WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: The opening of a time capsule delivers a letter containing a long sequence of numbers into the hands of lonely youngster Caleb Koestler. His widower father John discovers that the numbers apparently contain the dates and casualties of fifty years’ worth of disasters, begging one question – can he do anything about disasters predicted but not yet come to pass?
1950s schoolgirl Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) is a strange one, and no mistake. She spends her time staring at the sun, and despite coming up with the brilliant idea to bury a time capsule (to be opened in 2009) at her school, all she wants to do is fill it with pages of numbers – she even goes as far as scratching them into a door when her paper is taken away. Fifty years later, Lucinda’s message is given to precocious, hearing-impaired Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury), whose short life has been scarred by the death of his mother and the resulting grief (and alcoholic self-medication) of MIT lecturer dad John (Nicolas Cage). Late one night, John picks up the sheets of numbers and makes an alarming discovery: though he doesn’t understand sections of it, the numbers appear to match the dates and, incredibly, the casualties of major disasters around the world. John’s colleague is sceptical, but the news stories continue to line up with Lucinda’s digits, including a dramatic plane crash John is directly caught up in. John continues to hit the bottle and worry his sister Grace (Nadia Townsend) as he gets ever wilder, tracking down Lucinda’s daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and her own child Abby (Robinson again) in search of answers. John may be crazy, but equally he could have cause to be worried, since Caleb is troubled with visions and whispers in his ear, shadowy figures are watching over them, and – if John’s investigations turn out to be right – Lucinda’s numbers add up to the end of the world.
It may seem churlish to criticise a movie for genre-straddling – after all, From Dusk Till Dawn changed tack completely halfway through and turned out to be great – but Knowing doesn’t straddle genres so much as blunder through them like an excitable child chasing a rabbit, referencing dozens of marginally more sensible movies as it goes. It begins with unearthly child Lucinda, echoing creepy children from dozens of horror films, then wavers between supernatural spookiness – think The Sixth Sense, The Others or, with a similarly troubled protagonist, End of Days – and various science fiction tropes, taking the apocalyptic themes and action sequences (and also, come to think of it, the family estrangement) of a Deep Impact and throwing in mysterious figures like those in Proyas’ own Dark City. Plus, there is the central puzzle contained in the numbers, bringing to mind The Da Vinci Code or, more pertinently, Mercury Rising, which I’ve not seen but am not surprised to discover shares a writer in Ryne Douglas Pearson. Since everything revolves around John, could he in fact be the cause of the disasters, in some Unbreakable-type fashion? Or, like A Beautiful Mind, is he dangerously deluded and paranoid – after all, he does drink an awful lot. And finally, I don’t want to give the whole game away for the uninitiated, but the conclusion of the movie draws heavily on a hefty chunk of Steven Spielberg’s back catalogue.
In summary, Knowing is an unoriginal mess, and it’s not distinguished by the way it looks. During a subway crash in New York, the film can’t help but re-visit images of 9/11, like Cloverfield or War of the Worlds (Spielberg again!), panning awkwardly past an American flag to drive the point home. This set-piece, like the plane crash, is competently staged but is obviously created in super-computers and lacks realism, a problem Proyas also encountered in I, Robot. You can almost hear the producer saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m not wasting $20 million on proper crashes for this rubbish’, though the climactic effects are pretty cool. The actors are game but neither they nor the script are strong enough to make the viewer feel they are watching anything new or different, and Chandler Canterbury won’t, on this evidence, be troubling the Academy voters anytime soon.
Perversely, I’m not saying any of this with the intention of putting anyone off seeing Knowing. Its lack of surprises and other deficiencies, including its complete lack of humour, mean that you have to look for your own entertainment amongst the hokum. For example, Koestler lectures on both science and philosophy, but only to the exact extent that allows him to explain the plot – also allowing Cage to flash an ‘Academic’ badge like he’s still in The Rock, which is brilliant. There’s also a scene of stripping paint from a door, presented as a frantic action sequence; and I loved the fact that people on fire lose all their common sense – instead of extinguishing themselves in nearby puddles, they run around haplessly like flaming deer. I must also say that although it may be an English language version, it’s wonderful to hear the melody of ‘Ar hyd y nos’ in a Hollywood movie.
It’s very easy to dismiss Knowing. Just thinking of the story as a whole makes you realise how needlessly complicated it all is – might those in the know not just have got Lucinda to write where to be, and when, in a few pithy sentences? However, in these sorts of films the journey is as important as the destination, and while I am certain there’s nothing here that a vaguely savvy filmgoer won’t have seen a hundred times before, it is, in its way, stupidly watchable.