Friday, June 26, 2009
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Alex Proyas
Runtime: 121 min.
Genre: Sci-fi, Action, Thriller
Now, there’s a reason why Signs worked. It was a complete synecdoche. In every which way. Manoj Night Shyamalan, inspired by the wisdom in Hitchcock’s The Birds, never, not even for a moment, betrays the original scope of his narrative. It starts as the story of a family, and it ends there. Too often we see filmmakers, even brilliant filmmakers, trying to accomplish this juggling act – between a more personal narrative and one given to events more global or larger-than-life in nature. One might be reminded of Mr. Spielberg and The War of the Worlds and the perfunctory nature of the human drama at its core. A film ought to know its scope, and it ought to stick to it. Mr. Spielberg’s film should have been epic, not centered for its entire length around the fate of a family, but instead expand itself to the scope of an Independence Day. Oh yes, Independence Day is a terrible film, but it sure gets the scope right on the money for the mindless material it delivers. If indeed Mr. Spielberg wanted to explore the human condition, he should have invested more into the nature of his characters. And that is precisely what Mr. Shyamalan did – a moving story around the family, use the conventions of the horror genre to some splendid effect, and pose some simplistic interpretations to profound issues.
The filmmaker behind Knowing is Mr. Alex Proyas, a master of atmosphere himself, and often inspired by the Expressionist tone of Lang’s Metropolis. He has created Dark City, one of the greatest of all films. The scope and the tone there were perfect for the material at hand. Not so much here. This is an ambitious film, mind you, with no less than cosmic questions in its mind. Like, the nature of God? Like, the existence of God? Like, are we creatures of free will? Like, is it all preordained? I respect that, respect the sincerity of it. But what I do not respect is when a film ends up all about a bunch of ideas with emotions only serving an importance of a secondary nature. Ideas do not make a film, emotions do. A success of a sci-fi film that proposes to debate something as philosophical as Randomness versus Determinism ought to do so not by teaching it to us, but by means of actions, by means of lives, by means of a narrative. I always say, that cinema is relatively ineffective as an intellectual medium, and is the strongest of all art forms when eliciting an emotional response out of us. A great film doesn’t outright pose its dilemmas; it constructs carefully a series of events that affect us emotionally in a way so as to ponder within ourselves the very nature of these dilemmas. But if the movie during its running time ponders us on our behalf, it turns out into something a little but silly. Knowing, though an extremely engaging motion picture, is silly. And it has a baffling little story with an utterly perfunctory father-son relationship at its center. I say baffling because it is often self-contradictory in nature, and often betrays the presence of some unanswered questions, commonly referred to as Plot Holes.
It is 1959, and a little school in Boston decides to celebrate its annual day by burying a time capsule that shall have interesting little artifacts from all of its students. The time capsule is to be buried for fifty years. For the most part it has only drawings. But there’s a strange little girl by the name of Lucinda (Lara Robinson) who keeps hearing strange whispers, and when her class is asked to draw whatever they imagine the future would be, she starts scribbling random numbers on a piece of paper. The paper goes in the capsule. Fifty years pass. A boy, by the name of Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), gets the paper. He is the son of a MIT astrophysics professor, John Koestler (Mr. Cage), and being a bright kid he brings the strange paper home in the hope it is some kind of math puzzle. John gets a hand to it, and after a series of events that have been designed (and I assure you this movie isn’t voluntarily deterministic but only because it can’t help the obligatory nature of the plot), he comes to the conclusion that these numbers represent the date and the death toll of every major accident in the world. I know, the odds are heavily against it for a single page to layout every major mishap in the last fifty years, but the film seems to give it a shot, with priority given to ones that have occurred with the United States.
I assure you, the script that was giving directional cues to Mr. Proyas was filled with utter nonsense. Utterly simplistic nonsense. Consider an early scene where the film doesn’t appreciate our intelligence (and believe me, not many of us are intelligent, but we try and often even pretend) and hands out to us on a platter what the top-billed theme of the movie is. John actually has a sequence where he asks them about Randomness and Determinism, so that the film is sure we’re fine with our basics. That, right there, is a red herring this film is not going to present any meaningful or thoughtful view on the subject. What the class speaks, and what John speaks is downright blather. Reader, I shall not divulge anymore of the plot, but whenever it is you see this film, and I believe you should, do watch the final sequence. And wonder, if whosoever put those giant monoliths in our path of evolution in 2001 was relentless enough to present us another monolith only when we were worthy of them, what stopped the guys here who whisper in Lucinda’s ears to maintain the same. And if not, why wait for fifty years. I find this kind of middle ground, which serves no other purpose but the existence of the premise, most disappointing.
Yet I maintain this is a good film, despite its script. There’s a genuine sense of mystery, a sense of intrigue to the proceedings, and a sense of dread to it all too. Mr. Proyas choreographs some of his scenes with breathtaking finesse and vision. Like the scene of an Air crash, which is all done in a single take, and as a result heightens the horror of the accident and the emotional toll it has on the John character. The scene is supposed to be the basis of some motivation, and Mr. Proyas achieves the right tone and right visual style and the perfect editing to make us feel that motivation. We believe this is a compassionate film that is not just about explosions, but instead wants to rein in the tragedy of such a disaster. It is a commendable intention for a film to have in these times. And for that very reason I believe the film shouldn’t have used another disaster merely to advance the plot. Yet it uses and dilutes the entire experience.
For all his brilliance though, a Proyas image can always mean one thing and one thing only. It can never allude to hidden ambiguities. It is an image that has its meaning explicitly stated within the frame, and the way the film ends with its biblical allusions is most adolescent and unimaginative. Such things are a natural result of ideas driving a film, and I say again, ideas and symbols dilute cinema. Great movies are about interpretations, about emotions, about leaving it out for us to figure it out. But to level a criticism of this nature itself is a proof that Knowing is right on some levels. Basic levels. On others, it is silly. But entertaining every which way you look at it.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 5:52 AM