Synopsis: In 1958, as part of the dedication ceremony for a new elementary school, a group of students is asked to draw pictures to be stored in a time capsule. But one mysterious girl fills her sheet of paper with rows of apparently random numbers instead. 50 years later, a new generation of students examines the capsule's contents and the girls' cryptic message ends up in the hands of a professor (Nicolas Cage), who discovers the document's true meaning.
Mystical Numbers, The Rapture, Rabbits, Aliens…a Nicholas Cage movie, right?
It is 1959. A schoolgirl, her head whirring with numbers whispered to her from an unknown source, commits to paper a seemingly random collection of digits. Her unusual work forms part of the school’s time capsule exercise, and it is sealed with her classmates’ visions of the future. As the capsule is committed to the ground, a white-haired figure watches from the woods…
It is a very cool opening. Australian director Alex Proyas successfully sets the tone with this X-Files-like pre-credit prologue, in one of his all-too-rare Hollywood films (his last was 2004’s I, Robot).
The story skips ahead 50 years to the opening of the time capsule, and the piece of paper ends up with schoolboy Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), the young son of MIT professor John Koestler (Nicholas Cage). Caleb brings the unusual document home, where John, on the back-end of some heavy liquor, becomes obsessed with the pattern of numbers. He soon discovers they are not random numerals, but perfectly-prophetic dates, fatalities and GPS co-ordinates, which point to the worst disasters to befall mankind in the last half-century. And there’s only three dates left…
Then it gets weird. The fair-haired ‘Whisper People’ make regular appearances (for anyone familiar with alien abduction lore, the story falls into place immediately); John tries to warn the authorities about the impending tragedies, sort of, though I would make more of an effort than an anonymous call from a public phone and yelling at a police officer in the street. A lovely young mother, Diana (Rose Byrne), gets roped into John’s escalating sense of panic because her mother was the little girl from 50 years ago.
Proyas fills the frame of his doom-and-gloom epic splendidly: A grainy palette invokes the memory of the 1950s; a softer, gentler warmth for the scenes of family; an ephemeral, deliberately hard-to-define focus for the Whisper People. Proyas, utilising the very best Australian filmmaking craftspeople (he shot the film in Victoria), creates one magnificently horrible set-piece –- a plane crash that brings to life the immensity of the numbers that John has in his possession.
Yet it fails to gel satisfyingly. The casting of Nicholas Cage was the first warning things could get strange. His list of films over the last few years reads like a list of ‘Silliest Hollywood Blockbusters’: the yet-to-be-released Bangkok Dangerous, Lee Tamahori’s Next, Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man, the two National Treasure films and, worst of all, the unwatchable Ghost Rider. He isn’t usually the \'Go-to guy\' for the role of caring father figure (remember Raising Arizona?) so his casting here is questionable. His manic stare, propensity for moody rage and hulking gait wouldn’t be the most soothing influence on his young son’s supernaturally-traumatic life.
Knowing is also an unremittingly bleak film. Rose Byrne’s usually luminous presence is extinguished, her role little more than shrieking, panicky offsider; Proyas, a master of dark but palatable sci-fi such as I, Robot and Dark City, becomes mired in the mood of impending doom, never lightening-up enough to acknowledge the B-movie origins of his concept. The sense of pretense and self-importance with which Proyas imbues his hokey premise is reminiscent of the increasingly-insufferable arrogance displayed by his contemporary M. Night Shyamalan.
Proyas throws everything at the screen in the last half hour - a flurry of better-movie references, a barrage of apocalyptic special effects and a laughable Old Testament-inspired ending, which I think suggested rabbits will teach us how to love again (don’t ask…). Knowing is an impressive visual feast in parts, but lumbers along under its convoluted, mish-mash of a plot. It’s a folly and a failure, but an intriguing one – an ambitious vision from a tremendous filmmaker that, sadly, had too much going on with not enough to say.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.