Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Knowing (2009)

Knowing has one big strike going against it. And a couple little strikes. The big strike, of course, is Nicholas Cage. I'm not saying Nicholas Cage is a strike against the picture being any good. I'm just saying that he's a huge reason why people won't see the thing. For every Ghost Rider or Bangcock Dangerous or The Wicker Man the guy makes, his detractors seems to forget how good he was in shit like The Weather Man, Matchstick Men, Adaptation, Bringing Out the Dead, Red Fucking Rock West, Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona, or even god damned Peggy Sue Got Married. Fuck man, I ain't gonna defend something like the remake of The Wicker Man, but I gotta say I enjoyed the hell out of that thing, warts and all. It's fun to watch Cage work even against god awful material. He gives it his all, every fucking time out. You'll never see him sleepwalk through a performance. Seems to me, all anyone ever wants to talk about, when discussing his performances, is his hair. Shit, I didn't even mention Birdy, Moonstruck, or even The Lord of War. All good pictures. All good performances by Nicholas Cage. I have noticed a correlation though. People didn't seem to hate him until his hair started getting weird. Maybe he should just shave it all off? Point is, I like the guy.

Another strike against Knowing is the director, Alex Proyas, who hasn't really made a worthwhile movie since Dark City. Apparently, Proyas wasn't as visionary as we originally thought. His follow up to Dark City was a little seen drama about a rock band called Garage Days. Middling reviews and even more middling box office on that thing led him to an adaptation of Asimov's I, Robot* which is probably the equivalent of someone like Ridley Scott (I was going to say Michael Bay, but figured that would be too cruel) adapting Shakespeare's HAMLET, stripping it bare of any meaning, and giving all the character's machine guns. Actually, in light of Baz Luhrman's Romeo & Juliet or Titus, that's a fucking terrible analogy. Point is, Proyas was going downhill, needed a hit. Why not hook up with Cage (whom most people seem to hate) and a script about the possible end of the world? What's the result? Just his best film since Dark City, that's what. Ok, that doesn't mean shit. How about: This could easily end up on my 2009 top ten list (if I get around to doing one this year). It's that fucking good.

A possible third strike is the supposed theology/scripture/belief in god/whatever the picture supposedly embraces. The only people seeing this are those who would blindly believe in God's lack of an existence rather than just saying something like "I don't know" or "I don't really believe, but what are you going to do?". You know, atheists (not all atheists, just the angry ones). In my view, the movie isn't preachy . There's no god pulling the strings here, in my opinion. I hate bringing religion into anything. I hate talking about it. I don't go to church and I don't really believe in God. Will I say God definitely doesn't exist? Not if I can't prove it, I won't. Uh....anyway...Knowing is just a story. A good story. I'm pretty sure the bible had a few of those. It's ok to like this picture.

Shot in Australia, but taking place in Boston (for the most part, this works as we got exterior shots of actual Boston coupled with closer shots that seem like they could be in, or around, Boston - if you don't live there that is), Knowing is a story about big ideas interlaced with a ridiculous premise that somehow works. The film opens in 1959 as students at a Lexington elementary school are preparing to place their drawings of what the future will look like in a time capsule. One girl places a sheet of paper filled with numbers in the capsule. Later, they find her in a closet scratching more numbers into the door. Also, she hears whispers. Cut to 2009 and the time capsule is about to be ceremoniously dug up. A student at the school, Caleb (Chandler "what the fuck is this? a decent child actor" Canterbury), receives the sheet of numbers and takes them home. His father, John Koestler (Cage), chastises him for taking the paper home and then slowly becomes drawn in by the numbers. By the end of the night, bottle of whiskey in hand, he's obsessed with them. One particular sequence stands out: 91120012996. On September 11, 2001, 2,996 people died. He starts googling other numbers on the paper. They all lead him to other disasters. We got the date and the number of people killed. All written back in 1959 by a young girl hearing voices. All the disasters dating back to 1959, in order. If only he could figure out what those other numbers within each sequence that seemingly have no meaning mean. Uh oh, are those voices Caleb begins to hear?

Koestler is a professor of astrophysics at MIT. He gives a lecture on randomness vs determinism. How is it possible the earth was situated at the exact distance from the sun that would allow for life to evolve? Was it luck or was a higher power involved? A student asks what he thinks. "I think shit just happens". As Cage grows more obsessed with the numbers his tune begins to change. He notices three sequences that haven't happened yet. One happens, in a virtuoso scene, when he discovers what those other numbers mean. I'll just say the scene involves a horrific plane crash which, unbelievably, appears to have been shot in one continuous take.

Like all good suspense pictures this one actually manages to be suspenseful. We got strange beings that appear to Caleb, and are usually spotted by his father as they creepily shuffle off into the woods. They're the source of the whispering. So, who are they? What's their purpose? The answer to who they are is not really made clear. Gods? angels? aliens? Mormons? Eerily reminiscent of the strangers in Proyas' earlier masterwork, Dark City, these beings loom over the picture as some sort of sinister chorus, subtly guiding events with a little nudge here, a giant kick to the balls there.

Eventually, John and Caleb meet up with Diana (the luscious Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby. Diana is the daughter of the girl with the numbers from the 1959 sequence. Her daughter also hears voices. John and Diana feed off each others paranoia. Hysteria ensues while the children remain strangely calm. Maybe they know something we (also, John and Diana) don't?

Fuck man, we got a man struggling with his faith here (a pretty common theme in film). John lost his wife to a fire years back. That disaster is found within the numbers. He could have saved her. He's estranged from his father, a minister. His sister says she'll pray for him but he just shrugs her off, tells her to leave. How is it he can believe in the numbers but not in a higher power? Who says it's god relaying the numbers? Ok, fuck it...this picture's almost a year old. I'm going to spoil the mother fucker.

Here goes....major spoiler to follow. Tread carefully. Seriously, only read past this point if you've seen the movie or harbor an irrational hatred for everything Nic Cage. You've been warned.


Anyway, turns out the numbers that appeared to not have any meaning were actually coordinates. The final sequence of numbers ends without giving any coordinates. It ends with the numbers "33". Why, that's not so bad in the grand scheme of things, right? 33 people? Not even the equivalent of a scratch. Well, fuck man, turns out that's not a "33" at all, but an "EE" ("everyone else"?). Koestler heads to an observatory where he and his colleague come to the realization that a solar flare is going to envelop the earth. Well, what the fuck do we do now? There isn't time to organize a space shuttle mission to the sun with a giant bucket of water. They're pretty much fucked.....end spoiler.

thankfully, I went back and realized I kept spoiling this mother fucker below even though I clearly said I wouldn't. Sorry.

I won't give you anymore else. Or tell you if, and how, they get out of this one. Shit just happens man. I will say that it irritates me when detractors of this picture are turned off by any kind of religious allegory the story purportedly evokes. I don't know man, those beings might be angels but maybe they're just aliens that look like angels and that's how angels originally made their way into our stories. Maybe god is an alien? Maybe there is no god, just a society of aliens that leave trails of mist that sometimes, if you look at it in the right light, vaguely resemble the wings of angels? This picture has no agenda is the point I'm making. Well, it does actually. It's agenda is to entertain you, first and foremost. Are you fucking serious with that "I don't like the fact that they pushed god and his angels down our throats and then the heavens opened up and the kids were transported to a new Eden" kind of bullshit? What about the final scene with Koestler and his father, reconciling as the flames engulf the entire world? Are we to understand the movie wants us to believe they're off to a better place? I don't think so. Maybe Koestler halfheartedly believes so. His father says "this isn't the end" and seems to mean it. It's good to know that Koestler maybe regained some faith right before he and his family were cooked. Wouldn't we all like a little faith at that very moment? Unfortunately for them, the movie never seems to indicate, or even mildly support, that there's a life after death. If those strangers really are aliens I'd argue that the movie argues against it. But then again, that would mean inferring that the movie really argues for anything at all. Except for you to be entertained, an argument it easily wins. I was. A fucking lot.

*I recently revisited I,Robot and I have to say it's not as bad as it seemed when I first saw it. Some parts even border on the soulful. Sure, it's Asimov on steroids. Steroids are sometimes acceptable with a doctor's note.

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