Knowing

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What would you do if you knew the world was going to end soon? Me, I’d probably get royally drunk, give Never Mind the Bollocks one last spin, and see how much of Infinite Jest I could get through before armageddon dropped. In the solemnly ludicrous Knowing, Nicolas Cage drives around frantically, down country roads and through chaotic city streets (nobody tries to carjack him). Cage’s almost-love-interest (Rose Byrne) has announced that she’s heading for some caves she knows from childhood, to wait out the apocalypse. That’s when the movie momentarily becomes brilliant on the same level as The Wicker Man, wherein Cage so infamously screamed “Killing me won’t bring back your goddamn honey!!” Here, Cage bellows into his cell phone, “THE CAVES WON’T SAVE US! NOTHING WILL SAVE US!”

I persist in feeling great affection for Nicolas Cage, who can really sell a line like that without any trace of awareness of how goofy he sounds. Many have questioned what happened to the Cage who took risks and won an Oscar. My theory is that, at this point, Cage looks for scripts that pose challenges — like unsayable dialogue or patently stupid situations that would destroy a lesser actor. Cage is having fun, even if the audience isn’t. Knowing casts him as John Koestler, a professor of astrophysics who engages in the old debate between determinism (things happen for a reason) and randomness (things just happen). Since his wife died, John leans towards randomness, perhaps because he can’t bear to conceive of a greater universal reason that he now has to raise his son by himself.

The boy happens across a page of scrawled numbers, buried in a time capsule fifty years ago. The numbers appear to predict every major disaster of the past five decades, and there are still three number sets whose prophecies haven’t come true yet. This is an excuse for director Alex Proyas, an old hand at empty visual flash (see The Crow and Dark City), to haul out a few big kaboom sequences, and they’re pretty nifty as far as these things go. There’s no poetry or horror in the carnage, but Proyas does manage to catch a you-are-there vibe without sacrificing the readable mechanics of the destruction.

Unfortunately, the movie gets nutty in its second half (probably the same half that will endear the film to its inevitable cult fans). Mysterious “whispering” men keep turning up, looking like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. John follows the numerical clues all around — what can “EE” written backwards mean? — and the movie begins to seem like a cross between The Da Vinci Code and your standard sci-fi apocalypto. Cage gets to scream about the caves, and the narrative collapses into ominous visual effects. Knowing tries for profundity, a difficult proposition after it’s tickled us with mass death; I felt offended rather than awed or moved. At the end, we all filed out looking depressed. Is this the sort of “escapism” Summit Entertainment wants to offer a fearful and demoralized audience right now?

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