Film review – Knowing (2009)

John Koestler (Nicholas Cage)
John Koestler (Nicholas Cage)

In 1959 a troubled young schoolgirl compulsively writes down a series of numbers, which is then buried in a time capsule. 50 years later, the time capsule is dug up and the series of numbers find their way to Astrophysicist Professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage). John believes that life is random and his explanation for why things happen the way they do is, “Shit just happens”. So it’s particularly startling for John when he starts to realise that the series of numbers includes the dates of various disasters plus the number of people who died in each disaster. How is John supposed to respond to the events that are yet to come? What happens when the numbers run out? Who are the mysterious guys who look like members of a 1980s New Romantic band who have been injected with Rutger Hauer’s DNA?

Knowing is one of the dumbest films audiences are likely to see this year. It is one of those films where 20 minutes in you have that sinking realisation that it is a dud but by the time it finally ends you are genuinely astounded by just how absurd it became. It is a horribly plodding film with over explanatory dialogue that assumes the audience are stupid and need every single detail spelled out. It would be very depressing if this type of filmmaking became a trend in order to cater to audiences who are only half watching a film because they are distracted by their Blackberries and visits to the candy bar.

KNOWINGThere are three main special effect sequences in Knowing and admittedly the first one is really impressive. It depicts a spectacular plan crash and it is a moment of real dread and grit. The other special effect scenes though, are so obviously created by computers that they resemble computer games. Even the plane crash scene goes just that little too long so you do notice the CGIed fire and you do feel that the film is a little too gleeful in its depiction of death and carnage.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that Australian director Alex Proyas was responsible for the brilliantly stylistic The Crow (1994) and the outstanding Dark City (1998). These were bold, original and hugely entertaining films but since then Proyas has done little of interest. I, Robot (2004) was quite good but forgettable, however Garage Days (2002) and now Knowing are very poor films. Nicholas Cage is also making it very hard for audiences to take him seriously as an actor. His work from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s was mostly extremely impressive but since then he has increasingly drifted towards giving hammy performances that come close to unintentional self-ridicule. Knowing is possibly his worst performance to date. Shot in Melbourne, Knowing also features several Australian actors in minor roles, including Rose Byrne and Ben Mendelsohn, but they have little opportunity to bring anything to redeem this film.


© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. In fact he really liked it saying it is, “among the best science-fiction films I’ve seen — frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome.” Read Roger Ebert’s full review here.

    I actually really like Ebert’s reviews as a rule and I have a lot of respect for him and what he has done for film criticism. He has also always championed Proyas’s Dark City, which is a film that I always felt didn’t get nearly the amount of recognition that it deserved. In fact, I preferred it to The Matrix at the time (there I go again, trying to stir up debate!)

    However, I was really surprised by Ebert’s very positive response to Knowing and the fact that anybody at all would respond positively to it. It just goes to show you that different people find different things within a film. He goes into even more detail in his blog entry (which contains spoilers).

    Go figure!

  2. Whilst I, like you, appreciate his contribution to film, I find he quite often misses the point of films. Take for example, his review of Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. I begin to wonder if we even saw the same film. He even mentioned in his review, as the film makes references to Pinocchio, that Geppetto, not Pinocchio, was the poignant figure in that film. I believe a “what the hell?” is in order here. Another film he completely missed the mark on to me is Australia. The first half of his review is spot on, and I agree with most of his thoughts, but near the end it transcends into supernatural stuff to do with the Aboriginal people that wasn’t in the film. Since when were they portrayed as telepaths?

    Any way, he’s not really one of my favourite reviewers, as we differ a lot on opinion and have generally different taste, though I do respect him. I also slot him into that big block of reviewers that just give everything two thumbs up if it’s “classic”, such as Casablanca or one of the many good-not-great films from that era that everybody instantly says is brilliant for fear of being stoned if they say otherwise. I’m sorry, but I really hate it when people do that. They’re called critics for a reason.

    Woah, massive tangent. Anyways, Nicholas Cage sucks. :/

  3. I think in his A.I.: Artificial Intelligence review Ebert is saying that all the allusions from Pinocchio exist to create sympathy for David by making him a Pinocchio like figure, even though in the original story our sympathies actually lie with Geppetto. It’s a reasonable point. Likewise, I think he raises some interesting issues with the mystical way that the Indigenous Australians were sometimes (not always, but sometimes) subtly portrayed in Australia. In neither case does Ebert focus of elements of the film that you (I’m assuming) or I would focus on but I do recognise his approach as valid and, to me anyway, very interesting.

    As for the way you feel about his response to the classics, it sounds like you are challenging the concept of film cannons (lists of films, created by polls or individual experts, that are regarded as “the best films”). There’s nothing wrong with challenging the films that appear on these lists, and many critics regularly do, but you do need to perhaps consider the fact that maybe you are the one missing something. There is a reason why a film like Casablanca, which was made over 60 years ago, is still so widely loved and praised. There were a lot of films made in that era that have vanished without a trace – there aren’t actually that many that by comparison are still remembered today.

    Over at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? they’ve created a list of the top 1000 films by compiling lists from a huge range of critics and polls, taking into account the many varied attitudes and responses to what truly makes a great film. Start with the top 300 list as I think you may be very interested in what films appear.

    Anyway, yes, massive tangent.

    Go easy on poor old Nicholas Cage. He has done some terrible films but he has also done great stuff including Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas, Bringing Out the Dead and Adaptation. Hell, I even list The Rock and Face/Off as two of my favourite guilty pleasures. Leaving Las Vegas is his real standout film so check that out before writing him off forever.

  4. The main issue I have with a film like Casablanca being considered as one of the greatest of all time is that it may have been at the time, but as the years go by, it is only really seen as great for nostalgic purposes. I think that the only reason people still know about it was because it was popular at the time. Yes, it is good, and it deserves to be remembered, but as one of the greatest films ever? I’ve seen many other films from that period that I think are better, but aren’t remembered for some reason. It’s like how people will probably only remember 2008 for things like The Dark Knight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best film of that year. Do you get what I mean? Popularity isn’t a measure of greatness.

    And yeah, I’ve seen the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? lists. Quite a good site, even if they do love L’Atalante for some reason unbeknownst to me. Yet another one of my controversial opinions. I tend to like their 21st Century list more than the others, as I agree with it more. Even if The School Of Rock is bizarrely high.

    I actually haven’t seen most of Cage’s “good” stuff. The only thing he was good in that I’ve seen is Matchstick Men – very under-seen film. Other than that – Ghost Rider? Sorry dude, you’re not 25 any more, we don’t need to see your wrinkly chest, thanks very much.

  5. We’ll have to agree to disagree on Casablanca then. I think it is timeless and still incredibly entertaining by today’s standards. I first saw it in the early ’90s and have re-watched it at least every 2 or 3 years since not for nostalgic purposes but because I love it. I love it for a variety of reason, including appreciating its significance and importance as a classical Hollywood film, but mainly because I simply get swept away by it. I really doubt something like The Dark Knight will have nearly the same amount of longevity but it is impossible to predict.

    Anyway, there is something ironic about debating what constitutes a classic in the comments for Knowing!

    Matchstick Men was OK I agree. Ghost Rider I enjoyed on a really basic level even though it was pretty dodgy. I think they actually CGIed a six-pack onto Cage’s stomach in one scene.

  6. To each their own, I guess. I apologise for the HUGE tangent. :/

    And they should have just cast someone else for Ghost Rider. I mean seriously, he didn’t pass as being that young in the beginning, and he’s just too old to do action films. I’m sorry, but there comes a time. He really should revert to doing, I don’t know, maybe GOOD films. Maybe all the fame has gone to his head. Maybe he’ll grow out of it. Hopefully.

  7. No worries – it was a good tangent!

    I think Cage has become a safe bet for studios to cast in certain roles knowing that he will attract a certain audience no matter how good or bad the film is. Perhaps he just isn’t that fussed anymore about what roles he picks. He’s done some great work in the past so now figures he no longer needs to prove himself. Or perhaps he simply can’t tell what will be good and what won’t. I recall hearing ages ago that Michael Caine took the attitude that he decided to remain a working actor, realised that he was a terrible judge of what was going to be a good film (he had turned down good stuff, accepted bad) so decided just to stay employed and say yes to everything. I don’t know how much of that is an exaggeration but you get the idea.

    But, yes, I would like to see Cage doing good work again and playing his age.

  8. Just to chime in; I think Nick Cage just likes to stay busy and make movies regardless of his hit and miss history. I enjoyed Bangkok Dangerous, a low budget Thai film he was in recently as an example.

  9. The 2008 version of Bangkok Dangerous that Cage was in was the USA remake of the original 1999 Thai version, although both films had the same directors.

  10. Guess the Director thought “I’m not going to dub this, I’ll just make a whole new English version.”

  11. Usually remakes occur simply so Hollywood can cash in on an idea that has worked well in another language. The majority of English-speaking audiences, especially Americans, won’t go to see films in other languages or films that contain references to other cultures (remember that only 50% of Americans have passports!) Hence, successful foreign language films get remade all the time. It’s been happening to European cinema for years and more recently it’s been happening to Asian cinema, especially Japanese and Korean horror. The 2008 remake of Bangkok Dangerous was unusual in that the studio who purchased the remake rights hired the directors (Danny and Oxide Pang) of the original 1999 film. No doubt the Pang Brothers were more than happy to get the chance to work on a major Hollywood production.

    Nevertheless there are other directors who have remade their own films. Alfred Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much (original 1934, remake 1956) because he felt that he didn’t know enough about the craft of filmmaking in 1934 to really do justice to the story. I’ve never seen the 1934 version but the 1956 really is fantastic and the general consensus is that it is the superior version. Michael Haneke remake his 1997 Austrian film Funny Games as Funny Games U.S. in 2007 so that more English speaking audiences (especially Americans) would see it. The Japanese director Hideo Nakata, who made the original Ringu, made both the Japanese sequel Ringu 2 in 1999 and the USA sequel The Ring Two in 2005 although both are completely different films so not really remakes at all. I’m sure there are more occurrences of directors remaking their own films but these are just the more interesting examples that spring to mind.

  12. Thanks for the details.

    I cant tell you how many times I’ve had to bite my tongue when I’ve recommended a fantastic movie only to be dismissed outright because “I dont do subtitles.”

    eh, their loss.

  13. I can’t argue with your summation, Thomas, though I think I enjoyed it a bit more than you. Mind you, I went in with low expectations.

    I think Dark City is Proyas’ best work (I haven’t seen The Crow), but everything since has aimed at a commercial audience.

    Not only does the CGI draw attention to itself – like the fire, when Cage’s character pulls the body from the window – but that sequence goes too long. How many times do we have to see a running and flailing body on fire? As if we’ve never seen that done before, and we get to see it 3-4 times in this sequence. But the start of the sequence was indeed grand.

    The film is at least 20 minutes too long. The end just drags out, and it’s not as if it has much to say that justifies it. After all, the film is so compromised for a commercial audience that it’s pretty much just fluff. That’s an observation rather than a criticism.

    One thing I’ll say in it’s defence is that the final message is something that is topical and I’ve been thinking about. It indirectly debunks global warming as a result of human activity. Really, all our industrialisation over a few centuries is a pin prick compared to the power of the sun. I liked that connection.

  14. Interesting theory on how the film indirectly attempts to debunk evidence about climate change being the result of human activity. That just makes me hate it even more. The idea that people really don’t have any control of their own destiny and are therefore accountability and responsibility free is something I find pretty repugnant. Then again, it is an idea that frequently makes for good science-fiction (although not in this case).

  15. Actually, it never makes any direct statement about human activity being or not being the cause of global warming. Rather, it’s my reading that solar activity is far greater a cause, at least potentially.

    Industrial activity is often, from an environmental perspective, akin to pissing in your own bath, but whether that’s causing global warming is an argument that has yet to be won. So, responsibility for our actions is (or should) always be there, regardless.

  16. Knowing certainly comes down on the side of solar activity but that was purely a plot device and not something I could take seriously.

    At least we agree that humanity has a responsibility to what happens to the planet.

    Again I note the irony that this incredibly disposable film has generated so much discussion!

  17. Hehe, that’s funny, isn’t it Thomas. You never can tell which post stimulates discussion…

    Mind you, I think you’re being a bit harsh on the film. I liked some of its themes but didn’t like other aspects. It’s OK.

  18. I want to to write about that most of all was pleasant in a film. Or rather about sombody.

    Image of star wanderer typed in my memory once and for all. It was remembered me his chiselled face, such manly and strong. His eyes – the most unfathomable that I’ve ever seen. He have eclipsed all other personage. It’s amazing how Daniel Maloney succeeded in depict sombre piercing coldness of space alien. Especially in the end, where lights and darks was passing over his face. Stranger was also irresistible when he were going away with weary steps, arrogantly and gracefully having turned his head. We have a lot of spectators who appreciated at its true value this image. I think it was not simple role. It has been played so skillfully, that often, when I leave the house, it’s seems to me, I will observe black tall figure in the crowd. Black but blond. As a symbol of good. I have understood from the film only one old true – don’t to know beforehand. To receive black mourning stones – needn’t too. If it is unique chance to see Stranger side by side – I would agree even to die. I am not afraid of the end of the world and absolutely don’t believe in it. I believe only in Maloney’s acting. Sooner I will believe that Stranger come into my life some day. Will be cool!!! So, perhaps, in film he called wrong: He is not the Stranger, he – The Dream.

    Cinema Autopsy edit: This review can be found in its entirety here

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