Nicolas Cage hasn’t been doing his best work lately, and I, Robot, Alex Proyas’s last film, suffered from meddling by the suits at 20th Century Fox. Throw in the unfortunately bland title of Knowing, and one could be forgiven for expecting perilously little out of the first collaboration between the prolific star and the science fiction visionary. Yet the film represents a return to form for both men. Cage turns down the quirks and gives an effectively put-upon lead performance, and Proyas keeps the picture moving briskly while injecting it with some deep rooted philosophical underpinnings.
The death of his wife crushed any faith MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) once had in destiny and fate, in the possibility of some larger design behind the everyday world. As the film begins, his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) comes home with a sheet of paper covered in numbers, given to him when his elementary school unearthed a time capsule buried under mysterious circumstances (depicted in a meticulously art designed prologue) 50 years earlier. John, after some initial skepticism, notices a pattern in the number scheme. He determines it to be a prophecy that predicts the date, coordinates and number of casualties of every major world disaster of the past five decades, and several yet to come, thereby testing his belief in the universe’s rationality.
The movie successfully operates on a base level and in deeper territory. It engenders enough suspense to work as a thriller, with the audience kept as in the dark as Koestler by the unexplained phenomena being shown. The screenplay, credited to Ryne Pearson, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, reveals its surprises deliberately which allows the prevalent sense of anxiety to build while the protagonist races to prevent an unpredictable disaster. Cage keeps things grounded on a human level even as the film veers towards metaphysical territory. He plays Koestler as a smart man, a portrait of focused energy, but not a superhero. The desperation in his quest is compounded by the repartee Cage builds with Canterbury; there’s real emotional depth to the father-son relationship built on the pain of feeling alone in the world.
A motif of decay pervades throughout the picture, manifested in the peeling paint and aging furniture that comprises the Koestler home and the general griminess afforded the Massachusetts setting. Proyas does not provide a picturesque look at Northeast scenery (the film was actually shot in Melbourne), instead investing the visual scheme in grim rainy days, dark forests and an atmosphere dripping with ominous signifiers. Twin action set pieces filled with death and destruction serve as focal points, each of which Proyas and director of photography Simon Duggan capture with an eye towards realism that defies the picture’s Hollywood trappings.
It’s given that this story could not take place amid rays of sunshine and idyll. But the filmmaker keeps the milieu rooted in gloom with such relentlessness that the audience is left desperate for some semblance of hope, which the narrative ultimately provides. It does so in a fashion best left unmentioned except to say that it’s the sort of ambitiously intriguing gesture that should provoke the thought and discussion usually reserved for the genre’s best works. The makers of Knowing risk the repulsion of a large segment of the audience by taking the picture in an ambiguous direction but such gambles are the stuff that great art is made of. While the film is not consistently complex or provocative enough to really earn that description, and I’m not sure all the plot details are sufficiently accounted for, the periodic overtures it makes towards greatness set it apart.