In 1959, the students at an elementary school are asked to draw pictures of what they think the future will be like for a time capsule, but one girl contributes a page of seemingly random numbers. 50 years later, widowed astrophysicist John Koestler (Cage) is attending the capsule’s unearthing with his young son Caleb (Canterbury), who ends up with the page. Though initially puzzled, John soon decodes the numbers and discovers that they form a pattern which has predicted every major disaster for the last five decades in perfect sequence, and that there are three more yet to come…
Though easily one of the most intriguing projects that Nicholas Cage has taken on in years, Knowing has proved an audience-dividing experience. Some still argue that it’s an underrated sci-fi thriller in need of re-evaluation, many remain disappointed and a small group passionately label it as a notably-awful failure. But yet, while the majority of viewers tend to fall into the latter categories, it isn’t as bad as certain parties have suggested. The second big-screen science-fiction blockbuster from stylish filmmaker Alex Proyas’ after his disappointingly-commercial Will Smith vehicle I, Robot, it’s certainly flawed, but not without merit, and remains inviting thanks to an attention-grabbing, Twilight Zone-ish premise.
Given that we’re dealing with a numerology horror where Earth receives forewarning about an impending doomsday, you could make comparisons with the likes of The Number 23 and The Day The Earth Stood Still. More closely though, Knowing resembles the sort of film that M. Night Shyamalan used to make before his terrible run of progressively-unpopular form. In particular, there are several thematic similarities with Signs (arguably, Shyamalan’s last satisfying movie), given that we’ve got a bereaved single parent who’s dealing with a crisis of faith following the loss of his wife, and is forced to battle a supernatural threat with the help of his young son.
It all starts out well enough too, as the high-end concept is used to realise an eerie and compelling set-up. There’s even a gripping set-piece sequence where a plane crash and its catastrophic aftermath are seemingly captured in one continuous shot, which is effectively staged despite the unreel sheen of obvious CGI which draws attention to itself (see also the burning moose). But ultimately, the second half never lives up to the early promise, with events growing increasingly insane as we approach the also-polarising climax, which is simultaneously bleak, hopeful, brave and unsatisfying.
The introduction of Rose Byrne as the prophet girl’s grown-up daughter feels clumsy and forced (although, refreshingly, at least there isn’t an obligatory romance), while the script’s early flirtation with admirably weighty themes (determinism vs. randomness, predestination vs. coincidence) never blossoms in a fulfilling manner. Knowing isn’t a shallow or ambitionless actioner, but its central threat ends up being too large-scale for a narrative which proves most fascinating in scenes which hint at events to come. Specifically, the key turning point where John pours over the numbers in dawning realisation of what they mean is genuinely effective at getting under our skin and pulling us in, while the late discovery of what two figures at the bottom of the page symbolises offers another haunting, well-orchestrated reveal.
As for our leading man, Cage is certainly better here than much of his recent output. For those who aren’t fans of his trademark manic intensity and bug-eyed tics there’s nothing new here to convince, but there are a few quieter moments where he impresses. That said, we never feel the father-son relationship with his boy (Chandler Canterbury), there’s not much credibility to his credentials as an astrophysicist and his character is saddled with too many clichés (drink habit, rickety house, Daddy issues). One would’ve done just fine.
Not the disaster many are describing it as, but also frustratingly not what it could’ve been given the killer, Twilight Zone-esque premise.