Isn’t it cheating to cast Nicolas Cage as a man trying to warn everyone else that the world’s going to end? In these later years of Cage’s career, a bug-eyed expression suggesting that everyone around him has gone insane has become his default mode. If anyone ever wanted to make a story about the prophet Jeremiah, he’s their man. But what Cage doesn’t do convincingly anymore, if he ever did, is act normal. By the time Knowing, the latest thriller from Alex Proyas (Dark City; I, Robot) rolls around to its apocalypse-now second half, Cage is in the zone. It’s the early scenes, in which he has to play a hard-drinking, coldly logical astrophysicist, grieving his dead wife while raising a son (Chandler Canterbury), that make him look like a weirdo.
When Canterbury helps open a time capsule at his elementary school, Cage’s logic is put to the test. Unearthing a sheet of paper covered in numbers scrawled by a doomed girl in 1959, first the son, then his father, suspect it might hide a code. After a whiskey-soaked night circling numbers, Cage comes away convinced that the digits have predicted every disaster of the last 50 years, and a few yet to come.
At this point, Cage’s performance and the film around him go a little nuts in ways it’s difficult to talk about without spoiling what comes next. This detail should suffice: Canterbury is pursued by black-clad, Aryan-types he dubs “Whisper People.” Or maybe this one: Cage is required to run around like a madman, trying to prevent the disasters to come. Then there’s this: Cage delivers a lecture about cosmic determinism vs. randomness, but he’s stuck in a rigidly deterministic script in which nearly every line doubles as foreshadowing.
So pay attention to some early concern about Cage’s atheism and estrangement from his minister father. Knowing frequently feels one Revelation quote away from turning into a chiding, fundamentalist-friendly end-of-the-world movie in the Left Behind mold. Instead, the film lets viewers read those damning verses between the lines. Proyas remains a skilled director of mood and spectacle, but a striking look and a handful of remarkable setpieces—look out for that plane!—can’t elevate what’s ultimately a silly movie with a queasy subtext, no matter how much at home Cage looks amid insanity these days.