Knowing is probably not 2009’s The Happening, but that doesn’t make it a good film. It takes a special kind of movie for me to say “but nothing’s happened” when fifty minutes remain and I’ve borne witness to a fiery plane crash and a lengthy train derailment – and all at high speeds!
Knowing is a singularly unconscious film. It’s impossible to pinpoint the genre of a film that can’t decide whether it’s a supernatural mystery, a thriller, horror or a treatise on the apocalypse. It doesn’t quite manage to be any of them and the result is not so much incoherent as it is inconsequential. If the audience (that is, me) doesn’t care about the fate of the world, let that mother burn.
Nicolas Cage plays an alcoholic single father astrophysicist who, after the death of his wife, has become convinced that the nature of the universe is one of randomness and chaos. Determinism slaps Cage for his hubris after he unearths a sheet of numbers that accurately predict all catastrophes from 1959 until … October 19, 2009.
Determined to do something about impending doom, Cage teams up with similarly single mother Rose Byrne, daughter of the list’s composer. Together they work towards achieving absolutely nothing over the course of two hours.
There’s no real intrigue or drama to Knowing: it’s just a series of stuff that happens set to scare music so inexpertly hammered together that I was left thinking about the music rather than the scare. Thanks to Roger Ebert’s baffling love for the movie (and really, I hope I’m not simply adding to the echo chamber with my distaste), I had a strong idea of what was coming but not quite how it was going to happen. I don’t think it would have made much difference; in fact, I probably saved myself a lot of anger by already being aware of the blatant (and, naturally, director denied) religious allegory inherent in the film.
The thing is that simply nothing works. The plane and train set pieces may have been impressive somewhere else but here they’re reduced to Nicolas Cage walking through a field of immolated people – people who are running around on fire without thinking to drop into the copious puddles all around the place – and a very long runaway train sequence. It’s amazing how much momentum a New York subway car can pick up in such a short time; it’s even more amazing that, in a movie obsessed with numbers – dates, numbers of deaths, coordinates – we never hear the death count. Apparently the occurrence of something that we know is going to happen (it’s the freaking premise of the movie!) is enough for us, and we never have to worry about numbers again … because of what’s going to happen.
I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen: the Cullen family are going to watch your children while they sleep, and they will stand around in the woods being both brooding and albino. Yes, the film’s mysterious whisper people (“How do the Whisper People speak to you?” asks Byrne’s character. “They whisper”, says one of the film’s two interchangeably boring and equally untalented child actors) are really just creepy silent pale people whose canon of dialogue is dependent on the ability of the children to carry their roles. Slight as they are, I’m afraid that the children hired weren’t up to the task. What is supposed to be a tale of the devotion that parents feel towards their children becomes a series of shots of Nicolas Cage looking gaunt and extremely detached while Rose Byrne looks traumatised and forces tears at the humanity of it all.
It would be hard to say that the film “descends” into anything because there’s no point of ascent: Cage is introduced as a seemingly disinterested parent – that’s how he acts it, but he’s written as an overprotective father who only wants the best – and then we get a traditional movie “meaningless university lecture” scene, where very basic science is discussed in a pointless class. Couple that with his constant drinking and the loss of his wife, and that’s all you need for his character. At this point I was thinking that the Cage part could have been played much better by Richard Jenkins, and that instead of disasters and deaths he would have to deal with the US immigration system. Later, when Cage got out his gun, I found myself wishing that he would shoot Byrne and the children and then, just before he could pull it on himself, the military would come to save the day. Essentially Knowing would be better if it were an entirely different movie.
It has no lift, no drive, no believability beyond some okay special effects and some truly atrocious ones. It offers scraps of what could have been at least okay movies at several points but nothing gels and, despite full awareness of what I had let myself into, I came to resent Knowing. The blatancy of the ending, that suggests that children always have to walk the path of righteousness even if they’re insufferable snots (“I can’t consume that, dad, I’m a vegetarian”, says the most believable elementary school student ever [even the precocious idiot-savants from Bedtime Stories ranked higher on the child credibility scale]), is distressingly sneer inducing.
“Hark! A tree! Would not it be great if it bore fruit, in order that we could partake of it?”
“Forsooth, my sinus challenged chum! Most triumphant!”
I just proved to myself that I could have written Knowing better, and that depresses me, because the persona of Alexander Doenau is just a front for a production team of semi-literate chimps. Knowing was staffed by people whom I know for a fact can do better, and that’s what hurts me the most: if the bad movies are being made by good people, then who’s left to make the good movies?
Oh God, and they seriously made a bad movie that included both a plane crash and a train wreck. The boilerplate reviews write themselves …