Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Knowing (2009)

Country: USA/UK

Knowing is an unusual big budget summer blockbuster. A disaster movie with a spiritual centre, well constructed plot, and a satisfying thematic cohesion. The success of the film at the box office is all the more surprising when one considers the talents in front of and behind the camera. After the surreal and gothic flair of the dystopian duo The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998) Egyptian direction Alex Proyas has largely been responsible for lukewarm and vapid entertainments such as I Robot (2004). Meanwhile the stock of Nicholas Cage continues to plummet with such recent forgettable dross as a remake of Bangkok Dangerous (2008) and the mindless action vehicle Next (2007). How he shapes up in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) remains one of the most intriguing propositions in recent cinema. Nevertheless despite such misfortunes Proyas and Cage somehow manage to pull off a thought provoking, literate and entertaining effects laden blockbuster that also holds one or two surprises.

Cage plays astrophysicist and lecturer John Koestler, a man wrestling with the responsibilities of being a single parent and coming to terms with the grief of being a widower. This is substantial material for an actor and by and large Cage pulls of the requisite tone of seriousness and doom and gloom. When his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) gains possession of a sheet covered in numbers from a time capsule buried in 1959, Koestler finds he has a lot more than just his son to contend with. In one of the films weaker scenes Koestler makes perplexing leaps of logic and determines that the numbers are in fact predictions of disastrous future events. This sets up a narrative in which Koestler then tries to pre-empt a number of cataclysms, ultimately without success. The first is by far the best. A daring sequence in which he witnesses a plane crash. The second in which a subway is the site of CGI disaster is less impressive. Like most disaster movies the actual carnage acts as a metaphor for the disastrous lives of the characters. Koestler is one such walking disaster, a staunch rationalist who has cut himself off from his priest father. So when he discovers that a solar flare is going to destroy humanity it is up to Koestler to make a final journey that takes him from rationalism to spiritualism. This at least offers closure for Koestler, and the destruction of the world is bitter-sweet because of the outcome of his journey.

The increasing religious and spiritual tone of the film might be off putting to some. But Proyas wisely avoids the usual symbolism that comes with it. The final plot twist which takes the film from the realm of the disaster movie into full blown science-fiction/fantasy for some might be the films most controversial moment. I’m sure Proyas could have ladled on the saccharine sweetness at the end, but he just about avoids this Spielbergian trap in favour of a more inscrutable note. Certainly this development sets the film apart from the strictly linear and unadventurous narratives we see in most blockbusters, and the filmmakers should be congratulated for some storytelling bravery. The apocalypse in Knowing is not the result of environmental or ecological concerns, but an unfortunate tragedy beyond our control. From a generic perspective this is another quality which separates Knowing from the majority of modern tales of apocalypse. The CGI effects are generally of a very high standard, with the final image of the earth engulfed in a wave of solar flames is both haunting and beautiful. A few pacing and dialogue issues aside Knowing is one of the best summer blockbusters to come along for quite a while.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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