random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Thursday, March 19, 2009

REEL REVIEW: Knowing (2009) **

written by: Ryne Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White and Stuart Hazeldine.
produced by: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Alex Proyas & Steve Tisch
directed by: Alex Proyas

Rated PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language.
122 min.

When I first saw the poster for this film, I was convinced it was yet another Roland Emmerich disaster containing global disasters. Then I saw Nicolas Cage's name attached and I immediately figured I'd be waiting for the DVD release. Once I realized this was the new film by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City and I, Robot) though, I knew I had to give it a theatrical shot which was only confirmed after I saw the exhilarating trailer.

The film opens up in 1959 outside a Massachusetts elementary school where a focused little girl, Lucinda Embry is seen staring up at the sky as her teacher tries to gather all the children back into class from recess. There is no indication of who or what she is looking at, only that she is being spoken to by indecipherable whispers. Back in class, her teacher (Danielle Carter) is collecting drawings made by the children to be put into a time capsule that will be opened by students fifty years later. The assignment is to draw out what they imagine the future will look like, but when Lucinda's paper is collected the teacher is frustrated that hers is meticulously filled with numbers. A disturbed Lucinda watches as her paper is taken away and added to the rest of the pile to be sealed for students yet to be born.

When the capsule is unearthed fifty years later, each present day student is given an envelope that contains the various drawings. It just so happens that Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), a boy more interested in The Discovery Channel than The Cartoon Network, opens the envelope that contains Lucinda's dizzying numbers. While he finds this interesting he finds it curious that a strange blonde man in a long, dark coat watches him in the distance and then disappears. Caleb lives with his father, MIT astrophysics professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) since his mother died which has brought them closer together. Yet it has also distanced John from any passion for his profession and finds him nursing away his sorrow with a bottle of booze each night. When John stumbles upon the numbers late one night, he notices they are not exactly random. He discovers a cypher system within the list that accurately depicts a series of dates, fatalities and cooridinates representing major disasters that have happened in the world in the last fifty years. This sounds remarkable enough until John finds out that three of the dates have yet to take place and are set in the near future.

John feels he has stumbled across these numbers for a reason yet he doesn't quite know what to do with this information. He shares this chilling data with a colleague (Ben Mendolsohn) who only becomes more worried for his already reclusive friend. While stuck in traffic on his way to pick up Caleb from school, he is alarmed by a set of familiar numbers on his GPS device which correlate to the location of the next disaster. This motivates him to get out of his vehicle to find out why traffic has stopped. Before John can find out anything, we see a giant 747 falling out of the rainy night toward the line of cars, plowing through power lines above and then crashing in a field on the other side of the highway. In a state of shock, John runs toward the wreckage amid torn debris and enflamed screaming people as he tries to help survivors. He is without any luck, the numbers predicted the exact amount of people that would die form this catastrophe.

Traumatized by this event, John becomes more determined to intervene and prevent more destruction from happening. Unfortunately, it's here that Nicolas Cage gets in the way of the film. No surprise there. At almost every illogical turn, Cage strays further away from a stunned professor and closer to the gaped-mouth, flashlight-swinging action hero viewers have come to know. There's no explanation why he leaves Caleb alone in the car to encounter identical strange men as he follows his numerical quest or how he thinks he can possibly prevent the next disaster. It's not the worst performance from Cage but if it makes you actually recast the lead while watching the film, well, that's a disaster right there.

Not even the addition of the usually delightful Rose Byrne as Diana, Lucinda's daughter, could add a redeeming factor to the film. She's just not given much to do except sob and scream as she and her daughter Abbey (Lara Robinson, who also plays Lucinda) team up with Cage and son. Cage's character's poor parenting must be contagious because we even find her leaving both children alone in a vehicle unattended. There appears to be no room for realistic responses or plausibility in this overwrought script which leaves the viewer as frustrated as Diana when she comes to the conclusion that they can't do much to prevent her mother's prophetic dates.

Of course, the writers must carry the responsibility as well. Their weak subplots and deep plot holes make what should be startling situations both laughable and predictable. For example, the origin and purpose of these strange "whisper men" (they are the source of the indecipherable whispers after all) remain a mystery which is inexcusable considering the impact they have throughout the film, especially the ending. I knew it was a bad sign when a revealing plot element at the end made me think, "Oh no. Not that". What a shame since the story did start out like some of the best X-Files episodes, examining philosophical themes like whether or not universal events are random or determined. But then it just seemed like substance suffered to weak dialogue and spectacular effects.

As expected, Proyas and his crew deliver the right suspenseful tone and some truly breathtaking visuals but it just doesn't have the same impact as his previous films. Even one of the most impressive large-scale subway derailments ever filmed is minimized by characters reacting unnaturally to crucial situations. I'll still follow the work of this talented director, but Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage will have to be put back on notice as one of the youngest actors to consistently phone it in. What started out as a very intriguing sci-fi thriller leaves the audience with that knowing feeling that they should have seen coming.

The Skinny:

  • Knowing was originally written by novelist Ryne Pearson, and the project was set up at Columbia Pictures.
  • Both Rod Lurie and Richard Kelly were attached as directors, but the film eventually went into turnaround.
  • The project was picked up by the production company Escape Artists, and the script was rewritten by Stiles White and Juliet Snowden.
  • Director Proyas was attached to direct the project in February 2005.
  • Summit Entertainment took on the responsibility to fully finance and distribute the film. Proyas and Hazeldine rewrote the draft for production, which began on March 25, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.
  • The director hoped to emulate The Exorcist in melding "realism with a fantastical premise".
  • The film is set in Boston, and to represent the city, filmmakers used Australian locations such as Geelong Ring Road, Melbourne Museum, Mount Macedon, and Collins Street. Filming also took place at Camberwell High School, which was converted into John Adams Elementary, set in Boston circa 1958.
  • Interior shots took place at the Australian Synchrotron to represent an observatory. Filming also took place at the Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts.
  • In addition to practical locations, filming also took place at the Melbourne Central City Studios in Docklands.
  • Proyas used a Red One digital camera, marking the film the first time the director used digital cameras. He sought to capture a gritty and realistic look to the film, and his approach involved a continuous two-minute take in which Cage's character sees a plane crash and attempts to rescue passengers. The take was an arduous task, taking two days to set up and two days to shoot. Proyas explained the goal, "I did that specifically to not let the artifice of visual effects and all the cuts and stuff we can do, get in the way of the emotion of the scene."

Interview with Proyas

Moving Pictures


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