In Pop Punishment, Louis Peitzman endures the most derided genre films, television, and literature, all for your sadistic pleasure.
I blame my love of three men for this one: Damon Lindelof, Roger Ebert, and Nicolas Cage.
Earlier this week, Lindelof tweeted, "Uh… Have you people seen the last five minutes of KNOWING? Good gravy, it is SPECTACTULAR. #THEOTHER115MINUTESWERENOT." Given the caps lock and the fact that I trust the Lost showrunner when it comes to finales — yeah, I'm one of those people who really dug "The End" — I figured Knowing might be worth a shot. Besides, I still remember Ebert's glowing review. "Knowing is among the best science fiction films I've seen," he wrote. "Frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome."
And then, of course, there's Nicolas Cage. He's a legitimately great actor — check out Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans if you don't believe me — but he also seems to get off on making terrible genre films. Cage has the Midas touch: he takes a turd of a movie and transforms it into … well, a gold-plated turd. (It's still shitty, but I don't feel embarrassed displaying it on my shelf.) I had no doubt that even if Knowing wasn't the masterpiece Ebert proclaimed it to be or even worth it for the Lindelof-approved ending, I'd get by on Cage alone.
That wasn't really the case, although there were plenty of great Cage moments scattered throughout. (My favorite: him yelling, "Hey! HEY!" at a man burning to death.) Cage plays John Koestler, an astrophysics professor (note: this is completely irrelevant) who discovers a series of number-based premonitions buried in a 50-year-old letter. I mean literally buried-the thing was stuffed into a time capsule that got dug up at his kid's school. John eventually realizes that the numbers predict the end of humankind, although it takes him a torturously long time to get there.
That's actually the problem with Knowing, a film that isn't nearly as innovative as it thinks it is. As John comes to understand that all the numbers stand for major worldwide tragedies-starting with September 11th, because that's not tacky at all-it's obvious what this is building to. You've got to roll your eyes when John misreads the last number as "33," because duh, that's way too low a death toll for the big finish. The "33" in question is actually the letters "EE." I guessed "earth's extinction," but it turns out they stand for "everyone else." Mine is better. The point is, once John and his sidekicks figure it out, the audience has long been in apocalypse flick mode.
All the obvious plot points that Knowing takes its time unraveling are meant to inspire gasps, but there really aren't any surprises. Is there ever any doubt that the mysterious beings communicating with John's son Caleb and the equally creepy moppet Abby are extraterrestrial? We know both these kids hear voices. We know Caleb is obsessed with life on other planets (because he tells us as much). We're all waiting for the spaceship to arrive and carry the young ones away, so it's not even a little bit shocking when it happens. Spoiler alert, I guess.
Since I've already ruined the movie, I might as well continue. The earth is destroyed. Totally wiped out. John dies in a fiery blaze while hugging his family. Now, that might sound like a surprise ending if you haven't seen Knowing, but everything in the film points in that direction. There is no suspense, because it's clear that all the bad shit the numbers predict will, in fact, happen. And once we learn what's going to wipe out the planet-solar flares!-it becomes an even more foregone conclusion. How do you solve a problem like the sun? You don't.
Maybe this is intentional. Knowing's central conflict is between determinism and random chance, so perhaps we're supposed to know what's coming and feel the characters' inability to stop it. That might have worked in a better film, particularly a less heavy-handed one. Here, it's all too spoon-fed, as evidenced by this actual line, spoken by Nicolas Cage to himself: "Why did I get this prediction if there's nothing I can do about it? How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?" There's little more depressing than the idea that we're helpless specks in the universe, but Knowing is so silly that the bleak message never sinks in.
There are other problems, naturally. Knowing does that annoying apocalypse movie thing where it straddles the line between science and religion: the aliens look like angels, John's dad is a priest, the kids end up in a sci-fi Garden of Eden, complete with Tree of Knowledge. It never really commits to it, though, because this isn't a film willing to take an actual stance. The moral, if there is one, is that knowledge is ultimately useless because there's so much we can't control. But hey, you knew that already.
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