Knowing: …How Frightening It Feels To Be At The Scene of a Disaster
Alex Proyas’s newest film, Knowing, is far from perfect. To some degree, it squanders a fascinating concept by lacing the film with horror genre conventions and elements of the supernatural, making the film more familiar and not as thought-provoking as it might have been. However, the special effects work is so extraordinary and so frightening– I can’t think of any disaster sequences in films that have shaken me as much as these. I have no idea what the budget was for this film, but every cent of it was put to good use, and the effects aid the story and end up leaving the audience blown away by the film’s last five minutes, and a terrific ending will make an audience forgive most any flaws that came before.
John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is an astrophysics professor at MIT who, after the death of his wife, believes in the randomness of the universe rather than determinism. That all changes quickly when a time capsule from 50 years ago is opened, and his son finds in a sealed envelope a list of numbers that detail the major disasters of the last 50 years, including how many people die. The trailers and previews give away far more than I am willing to, but what do the rest of the numbers mean? What happens when the numbers run out? Are there numbers missing, and what do they mean? And who are these creepy blond men who keep showing up and haunting John’s son?
I think that most of you will know already if this is the type of film you’ll like, especially if you like Proyas’s previous films, The Crow, Dark City, or his last big-budget film, I, Robot. He is not afraid to take humanity and its future to uncomfortable places, and the disaster sequences in this film are horrifying. They manage to be graphic without being more than PG-13, no easy feat nowadays, and the CGI is seamless. There is a plane crash… imagine the plane crash from the opening sequence of the TV show Lost, but more terrifying, more death, and all documented with one long tracking shot. THIS is what Proyas can do, and it’s the turning point of the film– if you weren’t buying it up to that point, you’re hooked from that moment forward.
There are several things I didn’t like in the film. Up until the payoff to the supernatural and horror elements at the end, I found them to be distracting and cliches of the genre. You forgive Proyas at the end, but creepy whispering and little kids acting strangely are no longer frightening in films… especially in a film where there are SO many other terribly scary scenes. John’s son is portrayed by a young actor of limited emotional range as well, which is distracting when he has to cry– and in a film where so much relies on the father-son relationship, that hinders the ability of the film to succeed on the whole. Finally, the final supernatural twist at the end… what is there to say, really? You’ll love it or hate it. I think Proyas treats the events that transpire with appropriate awe (great acting by Cage in this scene, by the way), and there’s a slight cop-out, but it’s understandable– what happens in the last 5 minutes is so brave and so unsettling, one needs something at least mildly satisfying for the end in order to keep the audience from being suicidal upon exit. The audience I saw this film with left blown away by the choices made at the end— so perhaps Proyas struck just the right chord.
I’d actually be surprised if Knowing is a hit. It’s so unsettling in spots that it makes it hard to recommend to the casual viewer– it’s not the type of film where folks will be inclined to cheer for the special effects. On the contrary, the effects are laced with enormous dread, and when you think Proyas will pull the camera away, he leaves it there. The performances are fine, the script is flawed, but when it comes down to it, the direction of the big money sequences deliver on such a gut-wrenching level, especially at the end, you can’t help but be astounded at what you’ve seen. I can’t think of another film with disaster sequences that have worked on this level, which makes it absolutely worth seeing on the big screen.