Knowing (2009): Nicolas Cage knowing he’s in a bad movie
This review contains spoilers!
For a while there, we seemed to be getting a lot of movies about the end of the world, probably inspired by all those off-the-wall theories about what was supposedly going to go down in 2012. Director Alex Proyas throws his own silly apocalyptic scenario into the mix with 2009’s Knowing. The film starts out like a supernatural horror flick, then veers sharply towards ludicrous sci-fi. This catches everyone off-guard except for our hapless star Nicolas Cage, who spends the entire film looking barely interested in all the carnage and pyrotechnics going off around him.
We begin in 1959, as a small town opens a brand new elementary school. To mark the occasion, a time capsule is buried, with all of the students being asked to contribute drawings of what they imagine the future will look like in 50 years. But one girl named Lucinda Embry (Laura Robinson) isn’t quite like the other children. She hears voices whispering in her head, and instead of a drawing, she scrawls out a long list of numbers.
The movie flashes forward to the year 2009, as we meet MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) and his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) as they look at the night sky through a telescope and wonder if we’re alone in the universe (foreshadowing!). John makes it plainly obvious that he’s pessimistic about life on other planets, as well as life in general, mostly due to the fact that his wife died in a hotel fire several years ago.
We then learn that Caleb is a student at the same elementary school seen in the prologue, which is now preparing to unearth the time capsule buried in 1959. All the drawings inside are handed out to the students, and no surprise, Lucinda’s list of numbers is given to Caleb.
Caleb is intrigued by the numbers, and shows them to his father. At first, John thinks nothing of it, but a little later on, after he’s had a bit too much to drink, he notices a sequence of familiar numbers on the paper: 911012996. After mucking around on a whiteboard, he realizes this stands for 9/11/01, with 2,996 corresponding to the number of people who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11. He begins studying the list of numbers, pulling out even more dates that correspond to past tragedies. John soon realizes that Lucinda accurately predicted every high-profile disaster of the last fifty years (including the fire that killed his wife).
John shows the list to a colleague, who suggests it’s all coincidence, especially since there are other numbers on the paper that John can’t account for. But if the numbers are right, they predict some sort of terrible event taking place the very next day. John stays up all night watching the news, waiting to see if anything happens, but eventually he falls asleep and gets woken up by a phone call from his son asking to being picked up from school.
John hurries to pick him up, but gets stuck in traffic that’s come to standstill. While looking for an alternate route on his navigation system, he sees his current GPS coordinates, which turn out to also be on Lucinda’s list. It seems the mystery numbers are actually the latitude and longitude of the disasters, and John just so happens to be at ground zero of whatever awful thing is about to occur.
Moments later, a plane crashes behind him, tearing through the cars on the highway. John narrowly escapes death, and in a long, unbroken take, he races into the wreckage and tries to help the survivors. It’s a pretty intense sequence, or rather, it would be, if not for some odd editing choices and how the “flames” coming out of the plane are clearly CGI. But predictably, it turns out the plane crash killed the exact number of people predicted on the list.
A bit shaken, John leaves his son with his sister in an attempt to stop the next disaster on the list. He sees the coordinates correspond to an intersection in lower Manhattan, and so he heads to New York to try to stop what he believes is going to be another terrorist attack. Instead, he ends up getting caught in a subway train derailment and again narrowly escaping death.
While John is distracted by the mounting fatalities, his son begins to experience strange things too. Caleb starts to hear the same whispering voices in his head that Lucinda heard. At one point, a car pulls up in front of the house and the men inside hand him a small black rock. Later, they appear in his bedroom at night and show him a vision of the world burning.
Once John realizes he can’t stop the disasters, he decides to do some research on Lucinda herself. After speaking to her former teacher, he finds out she killed herself many years ago, but she has a daughter living nearby. Father and son trail Lucinda’s daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and Diana’s daughter Abby (Laura Robinson) to a local museum. Inside, Caleb instantly begins to bond with Abby, while John tries to get information from Diana.
Obviously spooked by his questions, Diana flees with Abby, but returns to John’s home a few days later to talk about her mother. She takes everyone to her mother’s old mobile home, where conveniently, all of her mother’s belongings and furniture have been sitting around undisturbed for roughly twenty years. Here, they realize that the last two numbers on the paper, 33, are actually a backwards “EE”, which stands for the death of “everyone else”.
And then they find another drawing that inspires John to do a little investigating over at the university. And out of nowhere, he immediately figures out that doomsday is upon us: the sun is about to shoot out a massive flare that’s going to destroy the ozone layer and set the surface of the planet ablaze.
Initially, the group heads towards some caves, which they think will keep them safe. But then John suddenly remembers something Lucinda’s teacher told him, about Lucinda scratching more numbers into a closet door at the school. And so, they head to the school, where John removes the door and takes it home to strip off the paint and see what the remaining numbers are.
Diana begins to get hysterical, and doesn’t want to wait around for whatever he finds. She takes off with the children, while John sands down the door and sees the last numbers correspond to the location of Lucinda’s mobile home. Strangely, he decides this is the only place they’ll be safe. Up until now, the coordinates have always been the precise location of the disaster, but somehow, John knows that these particular coordinates are their only hope of survival.
Eventually, he notices that Diana drove off with the kids and goes after them. Diana stops to get gas, where those strange men from earlier steal her car with the kids inside. As she commandeers somebody else’s car to give chase, she gets into a spectacular wreck and dies.
John sees Diana die in the back of an ambulance, and then decides to head to those coordinates on his own. There, he finds Caleb and Abby safe and sound, and both of them are holding rabbits for some reason. The strange men are here, and they communicate telepathically with the kids, asking them to board a spaceship that suddenly appears above them. It seems they’re planning to take them somewhere else so the human race can start all over again, but only the children who heard the call get to survive.
The strange men dissolve their human forms and reveal themselves to be giant translucent aliens with angel-like wings (subtlety!). John comes to terms with the (completely unexplained) fact that he can’t go along, and sees his son off as bravely as possible. He then goes back to New York where he can make peace with his parents and die gracefully with his family.
And just for good measure, we get one last special effects extravaganza where New York, and eventually the entire surface of the earth disintegrates in a massive fireball. The final shot is of the kids and their bunnies being deposited on a strange new world to apparently fend for themselves.
Knowing is made up of a lot of interesting ideas that weren’t executed very well. But I will say that the first hour of the movie totally throws itself into its ridiculous concept, and if the whole movie had stayed at this level, Knowing might have ended up as a dumb-yet-fun piece of entertainment. But after the subway train derailment, the movie completely runs out of steam. As you might guess from the plot synopsis above, the last 45 minutes seem to be nothing but our leads driving back and forth between the school, the house, the mobile home, and a couple of other places, apparently just to pad out the runtime. It seems like a lot of the splitting up, meeting back up, then splitting up again could have easily been cut out (thought we might have been left with an hour-long movie).
The performances here are mostly stiff and low on energy. Nicolas Cage only gives us a couple of his trademark over-the-top moments, and seems half-asleep the rest of the time. I realize he has to take these kind of gigs thanks to his current financial situation, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for a total lack of effort. As for his fellow castmates, Rose Byrne tries a bit harder, but it appears that hiring her and Cage completely exhausted the budget, because the rest of the cast is populated with far too many awkward amateurs.
The story has a lot of loose ends that don’t get tied up. The aliens can apparently see the future and they can see that our world is doomed. So what’s the point of telepathically sending a list of dates if nothing can be done to stop the disasters or prevent the end of the world? And why does John end up being right in the middle of that initial plane crash? It seems like the aliens wanted him to witness it, but why? They weren’t going to save him anyway.
Then there’s the constant appearance of black rocks, which never seems to have a point. The aliens give Caleb a black rock, and John finds a pile of black rocks at Lucinda’s mobile home. And when the alien spaceship takes off, the ground is covered in black rocks that hover in mid-air, but we never find out why any of this is important.
Also, why do the aliens drive the children insane with cryptic whispering rather than just telling them what’s going on? Clearly, they can communicate with them, but all they do is send out a distressful sequence of numbers and alarming images. Why not just say, “Hey, we’re aliens and we’re here to save you”? If they can figure out how to drive a car, surely the aliens can master having a conversation with children.
At one point, the aliens command Caleb to write his own list of numbers. But Lucinda’s list supposedly contains every disaster that happened in the last 50 years, including the disaster that destroys the entire planet. So what are the numbers Caleb is writing down? A list of disasters set to happen on his new planet? And why does John then snap him out of his number-writing trance and act like this list is of no consequence? It just seems like one of many “creepy for the sake of being creepy” scenes that populate this movie that ultimately add up to nothing.
The film’s high concept ends up being nothing more than an excuse for people to run around frantically and witness explosions and mass destruction at every turn. That kind of movie could have been fun, but Knowing has no idea how to stretch its flimsy plot to keep us interested for an entire two hours. If there’s any good that can come from this movie, it’s that it can serve as a warning to stay far away from the Left Behind remake due out this fall, also starring Nicolas Cage, which looks to be exactly the same movie—and exactly as awful.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]