'Knowing'

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If you're facing Armageddon in a movie, you want Bruce Willis or, even better, Will Smith as your hero. Yet Nicolas Cage, who seems better suited to treasure hunts, finds himself staring down the apocalypse in "Knowing." The miscasting doesn't end here: Director Alex Proyas resolutely thinks in B-movie terms. Even with an A-list budget, he oversells every plot point and gooses the thrills with hokey lighting, bombastic music and serious overacting.

"Knowing," which mixes sci-fi, horror and religious elements into an unstable stew, looks like it's headed for a flash opening this weekend for Summit Entertainment, then a steep decline into midnight cinema and home video. One thing's for sure: It's not forgettable. In fact, it might take a while for Cage to live down his line: "How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?" How indeed? Bummer.

The premise is undeniably intriguing, but you keep thinking: Where the hell is this heading? In 1959, in an overly prolonged sequence, a time capsule at a school dedication ceremony goes into the ground with a little girl's vision of the future, which consists of a page full of seemingly random numbers.

In 2009, the capsule gets hauled out of the ground, and that particular "message" is handed to Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), son of astrophysics professor John Koestler (Cage). Good thing Dad's not a plumber, you're thinking, but that's the point to a screenplay that is credited to various hands including the director, who in press notes gets an unusual "adapted" writing credit but not in the on-screen credits.

It seems Proyas wants to come down heavily on the side of "everything happens for a reason." John and Caleb are still in mourning over the death of their wife and mother in a hotel fire. As John slops down scotch late that night, he starts to parse the numbers and discovers they foretold every major human disaster over the past 50 years right down to the geographic coordinates.

Three more disasters remain, all within days of one another. The final one seems to prophesize a worldwide cataclysm. Caleb somehow is connected to the impending doom, as are the late messenger's daughter (Rose Byrne) and granddaughter (Lara Robinson, who plays both little girls). They all get caught up in a race against time to prevent disaster. But the story has left neither the characters nor the filmmakers any way to avoid catastrophe. Everything is going to happen on schedule no matter what Cage, dashing to the sites of two disasters, does.

Those disaster sequences catch Hollywood — in the broadest possible sense, since this film was largely shot in Australia — at its best and worst. The design and CG effects are terrific, but each is mind-numbingly stupid. In a plane crash, the jet plunges into the ground and goes up in a fireball. Moments later, Proyas has survivors wandering around, albeit many on fire. A subway disaster is so over the top that you can only shake your head.

Oddly, the movie has a few things going for it in the early stages. Filmed in and around the two-story Koestler family home, cinematographer Simon Duggan shoots in burnished tones that suggest a sad homeyness, a kind of refuge from the world. Father and son are severely damaged individuals. No one is going to believe any fantastic story they tell.

One almost could imagine that Dad, in a drunken stupor, came up with these Nostradamus-like prophecies. But no, the film is too literal-minded for that. Those ominous figures that lurk outside the house and follow the family everywhere are real — you figure out whether they're angels or devils. And you get a socko finish that has to be seen to be disbelieved.

Hokum is best served straight — not as a New Age cocktail with too many ingredients. Will Smith wouldn't have tolerated this. (partialdiff)
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