great trepidation that one steps into the apocalyptic aspects of Knowing. With Proyas as a plus, there are still minuses (Nicholas Cage, subject matter, last act plot twist) that can cause even the most solid sci-fi fan to balk. If you buy it all, you'll truly enjoy the experience. But let one or more of said stumbling blocks succeed, and nothing can bring you back.
When his son receives a piece of paper with hundreds of non-sequential numbers on it, MIT scientist John Koestler (Nicholas Cage, Ghost Rider) thinks it's nothing more than the ramblings of a troubled child from 50 years before. You see, his boy Caleb's (Chandler Canterbury, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) school was the site of a time capsule buried in 1959, and when it was opened, the mysterious note was among the artifacts. John soon becomes obsessed with the page, linking the seemingly unrelated digits to disasters such as 9/11 and the hotel fire which killed his wife. Hoping to find some answers, he seeks out Diane (Rose Byrne, Sunshine), the daughter of the long dead child. She's wary about what John has to say, but when the paper accurately predicts two more tragedies, she also needs to know the truth -- as well as the significance of the final entry -- "EE."
It's called the last act denouement -- the moment when the preceding hour of exposition finally pays off in a reveal that either wins you over or slowly wicks away your will to live. It's a gamble, a motion picture crap shoot that, more often than not, fails to fully realize the aims of the artists involved. Knowing offers such a cinematic situation. For nearly 90 minutes, we watch as Nicholas Cage quasi-emotes through a series of setpiece disasters so stunning we question the cruel imagination that dreamt them up. Along the way, portents of evil are tossed at the audience, doom and gloom predictions that keep us glued to our seats. As the storyline unravels, as we get closer to the true meaning of the ancient page full of numbers, we accept the oddball appearance of pale men in dark coats, fey figures who offer their own eerie element to the narrative. And then it comes -- the explanation and the ending -- and it's at this very instant Knowing will either become a solid sci-fi statement you readily accept, or a silly piece of crap you have to reject.
It's hard to see a motion picture middle ground here. Proyas may play possum most of the time, tempting the audience to scoff at the situations he presents. But because of the desire to add authenticity to the mix, because of how gut wrenchingly horrible the envisioned calamities are, we stick with the story far longer than perhaps we should. On the big screen, the initial plane crash was like a punch in the face, a near continuous take terror show of burning flesh and rampant carnage. Similarly, a vision of the end of the world, a forest (and its animal population) engulfed in fire is enough to make your skin crawl. Blown up 70ft high, the crash of a New York subway car is horrific and beyond cruel. And let's not get into the notion that Knowing may or may not actually destroy the entire planet by the time the credits role. This is a movie of many risks -- from thriller strategies to showing same -- but if you don't buy the twist, there's no telling how you'll respond to the various visions of death.
And then there is Nicholas Cage. Talk about pissing away your Oscar glory and fan goodwill. Sure, we all need a paycheck, and are quite capable of underperforming when the money (and the motive) are less than stellar, but is there another Academy fave who went from phenomenon (remember Birdy? Raising Arizona? Wild at Heart?) to A-list fart faster? Again, it's okay to sell your soul to the deal-making Devil known as Tinsel Town, but did he specifically have to sign up for so much swill afterward. He's become a kind of legitimizing lightning rod, the reason for a film's failure, an Eddie Murphy without the tendency toward racial stereotyping and prosthetic fat suits. Oddly enough, consensus is all over the map about his work in Knowing. Some have called it the worst performance of his jaded career. For his part, this critic bought it. Cage's John Koestler is supposed to be a defeated man, struggling to come to terms with his wife's death. Our star takes such a stance literally, evidencing ennui so thick and viscous that Goth gals could use it as foundation.
So in the end, Knowing will be a test, a challenge for even the most well versed speculative fiction fan. It's a leap of faith, albeit an expertly crafted and polished cinematic version of same, and if you do get caught up in its combination of thrills and skills, you'll walk away happy. But consider yourself warned -- this is caveat emptor entertainment at its very best (or is that worst?). Even with a talent like Proyas behind the lens, there are aspects of this narrative so strained, so ill-defined, and so...well...dopey, you might abandon ship long before the Strangers are explained away. But if you go in with an open mind (and perhaps, a ready Blu-ray player), you'll really enjoy the effort. For all his visionary skills, this Aussie auteur can sometimes ask a lot of his audience. While not the most difficult of his varied oeuvre, this world-ending experience has enough bumps and bypasses you might just find yourself lost and looking for answers.
As a home theater experience, Knowing definitely loses something in the translation. Even on Blu-ray, the epic nature of the main destructive sequences is robbed of its scope. Even in a near pristine 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer rich in color and loaded with detail, there is just something about seeing an airplane crash in the proper cinematic situation that a definitive HD image just can't capture. Proyas sure knows how to utilize the 2.35:1 aspect ratio -- the framing and compositions are fabulous. Sound is an equally important element to the film (the children can hear the "whispers" of the Strangers in their heads) and the brilliant English DTS-HD Master Audio mix is just outstanding. While the dialogue is easy to decipher, and the musical score by Marco Beltrami moody and atmospheric, it's the ambient noises and immersive aural elements which will truly win you over. There is also a Spanish track in Dolby Digital 5.1, and subtitles in both available languages for those who require same.
For added content, Summit skimps on the goodies. Proyas is available for a cheery, full-length commentary, chided along by a mystery voice who poses complicated questions whenever the director drifts off. From the reasons he decided to tell this story to the folly he finds in many interpretations of the movie, the filmmaker is friendly, insightful, and very committed to his craft. After this conversation, however, the rest of the bonus features feel like press kit puffery. The Making-of documentary is Entertainment Tonight-lite, and the "Visions of the Apocalypse" featurette is fun, but too tied to crackpot theorizing to add to our understanding of the film.
Maybe it's his own fault. Perhaps Alex Proyas just doesn't "get" the Tinsel Town studio system. He can work with Will Smith and rack up big bucks on a film that's a mere shadow of its former literary self, then drift off and deliver a low budget rock-and-roll work out like Garage Days. Somewhere within the yin and yang of his career, between the dizzying highs and half-baked lows, sits Knowing. For this critic, it was a success, an edge of your seat experience that built to a moment of sheer visual wonder. It was both terrifying and transcendent. But as a realist, as someone who recognizes most viewers want their end of the world future shock spoon-fed to them, this complicated collection of omens and options just won't cut the mustard. Sure, stuff blows up, but there is too much brains behind the bedlam to make the experience totally satisfying. If you give it a chance, Knowing might just grow on you. But don't be surprised if the final reveal plays more problematic than prophetic. This is the film's greatest asset and its biggest liability.
Not Guilty, with an asterisk. Like the steroid era in baseball, you'll either
buy the apocalyptic act Alex Proyas is offering, or you'll believe it ruins the
whole sci-fi genre in a single plot point.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Official Site