Monday, July 13, 2009

Is Knowing All That Bad?

I submit that it is not.

Famously, Roger Ebert appears to be the only major critic who not only praised Alex Proyas's film, but vigorously defended it. Having now seen the film for myself, I'm tempted to say that Ebert went a little far, but who cares? Knowing got slammed by pretty much everybody else, critics and public alike, though beyond a certain sappiness in the last chunk (said sappiness stemming from an implication of what will happen some years after the film has ended that is hard to not be a little put off by -- see the film and you'll know what I'm talking about) I cannot figure out what in the world is supposedly so bad about it.

The story is thrilling and mysterious, and kicks off in a very intriguing manner: fifty years ago, a young girl puts a piece of paper, on which she has written a series of numbers, into her class's time capsule, which is unearthed during the present day by a new class, and the student who ends up with the numbers is the son of a widowed atrophysics professor played by Nicolas Cage. Certain mind-boggling coincidences lead Cage to believe the numbers predict major disasters, culminating, he comes to believe, in the end of the world.

This is a science fiction disaster film, like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day, but it's distinguished from those two by not sucking, and by having a brain in its head and sense of conviction about its themes, among them being religious faith and the nature of the universe. It's an Apocalypse film that realizes that the Apocalypse -- religious or man-made or plain old shit luck -- is kind of a big deal.

Is that the problem so many people have with Knowing? That it's sincere? I'm inclined to think so. That's not to say that there is no room for legitimate criticism to be directed towards the film, but Ebert seems to have been the only guy to engage with the film seriously. Every other reference to the film I've seen has been casually brutal and dismissive. But Knowing, like Deep Impact, is genuinely interested in the implications of its story, and the Irwin Allens and Roland Emmerichs and Michael Bays are not. I honestly feel like that puts some people off. Also like Deep Impact, Knowing takes its disasters seriously, and doesn't treat them as eye candy, or even as things that can be stopped. Both films also attempt to deal with the grief and horror that follow. Popcorn films aren't supposed to make you feel bad.

I suggest that anyone who hasn't read Ebert's review, or his blog post, on this film do so. I'm not convinced that Proyas was as successful with this film as Ebert says, but Ebert has without question dug out what Proyas's intentions were, and nobody else seemed to care to do so. More importantly, though, give Knowing a chance. I don't claim that this is a great film, and I don't believe that every single person reading this is going to even like it that much. But I happen to think it's pretty good, and that it deserves a shot. Knowing is trying something.


Marilyn said...

Can you believe I haven't even heard about this film? I think the premise is interesting, but Cage kind of puts me off (though he can be very good when he wants to be). Does it use a lot of handheld? I think I'd like to see it.

I have noticed that sincerity is still not cool among the large movie-going public.

Ed Howard said...

As Marilyn hints at, I think more than anything it got shit on because it was perceived as another in a long line of unintentionally hilarious Cage performances. I know that's why I stayed away -- Cage can be good in the right movie but this looked to me like it was going to be a retread of his loony-bin Wicker Man performance. Which, fun as it was in its own odd way, isn't something I'm eager to go looking for again and again.

It also reminded me, from the trailers, of The Number 23, which was one of the more painful filmgoing experiences I've ever had, so...

But I did like Proyas' Dark City a lot, so I'm sure this couldn't be quite as bad as everyone other than Ebert has said.

bill r. said...

I almost can't quite believe you've never heard of the film, but I think it kind of died at the box office. Still, Ebert did go on and on about it, so I'd think you'd have at least run across it at his site.

No handheld that I can remember. There's one scene involving a plane crash that might have employed it, but I don't think so. That was more of a straight tracking shot as I recall.

I think Cage is good here. I think he makes a lot of really bad script choices, but I've always retained a fondness for the guy, because I feel like he's doing movies that he believes will be good, but then they're not. Anyway, he has a moment towards the end that I liked a lot, though my appreciation for it might have less to do with his performance and more with the fact that it's in the movie at all.

bill r. said...

Ed, this is so much better than The Wicker Man or, especially, The Number 23, which is really so much worse than The Wicker Man remake. Bad as that is, at least it was trying, while that Carrey movie was almost inconceivably wretched.

Really, give this movie a shot!

Marilyn said...

Believe it or not, I don't read Ebert every week. There's so much stuff to read I just give up sometimes.

Ed Howard said...

I'll have to give it a shot someday, Bill, the idea is interesting at least.

The Wicker Man remake actually would've been interesting to write about for the Ed Wood blogathon, now that I think about it. It was really earnestly trying to do *something*, though what exactly that was I couldn't tell you; some kind of vague commentary on feminism, maybe? I don't know, but that film was a crazy mess and full of all kinds of unintentional hilarity, especially as it approached its "ahh no not the bees!" climax. The sight of Cage in a bear costume running around punching out random women is not one I'll soon forget, for better or worse.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I haven't even had time to read your assessment yet, Bill (and maybe I won't before I see the movie), but just the fact that you're so mystified by the general critical response is good enough for me. NOW I will see this movie. There's certainly been enough movies whose lambasting has had me scratching my head over the past few years that when someone I trust raises a flag on a movie like Knowing, that's reason enough for me to check it out. Thanks for the recommend. Now I'll print your post out and read it after the film!

bill r. said...

Thanks for thinking so highly of my opinion, Dennis, but don't get your hopes up too much for my's pretty thin. You should read Ebert after you've seen the film, though.

Rick Olson said...

Bill, I think just the fact that Pariah Nick is in it poisoned the well.

Greg said...

I agree with Marilyn, there's so damn much to read anymore it's hard to keep up. Although I did read Ebert's review of this and it sounded to me like just the kind of cheesy thriller I would actually enjoy sitting through and then forgetting about immediately after.

bill r. said...

Ed - The Wicker Man remake is a shrine to bad instincts, and having no touch whatsoever with horror.

Rick, I do think that had something to do with it. No one's willing to give Cage a chance. And I can certainly understand it, up to a point, but come on...far worse and less interesting actors than Cage get less shit than he does.

Greg - That's the very reason I chose to watch it, though I also held out hope that there would be something worth while there. And there was.

Fox said...


I agree that Knowing isn't that bad, I just didn't think it was good. Truthfully, it was better than expected b/c I went in with such low expectations based on it's Metascore.

Also, I think people just really love to hate Nic Cage, which I don't get (unless I missed out on some horrible thing he did/said). He may not be the best, but I think he does a fine job in these kind of soft-action films, much in the way I found him enjoyable in something like Ghost Rider or Next.

bill r. said...

See, now, Ghost Rider I thought was terrible. And also Bangkok Dangerous (my wife believes they chose that title by picking two words at random from a hat. They were going to go with "Dangerous Bangkok", but then a marketing guru said "Naw, flip the words! It'll look wicked on the posters!"). But many of Cage's other recent films have been perfectly enjoyable time-wasters.

I do honestly think Knowing is more successful than that. It's more serious and more interesting in its intent, at least.

Fox said...

I thought Ghost Rider was silly enough for me to just sit back with. And, ok, I kinda got into the story of it.

Plus, I remember liking the cinematography.

But mostly it was because I used to turn into a skeleton from hell at night when I was in my early twenties, so I can kind of relate to it... y'know?

Word Verification: combed

Kevin J. Olson said...

I may be one of the few people here who actually likes Nicolas Cage. I thought his performance in The Weatherman was one of the best of 2005.

I would like to see Knowing because I know that with the right director, Cage can be good -- and I think Proyas' Dark City is a I'm willing to give the film a fair shake.

I stayed away from it in the theaters, because like Ed and others have stated, it looked too much like the awful The Number 23.

As for The Wicker Man: It's such a gloriously bad movie that I can't help but think some of it was intentional. I mean Neil Labute directed the thing (which explains a lot of the hatred and villifying of women in the film) and even for Cage the over acting seemed too much. The aforementioned "bees" line and the bear suit...the wonderful "How'd it get'd it get burned!" and of course pulling a gun on a girl and uttering the lines "step away from the bike."

It seems too bad to be real, but I suppose Cage and Labute could have just been collecting a paycheck. (And what the eff was Ellen Burstyn doing there?)

Your thoughts on Knowing seem to agree with the way I was going to approach the film were I to see it in the I know I will definitely be seeing this on Blu-Ray.

Great thoughts here as always.

Richard Bellamy said...

Your post is very well written and I totally agree with you because Knowing is one of my favorite films of the year so far.

Yes, it is very sincere. I has a heart - and you express that very well.

If you care to, please visit my post on the film back when I saw it three times in theaters: right here.

Tony Dayoub said...


This was a sold thriller from beginning to end. And I think you're right about it putting people off because it deals seriously with Armageddon. In this respect (and only in this respect because I don't mean to say it's as great as this film) it reminded me of Tolkan's The Rapture, where Mimi Rogers hears a voice (angel or God... I don't remember) warning her that the end was near, and sure enough the world ends at the conclusion of the film, which proved to be quite a shocker to those of us who thought she was nuts.

As for Nic Cage, I think people are way too hard on him, as they were on Rod Steiger as he got older. Sidney Lumet once told Robert Osborne that he'd much rather have a Steiger with an over-the-top acting style that he can then try to contain with his direction. With that type of actor, you'll always see the turmoil within. On the other hand with an actor who plays it too cool a director may never be able to raise his emotional level enough to get a good performance. I see that in Nic Cage, and his game does go up when he's got a strong director pointing the way.

Proyas has shown a lot of promise since he directed The Crow (certainly Dark City is a minor classic). And Cage is the most likable he's been in years in Knowing.