Let's assume for the moment that there's such a thing as a hard line between "small, smart movies" and "big, dumb movies." Of course, we all know this isn't true -- just take a look at The Matrix (1999) for one example -- but this distinction will help me explain just how Alex Proyas's new Knowing doesn't work. It will also help simply because I don't want to give away the film's major plot turns and ending. (Although I'm afraid I may not have done such a good job of that; so if you're hoping to avoid spoilers -- even unintentionally implied ones -- please stop reading now.) OK, so let's assume that hardly anyone ever sets out to make a "big, dumb movie," except for maybe Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckhemier. Let's assume that Alex Proyas started out to make a small, smart movie, just like his great Dark City (1998).
Then let's assume that Nicolas Cage came on board, and since he was fresh from big, dumb hits like Ghost Rider and the National Treasure films, the producers begin to tailor it for him. It became bigger, with more plane crashes, car chases and explosions. But rather than becoming a comfortable hybrid between a small, smart movie and a big, dumb movie, Knowing became a horrible mutation, bulging out in all the wrong places, with unsightly scars where the butcher's knife had been. Now the movie's ideas no longer flow from one to the other; sometimes they make huge leaps and other times they just fizzle out. And the movie's big, dumb elements come in all the wrong places; they provide lots of anxiety but little relief.
The movie starts in 1959, when the students of an elementary school decide to bury a time capsule filled with drawings. One creepy little girl, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), covers her page with numbers. Fifty years later, Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury) gets the paper and his father, John (Cage), discovers it. John happens to be a professor, and he notices that some of the numbers coincide with the date 9/11/01 and the number of people killed on that day. He starts searching and discovers that all the numbers point to the dates of disasters and the exact number of victims. Of course, at the end of the list, there are three disasters left yet to occur; they all seem to occur within a few days of each other and the final one looks to be very, very big.
So John goes running off to the first two disasters, thinking he can somehow help. But here's the rub: he can't. At one point, he packs a gun, as if that tiny object could stop a falling plane or a speeding subway train. Moreover, he never even knows what he's supposed to be looking for. Terrorists? A suspicious van? Falling bombs? It makes you wonder why he dashed into the center of danger with no plan and no way of stopping anything. Other items seem to come to nothing; Caleb wears a hearing aid to help him focus (he's not deaf), and sometimes the hearing aid seems to pick up signals but sometimes the signals are picked up anyway, without it. And for some reason, creepy figures keep showing up outside the Koestler's home, even though they have no real reason to do so.
John eventually tracks down Lucinda's grown daughter, Diana (Rose Byrne) and little granddaughter (also played by Lara Robinson), in the hopes that they can help. They provide a few more clues, but perhaps even more dead ends. I imagine that, at some point, some screenwriter imagined a romance between John and Diana, but that doesn't materialize either. Then there's a plot thread in which John races to find the final few numbers that Lucinda scratched in a door, even though she managed to complete her piece of paper with the mysterious, backward letters "EE." One can only guess that these little ideas might have had some logical place in the narrative at some point before the chases and explosions pushed them out of whack, like inflating a balloon inside a wicker basket.Early in the film, John lectures his appreciative class on the difference between order and coincidence. Is there some purpose to life, or is everything just a series of random accidents? It's hugely problematic to make movies around the latter idea, since so many movies depend on achieving goals, making discoveries, learning lessons or at the very least finding beauty, hope or faith -- even more so if you're making a "big, dumb" movie. If a brave filmmaker decides to try something about coincidence and hopelessness, it would be a great deal more effective to make one of those "small, smart" movies to tackle a weighty issue. I've seen many small movies that find closure among the comfort of sadness and inevitability, but Knowing is not one of them. It's not smart enough to realize and accept its solution; it kicks and screams up until the final moment. After hurtling forward for more than two hours like a noisy avalanche, constantly lurching toward goals and solutions, the ending is one of profound disappointment and discomfort.