Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Director: Alex Proyas
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, Lara Robinson, Ben Mendelsohn
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

(out of )

So, here we go again with Nicolas Cage. And his hair. Except this time things are a little different. His chronic overacting tendencies are tempered slightly while his hair is more in control than it was in Ghost Rider, Next and Bangkok Dangerous. Fewer actors have made poorer choices and seen more undeserving box office returns than Cage. And since winning his Oscar over a decade ago no actor has has caused us greater disappointment and frustration.
When his sci-fi thriller Knowing opened earlier this year after collecting dust on the shelf and wasn't screened for critics, it stood to reason that we had another one of his infamous action stinkers on our hands.

The director attached to this Cage project wasn't just some hack, but Alex Proyas, a gifted filmmaker responsible for two films that helped define sci-fi in the '90s: The Crow and Dark City. The latter, over time, has emerged as a cult classic in the genre while it remains a testament to Proyas' talent that former has transcended the tragic circumstances surrounding its star's death to be remembered as the visionary achievement it is. You wouldn't be far off to call either a masterpiece. Despite abysmal advanced word of mouth and widespread panning, Knowing surprisingly tore it up at the box office in March, resulting in a wide critical and commercial split not seen again until, well, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen opened a couple of weeks ago.

The lone voice of dissent among a barrage of terrible notices came from Roger Ebert, who very controversially awarded the film four stars, calling it "among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome." Of course, in the minds of many this just confirmed long-running suspicions that he completely "lost it" after cancer surgery. For better proof of that, they probably should have submitted his opinion of this film as evidence instead. Either way, giving generous star rating doesn't constitute "losing it." Failing to articulate your opinions does, and no one could ever accuse him of that.

His review just might be more interesting than the actual film, which is fascinatingly sloppy. It's the weakest script Proyas has had to direct yet and is all at at once a mystery thriller, an action movie and a science fiction allegory. There's greatness in it to be sure and it isn't difficult to see why Ebert loved it, or why anyone who is a serious sci-fi fanatic would. And it's easy to see why mainstream audiences embraced it as well, as there's enough action to compliment the enormous ideas the script introduces but doesn't completely follow through on. Luckily, Proyas picks up a lot of the slack and the ideas are so big you wonder if it was necessary or even possible to follow through on all of them.

The film centers around a mystery that must be solved and then completely changes the rules veering in a different direction entirely, far from what we expected containing moments that are truly scary as well as a couple of sensational child performances. As messy as it all feels at times, you can't say it isn't original or ambitious, especially the ballsy conclusion. It's science fiction with at least a few brain cells and a premise so interesting that even Cage's over emoting (thankfully kept to a minimum here) can't screw it up. While not the film it could have been or wants to be, Knowing has a lot more on its mind than it got credit for, and a great deal less.

John Koestler (Cage) is a widowed M.I.T. astrophysics professor whose lively lectures consist of trying to understand the universe and make sense of the controversial debate centering around Evolution and Intelligent Design. He comes closer to that debate than he ever wanted to when his son Caleb's (Chandler Canterbury) school holds a ceremony to unearth a time capsule buried under the school's grounds in 1959 containing children's drawings of what they think the future will hold. Except Caleb's sheet isn't a drawing. It's covered with a series of seemingly random numbers, scribbled by a creepy, disturbed young girl named Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) who we meet in a very effective prologue sequence. Upon examining the numbers Koestler discovers that they form patterns that accurately predict nearly all the major disasters of the past fifty years.

Naturally, the one person Koestler can count on, his colleague, cosmologist Phil Beckman (Ben Mendelsohn) thinks he's crazy and seeing something that isn't actually there, even suggesting he's using the list to subconciously make sense of his wife's death. In searching for the truth Koestler is able to track down the late Lucinda's daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and her granddaughter Abby (Robinson pulling double duty). The children are a key component to the story, especially Caleb who hears noises through is hearing aid and is being stalked by mysterious "Whisperers," shadowy, pale figures who eerily recall the "Strangers" from Proyas' Dark City. Where things go from here is entirely unexpected and can't be discussed without heavy spoilers. It's much bigger than you think.

Sci-fi premises don't get much stronger than this. The set-up is so strong that the film almost backs itself into a corner immediately by presenting a mystery so deep and philosophically interesting that it's practically impossible for the script to resolve it in a satisfying way for all. But it does try it's best and final 10 minutes are so exciting and ambitious it could almost make up for the mistakes that precede it. Chief among them is the decision to have Koestler go into action hero mode stumbling (sometimes accidentally and sometimes not) into various catastrophic disasters and trying to save the day, against the backdrop of obvious, but visually impressive CGI. On another filmmaker's watch I could just imagine how terrible and cheesy looking these huge scenes could have been but Proyas succeeds in making them terrifying, especially a fatal plane crash that has a frantic Koestler desperately trying to rescue survivors in one long, uninterrupted shot.

The bizarre direction the story takes could have come off like a bad mythology episode of The X-Files but doesn't because there are some genuinely scary moments and suspense is effectively built. The "Whisperers" are absolutely terrifying, with their presence only enhanced by Simon Duggan's shadowy cinematography and a Marco Beltrami score that seems to pop up at just the right moments, effectively underlining the horror.

This film doesn't succeed because of Cage. He's one of those actors who has made choices so bad in the last few years that the second you see him up on screen you're almost immediately taken out of the film, with all thoughts shifting from what's happening in front of you to wondering how bad the movie will be because he's in it. As far as his recent bad paycheck performances go this is definitely one of his better ones and he's a lot more understated than usual. He's also more believable than you'd expect in the role of a college professor. Still, his mere presence rather than his actual performance makes the movie seem less than what it is and casting another actor in the role would have been a wise move creatively. The truth is any actor could have played it. Some better, some worse. This is in no way a return to form for him. We'll have to keep waiting.

It isn't difficult to see why most already had their knives sharpened and were prepared to rip Cage a new one before even seeing a minute of the film. I'm guilty of it myself. That's a problem and it's unfair, but he has no one to blame but himself for building up such a poor reputation in choosing projects. He's given strong support with exceptional performances from Canterbury and Robinson and anyone familiar with Byrne's work on TV's Damages knows what she's capable of as an actress so it's a relief that she's really given an opportunity to cut loose. She brings dimension to a role that should have been forgettable.

Ironically, Ebert's opinion of the film, as lofty as it is, seems closer to reality than the bashing it took from his peers just because it was the latest Cage action release. Those going in anticipating that will find more to think about than they expected, but those (like myself) who would have been happier that they didn't try to squeeze a typical blockbuster into the middle of it will walk away a bit let down that a premise so promising ONLY lets us consider the ideas rather than attempting to dig deeper and explore them itself. The film has a bunch of screenwriters credited to it which isn't a surprise because it does feel like there were too many cooks in the kitchen trying to craft a story that appeals equally to the mainstream action crowd and hardcore science fiction fans. Originally, Richard Kelly was the only writer attached to this project and I probably don't have to tell you how much better I think this would have turned out had he penned it.

Sometimes I just have to wonder what my opinion of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would have been if I didn't know beforehand that David Fincher directed it. We enter films with certain mindsets and expectations, all of us guilty of altering our viewing experience to match them. And that's as we should because once we stop doing that we stop being passionate about movies. Ebert is obviously a huge fan of Proyas and this genre so that could have influenced his opinion greatly. Nothing wrong with that at all. I'm more likely to seek out a movie he overpraised not because I necessarily think it will be good, but because I know if it isn't, it'll at least be interesting and worth watching. In that regard, this didn't disappoint and neither did Proyas, who further confirms what everyone's suspected since The Crow, except this time with a messier template to work with. So that's at least an accomplishment for him. If he can do this much with material below his talent level just imagine the possibilities if he were given a top shelf script. The ideas presented in Knowing could easily fill up hours of discussion, even if the film itself can't.


JD said...

The ideas are more interesting than the finished film.
I am not a big critic follower, so Ebert's opinion one way or the other... whatever. Dargis, yes, but even her latest things, I don't know anymore.
It's scary at times, but reminded me of dumb downed version of The Rapture by Michael Tolkin. I like Proyas, but this is kind of weaker for him. Good review.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

Yeah this film was okay for me. I was really expecting worse but it surprised me in some areas. Nicholas Cage is far from my favorite actor but he didn't do too bad here. But yeah, any actor could have played this role. I loved the idea and concept but I don't think Proyas executed them as much as they should have been. Still, it's an upgrade for Cage. I would watch this over NEXT anyday of the week. Great review.