Sunday, March 22, 2009

Knowing: I Knew It. But It was Still Fun

Knowing, the new film staring Nicholas Cage, falls, at least at first, right into that paranormal sci-fi genre created by Stir of Echoes, but soon takes a turn into land recently travelled by another sci-fi movie investigating a similar "Noahs Arc" theme. In fact, one might say that the two movies end on eerily similar notes, as if the filmmakers had been cribbing one another's scripts. There is a tendency for Hollywood movies to come in pairs. I just hope this plot device doesn't become a trend.

But since I can't really go into the ending without major spoilers, let's put all that aside for the moment.

If every movie is an illustration of one principal or another, Knowing - which tells the story of a kid who finds a strange list of numbers planted in an elementary school time capsule fifty years ago - is an illustration of how a great director can turn a b-movie script into a pretty good movie.
What I mean by this is that the story of Knowing pretty much touches upon every sci-fi cliche of the past fifteen years, including apocalyptic codes, prescient children, weird obsessions, dramatic disasters, strange visitors, and well, you get the picture. You know that a script has been dumbed down for the audience when the hero takes ten minutes out of the story's introductory exposition in order to explain, in lecture format nonetheless, exactly what the nature of the sun is. Apparently someone behind this film thinks that most movie goers out there will be surprised to learn that the sun is hot. It's at this point that if you can't predict the ending of this movie, you get an F in sci-fi b-movie plot formula.

There's nothing in this story that needs to be too complicated, but another script rewrite could have helped. Some humble suggestions: what if the little girl who produced the original series of mysterious numbers wasn't long dead, depriving us of any fun – what if she were very much alive and scaring the bejeezus out of our heroes? And does Cage really need to play an astrophysicist? That makes him either grossly negligent or a fool for missing what’s happening. (He’s also miscast, but that’s another story.) He should be just about anything else, possibly an IRS auditor. And do we really need another story with an absent parent that stands in for teaching a kid how to accept loss? Why not something different, like divorced folks. It’d actually be kind of nice to see people who don’t like each other trying to negotiate their fate together. And there's a bit of a perspective problem with the ending, which focuses us on a single family when much more more is at stake – a narrowness of coverage that makes the final sequences feel a bit hysterical.

But rather than spend more money on the script, the studio instead attached a kick-ass director – Alex Proyus, director of The Crow, Dark City, and I, Robot. Proyus creates a taught pace for the film, starting from the opening where the strange little girl, Lucinda Embry, feverishly scribbles out a sheet of numbers (as part of a class assignment) that will predict every disaster to occur for the next fifty years. Each scene maintains that pace without letup, and Proyus keys up the suspense even more through his mysterious strangers lurking in the woods (whose getup he cribs straight from Dark City).

But perhaps most masterful is Proyus’s handling of the various disasters, which come at you from the gut and have the intensity and hyper-reality of the most elaborate nightmares. There’s even a dream sequence of a forest fire that I swear is something I’ve dreamed myself: terrifying scenes of animals fleeing on fire. The images here are modern, CNN-filtered and GPS located nightmares of our deepest phobias; there’s more than one sequence here (I can think of three off the top of my head) that stand with the best action sequences in movies over the past decade: the moment in Casino Royale when the plane sweeps the police cruiser off the ground; the plunging airplane in Superman Returns; the exploding hospital in Batman: The Dark Knight. Those scenes where each high-points in those movie but in Knowing Proyus delivers not just one but three – possibly four – breath-catching sequences. And he manages to tie all this imagery together with a powerful visually compelling ending CGI sequence that delivers what the director has promised.

So I recommend this movie to see these moments, which will be hard to get out of your head. Just go in knowing that the one thing you know about Knowing is, you already know the story.

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