Earth's days are numbered and encumbered

March 20, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Knowing offers mumbo jumbo on an apocalyptic scale.

It's a thick, lumpy stew of devices from the sci-fi/fantasy mainstream and the lunatic fringe. The movie starts in 1959, with the packing and sealing of a grade-school time capsule, and jumps ahead to 2009, when the capsule is opened. As it recklessly mixes tropes from Chariots of the Gods, disaster movies and Steven Spielberg's space fantasies, it makes you feel as if you're witnessing That '70s Movie: The Doomsday Edition.

The director, Alex Proyas (I, Robot), delivers impressive blasts of destruction. During vehicular crashes and paranormal visitations, he scales the music, sound and light effects to deafening and blinding peaks. The movie's sensory overload, combined with its post-Sept. 11 paranoia about urban catastrophes and its confidence that audiences feel the Earth is all used up, will sweep up some viewers. Others are sure to resist its crackpot fervor for Armageddon.

Nicolas Cage plays MIT professor John Koestler, a widowed dad whose son, Caleb, begins hearing voices and seeing visions after he reads a letter from the time capsule. It contains a stream of numbers that John recognizes as the dates for every major disaster of the past half-century - and for a series of calamities yet to come. Cage has long ago proven why he's apt casting for pop fantasies. He usually does educated Everymen with just enough quirk to keep them interesting: They're part brainy superheroes and part sad sacks.

But Cage doesn't get to be the playful National Treasure problem-solver. Once John breaks the code, all he can do is try to convince colleagues and civic authorities of its increasingly dire prophecies. He must also convince Diana Wayland, the grown daughter of the girl who wrote the letter, that her mom's numerology makes sense. The plot links the destinies of Caleb and Diana's young daughter, Abby, and connects them to the fate of the Earth. Diana is a single parent, too, and Rose Byrne, who plays her, proves to be touching as well as tremulous.

But there's no time for romance, charm or comedy. The haunted characters in Knowing compete for the best graveyard looks.

Prophecy movies come with enormous pitfalls, and Knowing falls into every one of them. As each prediction fits into a larger picture, the melodrama gets reduced to connecting dots and filling in blanks. Director Proyas provides some brio to compensate for the broad strokes of a script by a pew of writers.

But Proyas also goes full-blast on mystical hokum. This film unfolds at a pitch of hysteria that links religious and scientific zealots alike. John may be a scientist, but his dad is a man of the cloth and his sister is named Grace. By the end, they share a vision of the Great Beyond. This film would be 10 times better if it had less bogus religiosity and more human grace.

Knowing ** ( 2 STARS)

(Summit Entertainment) Starring Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury. Directed by Alex Proyas. Rated PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language. Time 122 minutes.

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