Alex Proyas, the gifted director behind The Crow, I, Robot and the cult classic Dark City, really knows how to creep you out. Throughout his latest film, the sci-fi end of time action thriller Knowing, there is always a foreboding sense of doom that keeps the story propelling forward. Whether it’s a well-placed close-up of his actors’ worried expressions, or a niftily constructed shot with beautifully arranged extras silhouetted in long, flowing trenchcoats, Knowing has all of the elements of a great genre film…until it reaches the end, at which point it becomes a mess of new age hokum.
An opening prologue shows Lucinda, a troubled little girl in the 1950s scrawling a series of random numbers on a sheet of paper in her grade school classroom. The children in her class are writing notes for a time capsule the school is burying that will be opened 50 years later. The teacher takes Lucinda’s paper and it is placed in the time capsule. Later, Lucinda is found locked in a janitor closet with bloodied fingers and complaining that she hears voices in her head. Great stuff, so far. Proyas does an excellent job of setting up the eerie mood of the film.
Fifty years later, we meet John Koestler, played with earnestness by Nicolas Cage. John is a widower raising his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) while he holds down his position as a college professor of astrophysics at MIT. Caleb is a student at the elementary school where the time capsule was buried and turns out to be the young person who ends up with Lucinda’s “message.” While other kids have cool messages from the past, he’s stuck with a bunch of numbers. However, he has a suspicion it may mean something important and he brings it home with him. That night, after the boy goes to bed, John begins drinking away some of his well-deserved sorrow and he makes a startling discovery: Lucinda’s numbers do not appear to be random. In fact, these numbers seem to predict when terrible disasters occur in the world. Beginning with 9/11, John begins finding all of the man-made and natural disasters of the past 50 years.
At first he’s spooked out, feeling it may be some kind of fluke. Only after John is eye witness to a horrific airplane crash does he realize that Lucinda not only predicted the dates of the disasters but also the number of dead. (A side note: The entire plane crash sequence that Proyas and his crew created is stunning. Obviously the actual plane crashing was a digital effect, but the use of CG and practical elements is pretty seamless.)
After the plane crash, John seeks out the adult Lucinda. Instead he finds her estranged daughter, Diana (Rose Byrne). It is with Diana and her daughter, Abby (Lara Robinson, who also plays Lucinda in the opening) that John uncovers when the next disaster will occur and how many will die. The film hits third gear as a race against time occurs. The tension is great, the acting and action sequences are great… and then we reach the ending of the film, which made me ask out loud, “Are you kidding me?” It goes from being an intriguing sci-fi movie that plays up on apocalyptic fears and turns into a bad made-for-TV film you might see on a Saturday night while flipping around the channels. What’s more, Cage and Canterbury share a devastating scene, yet it’s overtaken by the massive effects and the big plot twist (which will lead to uncontrollable eye rolling). I’m not going to share that ending, because there’s still enough good stuff in Knowing that you might want to check it out.
Among the good things the film has are the nice performances by the entire cast. Cage reins in his action hero tendencies and creates a character full of pain and love, and Byrne continues to shine as an actress. Her character doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, but what screentime she has is enjoyable. Meanwhile, Proyas has a real talent for designing shots that make you feel uncomfortable and also an ability to elicit fine performances from child actors. The opening scenes, in the 1950s school, have a sense of innocence and sweetness that play off nicely with the creepiness of little Lucinda. Proyas also has a true gift for creating elaborate, insanely intense sequences, like a massive train crash that turns out to be one of he major disasters Lucinda predicts. I can’t wait to see what he does next, because my disappointment with the ending of Knowing left me wanting more.
DVD extras include an interesting audio commentary by Proyas, a featurette on the making of the film, and a documentary about different theories on the end of the world.