Alex Proyas has probably directed some of your favorite films, yet you don’t know his name. His filmography is confounding: The cult-hit The Crow (1994), Dark City (1998, the visual forerunner to The Matrix), and the Will Smith blockbuster I, Robot (2004). Proyas also directed Knowing (2009), the Nicolas Cage prophecy/disaster film at which you likely laughed. “Great, another Nicolas Cage feature on the heels of such beloved films as Bangkok Dangerous and that National Treasure sequel.” Yet Cage and Proyas deliver a grounded sci-fi disaster movie unlike anything we’ve seen, and though it isn’t perfect, it’s a refreshing sci-fi narrative.
Nicolas Cage plays the recently widowed John Koestler, an MIT astrophysicist and father of the slightly hearing impaired Caleb Koestler. Caleb is given a letter from a fifty year-old time capsule, which contains a mysterious string of numbers that become an enigma for both father and son.
Surprise, surprise, the numbers offer details on upcoming disasters, and though the prophecy angle seems appropriately silly in most films, Knowing is able to invest you in the numeric mystery by stressing the tragedy of the accidents. When John finds himself at the location of an airplane crash, Proyas, cinematographer Simon Duggan and an extensive special effects team (blending practical and CGI effects adroitly) offer a three-minute long take into hell, as John tries to smother flames consuming burn victims, avoid intermittent explosions, and pull people from the wreckage.
All of Roland Emmerich’s disaster-porn films (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) feature tons of property damage, but little insight into the impact on humans.* Instead they opt for wide far-away shots with the occasional nondescript crowd running away from flames/weather/water. The disasters in Knowing are a reminder that the true horror isn’t in buildings being toppled, but the screams of people crushed or the cries in the rubble. Proyas focuses not on the event, but what the event does to the people, evoking a proper, compassionate, reaction: Horror, grief, and sympathy.
In tapping into the human tragedies of these events, the hokey prophecies suddenly take on enough importance to propel the film, even if the occasional piece of dialogue or acting falters. Proyas’ alternation between traditional camera shots (static tripod, dolly, or steadicam) and handheld adds a compelling visual touch, alongside slight editing maneuvers that give it personality. Topped off by Marc Beltrami’s ominous score of strings and bells (and a dash of Beethoven’s 7th), Knowing is a great dramatic sci-fi/prophecy disaster film.
MAJOR SPOILERS, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
Quite a few people (judging by the film’s imdb message board) found the film’s sci-fi/theology blending in the final act a huge turn off, but I had no complaints. On the atheist end, folks are yelling at Christian viewers that the mystery people were aliens, not angels. For a bunch of viewers who are all about being open minded, seeing aliens as the source of all of human theology is an intriguing premise, especially for a $50 million sci-fi thriller, so I don’t understand the rub. This aspect is indeed one of the film’s weaker points, but it doesn’t put Knowing into a tailspin.
Also worth noting: The final wide shots of Earth being toasted as the sun strikes the planet is given a whole new emotional context with the previous tragedies displayed on the ground and it’s flawlessly executed. This time when buildings crumble and fires swallow city blocks, Roland Emmerich-distanced we are not.
I had few expectations of Knowing, other than being told there was “a cool part at the end.” But even leading up to that ending, it’s a good piece of sci-fi I would recommend to anyone for the way it treats disasters alone. There are several other golden moments not documented here, thanks to the script and mature directing, so check it out.** It may not be the best sci-fi flick you’ll see, but it plays a good hand and it’s not something you’ve seen before.
*Kind of like capitalism’s priorities = property over people.
**The film also thankfully, avoids the annoying “movie logic” that too often has you screaming at the screen for the sake of creating false tension.