Sunday, July 19, 2009

MOVIES- Knowing is better if you don't know, you know?

Here there be Spoilers. If you can spoil this movie by giving away any of the plot points, which all telegraph themselves so clearly as to be anticlimactic. No, the pleasure of this movie (and there is some pleasure to be enjoyed watching this movie, even if it is guilty pleasure) is simply by sitting back, putting your mind in a jar for the evening, and watching it transpire.

KNOWING is the same kind of movie that Hollywood has made a lot of lately. Pseudo-serious, pseudo-smart action flicks that try real hard to look like they have something profound to say but don’t have a single idea in their itty-bitty heads. Adaptations of Phillip K. Dick stories sort of started this trend. MINORITY REPORT, PAYCHECK, and the Cage vehicle NEXT were all examples of this type of movie. Lift the central conceit out of a Phil Dick story, ignore all the subtlety and ambiguity to dumb it down for a moviegoing audience, and fill it out with standard movie clichés (the dead wife, the estranged father, the protagonist playing the part of Cassandra as the rest of the world thinks he’s crazy, a couple of chases). Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE was a better-done version of this, while The National Treasure movies were among the dumber examples of this mini-genre. Take a fringe idea like that the Founding Fathers of the US were Masons and that Masons are in league with the Illuminati and the Tri-lateral Commission to run every government in the world and they put a treasure map with the location to the Masonic treasury on the back of the Declaration of Independence. (Or something. Who the hell knows what the mish-mash the plot of NATIONAL TREASURE was?) Drop in the parent sub-plot and some car chases and VIOLA! You’ve got a movie.

The “idea” in KNOWING is two-fold. First, it eschews the Cassandra motif to directly rip off the Cassandra story. Nick Cage knows the future but no one believes him and he can’t change it in spite of his foreknowledge. But that’s just smoke and mirrors for the grand larceny of the payoff. This is what science fiction readers call a “Shaggy God” story, one of the most egregious SF cliches there is. Yes, after two hours of father-son angst, scenes of someone watching late night TV with a liquor bottle in their hand as shorthand for the grief and loss of having a spouse die, Nick Cage screaming at people, rushing from place to place very quickly for no apparent reason, etc, the payoff is “And she called him Adam, and he called her Eve”. There’s even a capping scene where the future parents of mankind are running through a golden field wearing white homespun smocks toward a lone, iconic tree. All that’s left out is a serpent, which is another aspect of the “shaggy God” story- a tree of knowledge without an adversary. The story is a complete waste of space. There’s no real drama; people just say what they’re feeling. There’s no clear-cut through-line; the movie jumps from sci-fi to horror to mystery instead of taking an idea and running with it. There’s no sense of real people being informed and changed by the events of their lives; every character is the sum total of their relationship with their parents, their job, and whatever traumas they have had.

None of this is anything new for director Alex Proyas. His career has been a litany of visually interesting movies that are ambitious in concept but completely oblivious to cliché. Ironically, I still continue to watch his movies because they are so visually interesting, not because there’s going to be any meat beneath the skin. But at least he tries, which says more about how worthless most commercial films are than how great his films have been. He first came to attention with THE CROW, an adaptation of a graphic novel that was basically I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE with bad art and purple prose and enough supernatural bullshit thrown in to make it palatable for comic book sensibilities. In those aspects, the movie was a faithful adaptation of the book, except with better visuals. Next was Dark City, a better-than-average SF film that was dark and moody, brutal with it’s characters, and ultimately ended with a SF cliché that was already old when John Campbell was still editing Astounding. Then came the much maligned (and rightfully so) I, ROBOT. Again, this was him taking Campbellian SF and putting its central concept (the Three Laws of Robotics) out so he could put it through the sausage grinder of commercial movie stupidity. All these are genre movies that are visually arresting but so mired in mediocre stories that they can only manage to be a little better than average. It’s not an uncommon problem with SF films. There have been numerous SF films about the earth being hit with a comet or meteor: ARMEGEDDON, METEOR (both the 1979 and 2009 versions), and DEEP IMPACT to name a few, but nobody has bothered to adapt Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s incredible Lucifer’s Hammer. Why keep making inferior (vastly inferior) stories when such an excellent story about the scenario has already been written?

So the bottom line on KNOWING is that it’s not a bad popcorn movie but it isn’t a particularly good one. It has a good airplane crash in it, and I have a personal failing that if a movie shows me a good plane crash I feel more generous toward it than I should. (I used to have recurring dreams about seeing a plane crash when I was younger so I guess there’s something Freudian there.) And at least Proyas doesn’t lead up to the destruction of the earth and then have it saved at the last minute. (Oops, spoiler. But only if you aren’t the kind of person who would tune in for a good look at the end of the world. If you are, and I am, then it’s actually not so much a spoiler as a teaser.) Don’t expect much (And how much could you expect? Nick Cage is in it, for God’s sake! Is there a better litmus test for low expectations than that?) and you won’t be disappointed.

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