Nicolas Cage's determination to turn himself into an action-thriller hero is not matched by his ability to find the right project. In the sci-fi movie “Knowing,” however, he is less out of place than simply unnecessary, bedecked in bland mall clothing and constantly looking on like a wide-eyed supporting character, so unaffecting he might as well be computer-generated.
Likely the director, Alex Proyas, feels the same, since he even denies Cage's character entrance to the CGI Garden of Eden, where the movie closes. There's no proof the sequence is a slip of unconscious desire, but Proyas (“I, Robot”) does seem less interested in his stars and their scenarios than in sending eye-popping cataclysms hurtling through the extras. Compared to the riveting spectacles of carnage we witness in “Knowing,” the story is glaringly pixilated.
It's too bad because the film, though blemished with more than its share of thriller clichAcs, has a somewhat clever premise. Cage plays John Koestler, a science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's still grieving for his dead wife when their little boy, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), receives from a time capsule a mysterious letter bearing hundreds of seemingly random numbers. Written by a little girl (Lara Robinson) 50 years ago, the numbers match up with dates and the total number of people killed in disasters over the last half century, from earthquakes to terrorist strikes. Luckily some of the dates are pending, or there wouldn't be much to the discovery.
There's a moment when John fiddles with the curious letter when the movie could have delved into his fascination with it. He's just given a class a lecture on the debate between determinism and a random view of the universe, which is supposed to weigh on the movie along with his tattered social life and alcoholism. “Knowing” appears to side with determinism, but it offers random cheats, such as John using Google and a dry-erase pen to figure out the numbers, just as anyone could. From there he races around in standard thriller mode, a standard thriller character. His science mastery never avails him, and “Knowing” seems bound by only one law of the universe: It offers plenty of opportunities for cool special effects.
To be fair, these crucial set pieces of the predictions as they arrive are top-notch re-creations of slaughter. The first is a commuter jet that emerges out of the blue and plows into the earth just yards from the camera, the bodies of those miraculously still clinging to life popping out of the wreckage, mangled and aflame, as John stumbles through the smoky remains trying to help. Believe it, you've never seen a plane crash this harrowingly realistic unless you were in it.
The second, a subway accident, feels more familiar and less surprising but is staged to be just as thunderous and gory, the snaking beast smashing crowds of people aside and sucking others under like a gigantic Hoover as the blood flies. Why the studio didn't insist on 3-D is anyone's guess.
John tries to alert people. Of course nobody believes him, not even the daughter (Rose Byrne) of the numbers girl, until a trip to a creepy abandoned trailer in the woods reveals the all-encompassing nature of the predictions. At this point a group of eerily silent mystery men who've been skulking around the edges of the movie make a more forceful appearance. They may or may not be the whisperers providing the predictive numbers to the children, but to whom it may concern: Is whispering to little kids really the most effective way to warn people about the end of the world?
Also, wouldn't determinism offer some solace to the thought of extinction? Maybe, but it's the movie's point of view that, if we're going to be engulfed and rent asunder, it might as well be a good show.
“How do I stop the end of the world?” John ruefully asks. Equally, I'd offer, why would it be interesting to watch? Proyas hovers over the finale as if he were Stravinsky composing “Rite of Spring,” but the conclusions are immodestly overwrought, with a deflating effect — kind of like watching “Hamlet” end with the impact of a gigantic asteroid. “Knowing,” to put it bluntly, is disaster porn. Take away the special effects and it's not necessarily a disaster, but it's as silly as they come. (PG-13) 115 min. HHIII S