Cage unhinged and desperate to save the world from disaster

In "Knowing," Nicolas Cage is able to decipher the dates of future catastrophes.
In "Knowing," Nicolas Cage is able to decipher the dates of future catastrophes.
Posted: March 20, 2009

'How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?"

Now there's a question.

And there's Nicolas Cage - forehead furrowed, eyes bulging, breathless - desperately trying to figure out the answer.

In Knowing, a weird and gloomy existential thriller, Cage is John Koestler, an MIT astronomer who lectures to his students about randomness and determinism (he's definitely on the side of the random). John's a widower (his wife died in a hotel fire), with a young son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). He drives his kid to school, goes to work, they come home, eat dinner, he reads Caleb a story or lets him watch TV, and then John drinks himself into a stupor.

But when a time capsule is opened after 50 years in the ground at Caleb's school, the Koestlers' routine goes kablooey. Caleb brings home a paper from among the many kids' drawings in the capsule: a page covered front and back in numbers - the work of a scared little girl whom we see in the prologue.

At first, John thinks it's just gibberish, but then a pattern emerges, numbers such as 9/11/2001 - the dates of disasters from Lockerbie to Katrina. Pretty much all the world's major catastrophes over the last 50 years, and, gulp, a few yet to come.

Determinism to the nth power.

Cage works best when he's tamped down (Leaving Las Vegas) or going at odd angles in conventional romances (Moonstruck). But left to his own devices - which director Alex Proyas seems to have done - Cage can become, well, simply hysterical.

It's not that the situation in Knowing doesn't warrant a bit of hysteria, as our hero rushes around trying to save lives. ("Why hasn't this intersection been sealed off!?" he demands of a New York cop, after calculating the longitude and latitude of the next mass tragedy.) It's just that there's something at once annoying and absurd in Cage's demeanor - no wonder Rose Byrne, as a single mother with ties to the time-capsule girl, is freaked out when she meets him. (It doesn't help that he's been stalking her.)

Knowing has about a half-dozen screenwriter credits, which may explain why scenes crash up against one another - smart, stupid, far-fetched, compelling. And the trouble is that Cage walks (or runs) through them all, treating each with the same level of intensely goofy seriousness.

Proyas, of I, Robot and The Crow, stages a couple of breathtaking disasters: a passenger jet slashing sideways onto a traffic-jammed Boston highway, a subway train rocketing off its tracks onto a platform in lower Manhattan. But his attention to detail, borders on - no, crosses over to - the morbid.

As for Knowing's ending, well, it would be irresponsible for me to discuss. But I'll say this: It borrows from L. Ron Hubbard, the Rapture Index, and a mess of apocalyptic sci-fi movies - quite a few of which are vastly more interesting, and more fun.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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