Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Knowing was originally slated to be Richard Kelly’s follow-up to 2001’s Donnie Darko, with which it shares plenty of elements: A reluctant hero roped into a destiny much larger than himself, the puzzling out of cryptic and pseudo-scientific signs, and intimations of the apocalypse. Alas, Kelly and Columbia Pictures eventually parted ways, as did director Rod Lurie (The Contender), and the project slipped into turnaround. That left Alex Proyas, a veteran director with sci-fi bonafides (Dark City, I, Robot) to take another crack at the material. Four years and several rewrites later, Knowing arrived in theaters looking just as problematic to critics as it did in its long, rocky journey to the big screen. It has a Metacritic score of 41, and would have a much lower score were it not for the generosity of Roger Ebert, whose four-star rave (“among the best science-fiction films I've seen—frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome”) represents a major outlier among reviews that were otherwise uniformly middling to poor. In his “C-“ review, The A.V. Club’s Keith Phipps wrote that the film “frequently feels one Revelation quote away from turning into a chiding, fundamentalist-friendly end-of-the-world movie in the Left Behind mold.”
Curiosity factor: There were plenty of questions I wanted answered by Knowing: What might Richard Kelly’s sloppy seconds look like and how might it have been different had he directed it? What did Ebert see in this movie that nobody else could see? Would the film justify Proyas’ reputation—almost entirely based on Dark City—for pulling off thoughtful science fiction on a studio scale? And, most important of all, where would Nicolas Cage’s performance as a hard-drinking astrophysicist turned mad prophet of the apocalypse fall on the crazy scale? Would he scale the manic heights of The Wicker Man or merely run around like the wild-eyed adventurer of the National Treasure movies? Please oh please let it be the former:
The viewing experience: Call it the four stages of sucktitude, but my experience with Knowing divided neatly into a clear progression, from intriguing to enervating to off-the-rails to actively repugnant. I’ll go through the stages one by one, with the caveat that major spoilers await after the “enervating” stage, so those who want to experience the insane twists and turns of Knowing with, say, the unsoiled downy whiteness of a bunny rabbit, are advised to make their exit then. (They’re also advised not to look at the trailer, the box art, and all the other promotional materials that give away the big CGI money shot.) And with that, we’re off on our journey, but please remember: “THE CAVES WON’T SAVE US!!!”
Stage 1: Intriguing (0:00 to 41:00)
Let’s face it, the hook is a doozy: Back in 1959, a group of elementary school kids draw pictures of “the future” to put into a time capsule for their like-aged counterparts to open 50 years later. In lieu of a picture, one creepy little girl frantically scribbles out a sequence of numbers on a piece of paper, which is then sealed in an envelope and opened up five decades later by the son of a widowed MIT astrophysicist, played by Nicolas Cage. (And if you don’t believe Cage’s credentials, MIT has provided him with a special astrophysicist’s badge he keeps in his wallet, like an FBI agent.) In one of his nightly drunken stupors, Cage notices a unifying pattern to the numbers: Each group signifies the date and number of people killed in the last 50 fifty years of world tragedies, from airplane crashes to bombings to, tastefully, 9/11. But the fun’s not over yet, as there are still a few catastrophes yet to come, including a really scary one that didn’t quite make the page. That leaves Cage to chew scenery playing Chicken Little while pondering the age-old questions of free will versus determinism that haunt a lot of science fiction.
So far, so tolerable. True, the whole math-as-skeleton-key-to-all-of-life’s-essential-questions trope isn’t particularly novel, having been exploited to great effect in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and to somewhat less distinguished end in the Jim Carrey bomb The Number 23. Nevertheless, the premise suggests both the eerie punch of a good Twilight Zone episode—a show that’s unfairly used in a pejorative way, like describing a melodrama as “After School Special”—and the proud line of sci-fi films where the crazies are right, like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or the similarly themed Miracle Mile. Though I’m no fan of Proyas’ work—his cult favorite Dark City left me cold—he’s clearly a technically proficient filmmaker, capable of delivering the goods with a certain degree of panache. While I have serious objections to the CGI slaughter Proyas metes out in Knowing, there’s no denying the effectiveness of this sequence, where Cage finds himself in the middle of a prophesized disaster:
Stage 2: Enervating (41:00 to 1:10:00)
Once Cage knows what the code means and decides to set about preventing catastrophes from happening, Knowing should have really gained steam in its second act before the budget-busting mayhem of the third. Instead, the film spins its wheels interminably once Cage meets Rose Byrne, the daughter of the creepy girl who originally penned those cryptic numbers back in ’59. Knowing rips off many cinematic touchstones—Close Encounters, Irwin Allen disaster flicks, the floating New Age bubble in Aronofsky’s The Fountain—but here the action shifts into the middle acts of something like The Ring, where the characters busy themselves by investigating the odd, mysterious, and scary things currently haunting them. That means many dull scenes where Byrne (who’s the weak link here as in FX’s Damages) slowly, sloooowly begins to trust Cage enough to open up about her eccentric late mother. They then set about solving the last piece of the puzzle.
Worse still, Proyas introduces us to “the whisper people,” a gang of pale, shadowy figures who communicate with Cage’s son, much like the ghosts in The Sixth Sense. (Okay, exactly like the ghosts in The Sixth Sense.) Rather than simply tell the kid what they want, they parcel out bits on information in the scariest and most indirect way possible. In this case, that means white noise in the boy’s hearing aid, multiple appearances in the woods surrounded by a shroud of fog, and an assortment of shiny little black stones. There’s no reason for “the whisper people” to be so coy, and at 121 minutes, the movie already wastes enough time spinning its wheels.
Stage 3: Off The Rails (1:10:00 to 1:50:00) (And keep in mind: Major spoilers ahoy.)
Finally Cage makes the leap from bereaved family man—a mode of relative normalcy that the actor can’t quite pull off anymore—to what a raving street-corner derelict might look like if he had a doctorate degree. The downside is that he sabotages a movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but the upside is that Knowing becomes as entertainingly frenetic and wackadoo as Cage’s other star vehicles of late. Once he figures out that the fate of humanity itself is at stake—thanks to the anomalous sun flares that threaten to turn the planet into a fireball—Cage goes on a rampage. When he’s not casting withering looks at the sun itself—damn you, giver and taker of life!—he rushes around frantically to save his boy from “the whisper people” and yells out prophesies and dictates to anyone who will listen. And that includes Byrne:
From there, Knowing gets into even sillier territory when it connects on the dots on the “whisper people,” with their shiny black stones, blinding beams of mouth-lights, and cuddly white bunnies. Proyas doesn’t even bother hiding his indebtedness to Close Encounters, with its spindly creatures beckoning the smallest sampling of humanity to a more wondrous place. If you’re like me, you probably watched the sequence play out with jaws agape, wondering how in the world a movie about apocalyptic visions ended up with a spaceship in it. I guess that’s what happens when a film gets as many false starts and rewrites as Knowing endured: Lots of bad ideas wind up on the table, and Proyas doesn’t care so much about weeding them out. I’d find it all endearingly silly were it not for…
Stage 4: Actively Repugnant (1:50:00 to my grave)
As my colleague Keith wrote his review, Knowing turns out to be a stealth Christian Apocalypse movie in the Left Behind mode, with Cage as the skeptical, secular atheist type turned around by God’s wrath. Biblical references abound, including a key passage from the Corinthians (courtesy of Cage’s pastor father) and a sign from Ezekiel, and a clear implication that the world is facing a cleansing by fire. (When the aliens take Cage and Byrne’s children with them, Cage’s son says, “They’ve chosen us so we can start over, so everything can start over,” as if humanity is irredeemable.) Though some critics have referred to the Earth flambé as global warming message, the film in fact takes great pains to suggest it’s anything but: These “solar flares” are nothing that a sound energy policy could ever combat. They’re a divine hiccup meant to scorch the Earth and all the irredeemable sinners that occupy it.
I’m no fan of mass-scale CGI destruction—I think the trailer alone for 2012 is sicker and more pornographic than anything in the Hostel movies, Martyrs, and Rob Zombie’s filmography combined—but I’m shocked that anyone could stomach the last 10 minutes of Knowing. Proyas has got a lot of nerve post-9/11 to level New York city in a CGI firestorm, leaving us to imagine the tens of millions of lives (and billions, if you include the whole planet) extinguished in a rolling orange tide of destruction. There’s nothing entertaining about it, and the notion that the saved are heading to a better place (Cage’s dad: “This isn’t the end”; Cage: “I know”) is cold comfort to people with both feet planted in the real world.
Glenn Beck should clear a space on his Top 10 list. A studio just paid $50 million for one of his “War Room” scenarios.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time?: That depends. Between Stage 1 (“intriguing”) and Stage 3 (“off the rails”), that’s a solid 80 minutes of engaging screen time, or an impressive 75% of the overall pie. (Reminder: “Engaging” is not synonymous with “good.”) But there are images and ideas in the last 10 minutes that I wish could be scrubbed from my brain forever. And no amount of divertingly silly sci-fi is worth that kind of trauma.