05/04/2009. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper
Knowing uses ideas seemingly borrowed from The Mothman Prophecies but as a springboard to tell a larger, more engaging, and far grimmer story, says our Mark. A page of digits written by a schoolgirl in 1959 seems to list every major disaster up to the present and even a little way into the future. Nicolas Cage plays an MIT professor who does not believe in determinism, but is forced to accept that a girl in 1959 knew specific data about the next fifty years. And the implications will have world-wide impact. Still, the script balances ideas, action, tension, and even horror.
This is a major science fiction film that shows us some spectacular scenes of destruction but still maintains a narrow focus keeping it a personal film.
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Alex Proyas has directed some impressive films, including THE CROW and especially Dark City. That made it seem odd when (even) after a strange beginning Knowing settled into a retelling of Mark Pellington's 2002 The Mothman Prophecies. For the first hour this films seems to content to just be a remake of a film that was not that impressive to start with. During that hour he builds a feeling of dread much in the style of Pellington or of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. He takes an hour to build his characters and polish the tone. Then the pace picks up and he packs a lot more into this film. Like Quatermass And The Pit, it unifies a lot disparate ideas and phenomena in a way that they have not been associated before.
I wish I could say that I liked the film as much As Quatermass And The Pit, which I consider one of the greatest of science fiction films. This is a screenplay that had four different credited writers and each seem to have been contributing ideas until the film is just busting with them. I saw pieces from old "Outer Limits" episodes, From Mars Attacks, bits of When Worlds Collide, Deep Impact, and even Close Encounters. This is a film that takes world history and then unifies and reinterprets it. I like that kind of film, but I am just uncomfortable with the way it was unified. Proyas directs a screenplay written by two different pairs of writers. Perhaps that is why the film does not quite feel like it gels.
In 1959 a school class leaves a time capsule with children's pictures what they thought the world of 2009 would be like. One student, the one who suggested the time capsule in the first place, chooses instead to leave a page of what appear to be random digits.
Flash forward fifty years and the pictures are to be handed out to the current class. Caleb Koestler (played by Chandler Canterbury) is given the sheet of numbers. His father, John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), an astrophysics professor at MIT sees a familiar string on the page, 911012998. That expands to 9/11, 2001, 2998 killed. The paper is full of dates and death tolls of disasters that occurred in the fifty years that the sheet was buried. It even includes a few disasters that have not happened yet.
The script is an intelligent one and plays with concepts of free will, determinism, religion, predestination, and the accuracy of scientific prediction. How they get as much thought into a film that has so much action is a bit of a surprise. Still, there are problems with the writing. There are three disasters predicted, but all are in the course of three or four days. And each is within easy driving distance of where the Koestlers live. However this gives Proyas the chance to show us some spectacular disasters, but still keep this a sort of personal film, focusing on just a small number of characters.
I like the sheer quantity of ideas in this film, but I am not sure that they all fit so nicely together. I expect with some thought the flaws will seem less important and the audacity of the plot will win out. Even if you think you know where this film is going - and you may be right - that is just one of many places this film will take you. I expect that this film will be among the top ten science fiction films of the decade. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Possible (but unlikely) spoiler: This film takes place, apparently, in late 2009. That is possible, but the major event of the film would be much more likely to take place in the first half of 2012. Get ready for it.
Mark R. Leeper
(c) Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper
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