A wise man once said, "Don't go looking for disaster, it will find you soon enough." Apparently Nicolas Cage's astrophysicist, John Koestler, missed class that day because as soon as he discovers where and when upcoming disasters will occur, he drops son Caleb off at his sister's place, furrows his brow and heads straight into the maelstrom.
But then, every disaster movie needs an unlikely hero and "Knowing," a moody and sometimes ideologically provocative film, has just the hero it needs in the MIT professor who subscribes to the notion that everything that happens in life is nothing more than a series of random events. Who better to face down a New Age-style Armageddon steeped in spirituality, numerology, alien visitors and end-of-days philosophy than a skeptic?
We start back in 1958, with the burial of a time capsule filled with letters from elementary school children, including one from a troubled young girl who feverishly fills both sides of her paper with a string of seemingly random numbers. Fifty years later, Caleb, played with soulful introspection by Chandler Canterbury, goes to that very same school and when the capsule is opened, he's the kid who gets her letter. Coincidence? I think not.
There are forces and issues large and small at work here, with John struggling as much with the realities of single parenting as the dark clouds that are gathering, both literally and metaphorically, around him. He's a widower and we see his grief everywhere, in the sadness as he tries to care for Caleb and the bottle of booze he sloshes through each night. Where most of us would just curse that late-night whiskey spill on the letter from long ago, John instead begins to decipher its message. You'd think the secret of the numbers would be hard to unlock, but once John sees the sequence 09112001, despite his inebriated state, he quickly figures out that the numbers correlate with disasters -- natural and otherwise -- both past and future. And with that, the death match between professor and universe begins as John tries to change a course that seems, if the numbers are to be believed, predetermined.
Director Alex Proyas ("The Crow," "Dark City" "I, Robot") has long been drawn to otherness. He's definitely mucking around in that and more here, with "Knowing" his most overtly allegorical film yet.
Questions of what do you believe in -- God, other universes, other life forms -- crowd up against the men who appear in the swirling evening mists outside of John's house looking like silent Goths in trench coats. We get the religious debate via hints about the long broken relationship between John and his father, a preacher of the fire-and-brimstone sort. The are-there-other-life-forms thread is woven in courtesy of Caleb's hearing aid. He wears one not because he is deaf, but because sounds sometimes get scrambled (huh?), but it lets him communicate with the scary Goths, so let's not lose it. On the creation front, the film definitely pits the big-bang theory against the big-hand theory, though whether it is God behind the wheel is left up for debate.
"Knowing" has its grim moments -- and by that I mean the sort of cringe- (or laugh-) inducing lines of dialogue that have haunted disaster films through the ages. The ripped-from-the-headlines calamities are shot in a hyper-realized cinema verite style that puts you ground-level with the crash and burn. So visually arresting are the images that watching a deconstructing airliner or subway train becomes more mesmerizing than horrifying.
Against the backdrop of a world coming apart at the seams, Proyas takes time to tease out a tender father-son relationship between Cage and Canterbury. It's nice to see Cage pushed to create a more nuanced character, despite moments when his anguish becomes comically overwrought, drawing laughs where you would never want them. That same condition taunts Rose Byrne's Diana, whose mother wrote the mystery letter and whose daughter, like Caleb, finds those otherworldly men comforting.
Hollywood filmmakers have long grappled with the inherent conflict between belief systems and science, as Jodie Foster's scientist-atheist did in 1997's "Contact." Those themes are certainly echoed again, and left equally unresolved, here. Whatever else Proyas has done in "Knowing," he has created an ending that is sure to divide audiences into camps of love it or hate it, deeming its message either hopeful or hopelessly heavy-handed. For me, it doesn't quite work; still I'm glad he took the risk.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours,
Playing: In wide release