Sci-fi’s heyday has to be the 70s; the aliens were real (or at least they weren’t CGI), every leading man looked like he’d sprung from The Joy of Sex, women weren’t totally relegated to screaming, and John Williams did most of the scores. There was a feeling to 70s sci-fi movies that grown-ups were writing the scripts. Whether it was Richard Dreyfuss’s messy, truthful marriage difficulties in Close Encounters or the bitter, tired wage disputes in Alien, you felt the pulse of these people. Compared with doomy, evangelical schlock like Knowing, even bad 70s sci-fi looks like Bergman. Modern sci-fi owes too much to pixels and not enough to people.
Like most movies of bad omen, Knowing begins in a schoolyard. A spooky-looking girl with a hatchet-made haircut stares ominously at the sky. It’s the 50s. The girl and her classmates have been asked to submit drawings of what the future will look like for a time capsule. The girl writes down a series of numbers. Then she goes insane. Fifty years later, Nicholas Cage and his son are present for the unearthing of the time capsule. Cage’s lad snags the ominous sheet of paper. Nic pores over it – realises it predicts every disaster of the past fifty years according to date, body-count and G.P.S. coordinates – and decides to save the world.
We all know numerology is for Madonna and people who don’t work for a living, so from the outset Knowing is dogged by its premise. One major plausibility point that’s never addressed is: how big is this f—ing sheet of paper?! It would have to be about the size of Detroit to fit even half the world’s disasters on it accurately. But of course, it turns out the magic sheet predicts mostly American catastrophes (so it covers the hotel fire that killed Nic’s on-screen wife, but not the Chinese earthquake last year that killed 70,000). Things wouldn’t be so bad if the movie had a sense of black humour, or at least if it didn’t go all Christian Evangelical about two-thirds of the way through and start equating sci-fi with scripture. But whoever wrote Knowing has obviously been reading waaaaaay too much of those creepy Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye, so by the end you know you’re listening to a sermon.
I have a theory that Nicholas Cage works better without hair. Both his best acting performances (Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation) were made in an advanced state of hair-loss. The moment he puts on a wig, like a reverse-Samson, he saps his strength. In Knowing, Cage acts like he’s drugged; the way he acts in ninety per cent of his movies. He acts – and looks, half the time – like a weird motion-caption version of Nicholas Cage, as if some lab technician had scanned Nic Cage’s features on a virtual actor, and all you were watching was ones and zeros (like the real Nicholas Cage looking at a cheque). He’s meant to be a M.I.T. professor in Knowing, but it’s the fact he’s meant to be human that takes more swallowing. His reactions are so molasses-like in some scenes, you feel like prodding him with a stick. Something is desperately wrong in the world when the suicidal alcoholic he played in Vegas seems infinitely preferable (even relatable) company to the zombie he plays here. There’s no way the firebrand who bedded Cher twenty years ago (add Moonstruck to the bald = good list) would have touched creepy LaHaye-y bullshit like Knowing.
In the 70s, I imagine even sci-fi script conferences took place at Margot Kidder’s place; some balmy California hideaway where everyone had great sex and wrote dialogue that human beings could utter. I don’t know when evangelicals became the new sci-fi demographic, but I shudder to think of what Close Encounters would be like today. No marriage break-up for Richard Dreyfuss. No Dreyfuss, probably. He’d be too scraggly, too human, two-too-many coke-frosted nostrils – too 70s for today’s laptop & Bible crowd. Today, you need a glacial, barely-there star to headline. And if Nicholas Cage seems zoned-out, maybe he just knows how to play it.