The Night Out: Knowing (2009), or A Great Travesty

4 04 2009

Note: Before I begin, I would like to say quickly that I will still be writing a review for The Gods Must Be Crazy tomorrow. I had to postpone it for an urgent and angry rant about a film that I just sat through, and I am afraid that it cannot wait. Make no mistake, though: tomorrow I will be back on track!

Let me preface today’s article by saying that I place a lot of personal bias in my reviews. I don’t mean to be so myopic, and I’m sure that when most reviewers write about a film, they have every intention of trying to help people make up their mind on whether or not to watch a movie instead of waxing endlessly on subjects nobody cares about. I feel, though, that I am writing for a certain demographic of people, which is also the demographic I fall under: cinephiles. People who truly love the medium, people who feel that the motion picture is a wonderful and many splendored art form, people who are always looking for innovation, craftsmanship, and a mutual respect of the motion picture from the cast and crew involved in what we watch. As I said, I don’t mean to be an exclusive art snob, but this is my perspective, and I write for people who really love going to the movies. So, cinephiles, when I say that Knowing is quite possibly one of the biggest slaps in the face I have felt in a long time, I am not just talking out of my ass here.

We all know the concept. A time capsule is buried in front of a school in 1959 for children in the year 2009, full of pictures drawn by that year’s class that try to sum up each student’s own idea of what the future will be like . Well, time’s up, and so the class of 2009 open up the capsule and look at the drawings. Well, little Caleb Koestler receives the picture that little Lucinda Embry drew back in ’59. Oddly, though, it is not a picture at all, but a gigantic series of numbers that covers an entire sheet of paper. Curious, he brings it home to examine more intently. His dad discovers this, astrophysicist John Koestler, and, while upset that his son took a 50 year-old sheet of paper from the school, he is also curious about this mysterious time capsule letter. As he examines it, he notices an alarming pattern. The numbers are the dates of all the major disasters of the past 50 years from all around the world and how many people died in each of the incidents. Even more disturbing is the fact that there are still three incidents left on the paper that have not happened yet. Can this unassuming astrophysicist change the future and stop these things from happening? Does the writer of this paper, Lucinda Embry, hold the key to predicting the future? Surely, this won’t be a waste of everyone’s time in the end, right?

Knowing is a lackluster sci-fi thriller that could have been one of the best films of the decade. It is a travesty what was done with this material when one looks upon what it could have been. It was such a WASTE! I went into the theater not expecting much from a movie which prominently featured Nicolas Cage as a scientist (I’d believe Nick Nolte as a schoolboy before I believe Nic Cage teaching at MIT!), but after only a few moments I felt like perhaps this movie had a chance. The more I watched, the more I began to enjoy it. Despite an under-achieving cast, director Alex Proyas had created such a powerful mood, such an alarming presence with all of his prowess honed in on the concept that he performed the rare, nearly impossible feat of overriding a cast’s weak performance through the sheer power of the narrative. I was spell-bound by all the mysterious circumstances and I was really impressed with the concept of these prescient numbers, and it really had me wondering just what was going on in a world where death was predictable on such a large and accurate scale. The first half, perhaps even the first two-thirds of the film, were excellent, and just what I was hoping for from the excellent director of Dark City. But then tragedy struck. Without revealing too much, I will say that the movie seemed to betray itself with a finale so audacious, so unrepentantly inept, that my jaw literally dropped and I sat with my mouth open and my fist clenched for the last ten minutes. I felt a little betrayed as an audience member, as well, for being set up for what I thought might be something truly great and then had the rug pulled out from under me at the last minute. Truly disappointing.

It all comes down to a film explaining itself. Why does everybody feel the need to explain away odd occurrences? What is the point of magic if it can be explained? If it can be explained, then it can be harnessed, and it is no longer magic. Besides, what is wrong with leaving people to wonder? It is not a betrayal of trust to not answer every single question the audience has. On the contrary, the less that is explained, the more time a film has to explore the possibilities of structure, mood, tone, and concepts, and I think that is something that real fans of cinema would rather have than a nicely wrapped package of a plot.

By explaining such a complex plot full of unexplainable occurrences, one runs the risk of having to write an ending that is too unbelievable, too much to handle. This is precisely what happens here with Knowing. Because to tie all the threads of such a labyrinthine idea together, the knot at the end has to be extraordinarily large. And if that knot is too large, it becomes extremely unbelievable. And let me tell you, the knot that ties everything together at the climax of this film is planet-sized. The “ending” (I prefer to call it the wall, in reference to the place where they plowed the script into) was such a let-down that it actually invalidated the entire film for me. The merits that built the film up to that point had completely been erased in my mind, and all I was left with was a ticket stub for $8.75 worth of wasted time and the laughs I was receiving from my date for all the incredulous faces I was making.

Everyone knows how much I despise Nicolas Cage as an actor, and at this point he does not disappoint as much as he does deliver the expected eye-rolling performance. But it was not just him. Everyone was lackluster. I could not relate to a single person. Little Caleb, Lucinda Embry’s strange daughter and granddaughter, and John’s religious (aka psychologically disturbed) family left a bad taste in my mouth, and that was actually okay for a change. Alex Proyas is one of the most visionary directors of our generation, and whenever he sets his mind to something it can be truly something to behold. Here, he has us almost the whole way, and I want to applaud him for his amazing skill, but at the risk of talking in circles I’ll simply say that he did not fulfill this vision as well as he most certainly could have.

It’s a tragedy that it had to go down like this. I could have been singing praises and superlatives all day today. To paraphrase a movie with a more complete vision, this movie coulda had class, it coulda been a contender. It could have been something, instead of a dud, which is what it is, let’s face it. It was you, Proyas. I have wasted enough time on this waste of time. I give Knowing 1 missed opportunity out of 10. Stay away, cinephiles, if you don’t want your hopes crushed.

Tomorrow we will get back on track with The Gods Must Be Crazy! I promise!

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