In the list of filmmakers packed with wasted potential, Alex Proyas has to be near the top. While Dark City sparkled with a kind of surreal sci-fi magic, his other efforts -- including the gloppy Will Smith epic I, Robot -- have felt strained and unrewarding. So when you see his name attached to the lasted Nicolas Cage effort (said actor himself a perfect example of the law of continued diminishing returns), one fears a flop coming on. But as luck would have it, Knowing is actually very good. It proves that Proyas is perhaps one mainstream mega-hit away from finally fulfilling his so far unrealized possibilities.
Fifty years ago, the students of a small Massachusetts school buried a time capsule filled with their drawings of the future. In 2009, it's opened, and what's inside will change the fate of MIT Professor John Koestler (Cage), his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), and the actual world as we know it. Seems the boy gets a weird list of numbers, scribbled by a troubled child five decades ago. Now, Koestler sees a pattern in the randomness -- they appear to be predicting cataclysmic events, providing the date and the actual number of casualties. Luckily, most of the tragedies have already occurred. Unfortunately, there are three remaining. With the help of Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby (Lara Robinson), our hero will try to understand the omens before life as we "know" it no longer exists. Article continues below
Knowing, while not without its faults, is a fascinating and brave entertainment. You haven't seen doom and gloom like this since Michael Tolkin delivered the actual Rapture. Proyas reconnects with his muse in a way that's quite wonderful throughout. The three main set-pieces -- a horrific plane crash, an equally brutal subway smash-up, and the frightening finale -- are all so skillfully rendered, so startling in their cinematic audacity that it's hard to imagine a studio giving them the greenlight. With an equally strong sonic backdrop to add to the chaos, these scenes play like newsreel footage filled out with actual visions of real-life death and destruction. For these moments alone, Knowing is worth your time.
Even Cage can't countermand Proyas' ability behind the lens. While much better here than in other recent paycheck parts (Bangkok Dangerous, Next), there are times when he feels out of sync with the rest of the movie. He's even upstaged by child actor Canterbury some of the time. But as the story moves along, as his character learns more and more about the fateful list, Cage comes around. He seems more comfortable in the reactive role, not having to put on the faux-heroics that the early parts of the film require. Proyas even helps out by keeping the cast small and insular.
Of course, there's a caveat. You can't make far-thinking, big-budget speculative spectacle without it. During the last 15 minutes, Knowing takes a turn so unique, so baffling in its believability yet obvious in its setup that you either go with it, or you don't. Your reaction to this plot point will be the make-or-break moment for you and this film. Buy it, and you're in for something wholly satisfying and special. Don't and you'll be twiddling your thumbs in Spielberg/War of the Worlds disbelief. Given all that's come before -- and it's some amazing moviemaking stuff -- it's a big risk for Proyas and his picture. Indeed, if the film's a hit, it will be the water cooler moment for the next few weeks.
Frankly, all of Knowing feels daring and deliberate, as if Proyas wanted to purposely undermine the expectations of the standard popcorn pandering. That it succeeds so well shows what this unsung artform hero is really made of.