The promise that Alex Proyas showed with 1998’s Dark City is only very sporadically evident in Knowing, the director’s second sci-fi saga (following the Will Smith vehicle I, Robot) headlined by a marquee star. In this case, that would be Nicolas Cage, whose mannered, loose-cannon antics are similarly spied only in random bursts, such as the Academy Award-winner’s early, trademark segue from sleepy, laconic speech to agitated, bug-eyed screaming.
Whereas a tempered Cage is one barely worth watching, Proyas thrives less with sound and fury—of which there is much, courtesy of deafening sound design that’ll only please Dolby technicians—than in moments of creeping dread.
That mood takes precedence at the outset, in which a 1959 elementary school student places a piece of paper covered in numbers inside a time capsule, where it’s received five decades later by the son (Chandler Canterbury) of Cage’s MIT professor John. Having abandoned God (and his pastor father) after the death of his wife, John now clings to a belief in the universe’s randomness, though his scrutiny of the strange numbers reveals a startling pattern of dates and coordinates of global disasters, including three that have yet to occur. Proyas’s foreboding tableaus of the time capsule being buried and unearthed, of a fiery vision of woodland apocalypse, and of Dark City-borrowed pale specters in trench coats emerging from the woods all boast an ominous symmetry in line with John’s worldview-readjusting discovery of life’s grand design.
However, after two strikingly cacophonous, visceral set pieces during which John fails to prevent fatal catastrophe, Knowing—already partaking in far too many stock genre plotlines and characterizations for its own good—begins liberally and clumsily borrowing from science fiction predecessors at a distressing rate. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, and, most directly, Signs (and its heavy-handed spiritual overtones) all factor into John’s emergence from his crisis of faith, with the film suffering from a derivative and patchwork second half that doesn’t satisfyingly follow through on its initially intriguing setup. Failing to engagingly integrate into the action the daughter (Rose Byrne) and granddaughter of the prophesying author of the numbers, as well as resorting to quasi-Adam and Eve doomsday mumbo jumbo and corny afterlife-reaffirming epiphanies, Proyas loses the thread of his bibilical Twilight Zone premise, eventually indulging in the type of unchecked cheesiness usually dispensed by his leading man.