Alex Proyas’ Knowing stands a very good chance of being in the running for best bad movie ever made. From a purely visual standpoint, it’s almost impeccable. It makes the most memorable use of the second movement of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony since John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). The first one-third to one-half of the film is remarkably atmospheric and assured most of the time—even with Nicolas Cage’s patented flat performance. The effects work tends to be very good, too. Even when it’s not wholly believable, it’s so visually striking that it hardly matters. And there’s a very good Marco Beltrami score to top the film off. The problem is that the direction, the effects and the music are at the service of a screenplay that gets sillier and sillier as it moves from provocative horror thriller into the realm of religious-allegory science fiction.
The basic premise of the movie is OK. Back in 1959, a strange little girl (Lara Robinson) who hears voices whispering to her puts a series of seemingly random numbers into a time capsule. The numbers, it turns out, predict disasters for the next 50 years. It’s also workable that the set of numbers holds a strange fascination for the youngster, Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury), who happens to open the capsule 50 years later. Ignoring for the moment the believability of Nicolas Cage as an MIT professor, the idea that his John Koestler cracks the meaning behind these numbers is sound enough, as are his efforts to prevent the next disasters on the list. All this is well developed—even cleverly developed. Throw in some creepy guy billed as “The Stranger” (D.G. Maloney), who keeps appearing in the woods near the Koestler house, and it all becomes pretty compelling—up to a point.
The trouble starts when the reason behind all these events begins to take shape. The reason—which I won’t reveal beyond saying this may be the cinema’s first use of Freewill Baptist aliens—isn’t just on the preposterous side, it also proves to be one of those instances when the viewer is likely to figure out what’s going on long before the characters do. It can be argued that the viewer knows he or she is watching a fantasy film and the characters don’t, and so the viewer has the edge. Fair enough. But it doesn’t keep the characters from coming across as a little on the dim side. More, everyone seems remarkably placid about what’s going on. And then there’s the whole business of using mass destruction in order to patch up dysfunctional families (see also Spielberg’s War of the Worlds from 2005). If nothing else, this strikes me as extreme.
There are a few other problems of note. Masses of CGI animals scurrying about en flammes suggest nothing so much as the result of a flash fire at the Magic Kingdom, and, in any case, don’t line up with the eventuality of the movie’s story line. Somehow or other, Proyas must have thought it would look really neat, which is surprising, since part of the reason much of the CGI works in the film rests on the decision—presumably his—not to linger on it. The subway crash, for instance, is an effective blend of CGI and apparent floor effects held together by editing that never holds a shot long enough for it to look cartoonish.
However, most of what keeps Knowing from being the persuasively chilling movie it promises to be at the start goes back to the screenplay by Ryne Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White and Stuart Hazeldine. It would be easy to lay the blame there, but not only is Proyas the producer as well as the director (indicating final word on the script), he’s also listed as having done an adaptation (whether of the story or the screenplay is not clear). As a result, Proyas has to shoulder the blame as well as reap the rewards for making this screenplay into something better than it deserves. Regardless, the results are a mixed bag: as likely to produce groans as shudders. Rated PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language.