Length: 130 min
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, D.G. Maloney, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Alan Hopgood
Director: Alex Proyas
Producers: over a dozen people, including Alex Proyas
Screenplay: seven people, including Alex Proyas
Knowing (released 3/20/09) stars Nicolas Cage, and no one else that I recognized. I think the casting director was told, "I don't care who they are, just make sure all the female actors have really sad faces — except the elderly teacher. She's going senile, so she can smile."
Happily, I like Cage as an actor, and have usually enjoyed his movies either passably (the National Treasure movies) or almost giddily (Raising Arizona, The Rock, World Trade Center, Con Air). So he was a draw to me, rather than a turn-off (i.e. starring Rufus Sewell and a cast of unknowns, or Bill Maher and a cast of unknowns).
In Knowing, however, Cage entertained me far less than usual. I think that is because his character, John Koestler, has withdrawn from life so completely that no point of connection is left. Koestler's wife died in a tragic accident, and it seems that most of Koestler died with her, leaving nothing but pain, anger and fear.
We share his pain as we watch him relate (or fail to relate) to his similarly somber, joyless son Caleb. Dad obviously loves his son, but all he shows him is pain and fear, and that from a distance. Neither father nor son smile much, nor laugh, joke, play — though they do both sign (Caleb has hearing problems) to each other that they will be together, forever.
This is a somber movie. It starts somberly in 1959, with sad-faced Lucinda Embry (played by Lara Robinson) portraying a girl who hears voices and is driven to write enigmatic numbers, as if by automatic writing. We feel that she will not have a happy life, and we're right. Then we join the unhappy Koestlers in 2009, and see how their unhappiness and little Lucinda's will join. We'll meet Lucinda's unhappy daughter, and her unhappy grandchild (same actress).
Sound like fun?
I wouldn't say "fun," but still I was glad to see it, and do recommend it — just know what you're going to see. This is a serious, thoughtful, complex piece of science fiction. It raises questions of determinism and the significance of choices we make. It doesn't hurry in unfolding its premise, and I think most of the negative critics simply grew impatient. But I'd very much enjoyed producer/director/cowriter Alex Proyas' earlier Dark City (1998; except for the unfortunate casting of Rufus Sewell in the lead), and was willing to stick with it. It was worth it.
What worked for me. The special effects were amazing. They weren't all over the place, but what was there was state of the art. There are three set-pieces in particular that were literally breath-taking to me. I want to re-see the movie (on DVD, probably) just to see if I saw what I really saw, to see whether some scenes were one-take continuous shots as I think they were.
Also, at a couple of places I had this dread that the movie was going to sink to boilerplate, kneejerk, de rigeur political correctness and Christianity-bashing. Wrong on both. It did neither.
In fact, arguably, the movie was remarkably Christianity-friendly. There is a bit of ambiguity here, which I'll address in the next section. But a passage from the Bible plays a significant part, a pastor plays a significant and sympathetic part, and a van with (I think - it's a brief view) John 14:6 is featured prominently and pointedly.
What didn't work for me. I had to analyze afterwards why I didn't come out happy and "Wow"-ing and wanting to see it again right away. There was so much to like about the movie, so why didn't it write itself on my favorite-movie list?
My conclusion is that it was Cage's character. Cage is a capable actor; I don't know whether a better actor (Ewan MacGregor?) could have done better with it. I think not. He was drawn very one-dimensionally. He should just have worn a T-shirt that said "I'm totally withdrawn from the world!!!" and gotten on with it. So, in a way, it worked — I felt no connection to him. I didn't care as I should have, and so the finale didn't have the emotional impact it could have. Particularly as a father, I found his distance off-putting. (Also, in one rant, Cage sounded exactly like his character in the National Treasure movies, and that yanked me out of the moment.)
Out of four stars, I'd award three.
Why is it PG-13? I recall one bad word, the tone is intense, and there are some catastrophes with individual impact shown.
Don't read the next part if you haven't seen the movie.
Here are some thoughts, themes, questions.
The movie really messes around with some Biblical themes, and does so in (as I take it) a respectful way. Prophetic warnings are imparted by alien (angelic?) beings. Elect are chosen. Only they hear and respond to the call. At the final moment, the angels go to the four corners of the earth and catch up the elect before final judgment falls.
So, there are overt or implied allusions to Ezekiel 1, Matthew 24:31, and John 14:6. The estranged son reconciles himself to his pastor-father, affirms a new faith in the afterlife....
Now, there is no preached Gospel, though the Gospel is present in the van with (if I read it right) John 14:6. There's no extended talk about God, no overt backdrop that the disaster is judgment for sin. But (unlike the vastly-inferior Day the Earth Stood Still) there's no preachy nonsense about global warming.
Are they aliens, or angels? Clearly the movie suggests that they are angels. The human guises are dropped, replaced by awesome, glowing beings with suggestions of wings. Are they in space-crafts, or angelic conveyances like the chariots we read of? Are the writers purveying "Chariots of the Gods" Bible-rewriting nonsense, or is this a Bible-affirming discussion piece?
In other words, are they saying "What the Bible calls 'angels' are really aliens," or "What people call 'aliens' are really angels"? The movie is light-handed and designedly enigmatic enough to leave this open.
UPDATE: read a BibChr interview with screenwriter Ryne Pearson here.