Numbers. There are only 10 of them, but, man, they can cause so much trouble. Once they get together in combinations, suddenly they're all about being something: an address; a minute too late; the colossal budget of a dud film; telephone numbers that annoyingly disconnect; the temperature of the sun; the mark of the Beast; and the precise time and place the world will end.
Alex Proyas' new apocalyptic thriller encompasses all those numbers and more. What's lacking is a quality harder to quantify: logic. That makes Knowing an intermittently entertaining swirl of poorly defined characters, half-baked ideas, in-your-face special effects and yes, numbers -- all in search of a coherent solution.
A few key numbers:
1959: when the story begins. A weird little schoolgirl drops a page of numbers into her elementary school's time capsule. (The assignment -- hint, hint -- is to draw a vision of the future.)
2009: the year a weird little schoolboy -- he hears voices through his hearing aid and gets strange visions -- retrieves this page from the now-opened capsule. He leaves it on the kitchen table, where his gloomy MIT astrophysicist/widower dad, John (Nicolas Cage), places a wet drink on it, highlighting this sequence ...
0911012996: the number that transforms John from skeptic to doomsday-predicting numerologist when he sees "Sept. 11, 2001, 2,996 dead." The other numbers on the page prove to be the dates and body counts of other disasters since 1959, except ...
3: sets of numbers which are calamities due to happen in the next couple of days! Leading to ...
2: number of Cage's eyes, the frantic distention of which, combined with jaw-dropping and shouting, demonstrates his commitment to this boiled ham of role. ("How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?!")
60: approximate number of minutes before this two-hour film goes decidedly off the deep end. Professional courtesy prevents me from giving away too much, but the stapling together of various disparate subplots and philosophies really begins to strain credulity.
Proyas clearly hoped to make a thriller buttressed with some thought. That's why we sit through a lecture from Professor John on determinism vs. coincidence. In essence, the big question shouldn't be whether these disaster numbers are inevitable truths or coincidental match-ups to randomly occurring events. The question should be how humans make this distinction.
The film flirts with a variety of tactics for assigning order to the confounding universe. Some are internal answers such as: Christianity (in hard, soft and kee-razy versions); being emotionally altered by huge events; or suspecting that our world is being stage-managed by ... um ... forces beyond our ozone layer.
But man, as we see in Knowing, also acts to impose control on the unknown -- by adding extra police security, for example. Or by filling a page with crazy numbers, or running around screaming at people that the world is ending in five minutes. A few characters take the long view: The religious put it all in God's hands, and John's kid starts palling around with mysterious supernatural dudes, who appear to be members of a stylish New-Wave band.
These salves to our macro-anxieties are interesting ideas to kick around, especially now when there's little consensus between secular shit-happens folks and those who see the Book of Revelation coming to pass every time the Fed lowers interest rates.
But Knowing gets its story in a big muddle (I'm still not sure why it all happened the way it did), and gives us stock characters whose illogical behavior is papered over by the hurtling plot. Proyas, who successfully managed heady B-movies such as The Crow and Dark City, seems to save most of his creative energy for two horrifying set pieces, both involving mass-transit crashes, that are best tagged "disaster porn." (Want to experience the sight and sound of bodies slamming into the front window of a runaway subway train?)
I also think Knowing drops the ball by siding unequivocally with John and his Magical All-Seeing Numbers, particularly in a movie that acknowledges so many conflicting viewpoints. There would have been more intrigue if the viewers had to sort out whether John was a brilliant left-field visionary, or simply nuts.
I don't have a cute set of numbers predicting it, but I can tell you that Knowing culminates in a really, really bad ending. Bad as in cheesy, dreadfully acted, head-scratching (is that a bunny?), silly-looking ... The scene is supposed to be uplifting, but all it really did was move this maddeningly mixed-up movie into the canon of Bad But Kinda Fun.
- And you thought long division was bad: Nicolas Cage works the numbers.