Friday, March 20, 2009

Un-Cage my heart

Nicolas Cage isn't just an actor, he's his own genre.

Cage signs on to the bargain-basement movies no other A-list actor would deign to appear in: "Bangkok Dangerous," "The Wicker Man," "Gone In 60 Seconds," "Next," "Ghost Rider," and now, "Knowing." As such, you know exactly what you're getting when you go to a Nic Cage movie. It's going to be cheap 'n' nasty, full of thrills, and the lead character is going to act totally loco.

Cage's horsey face and receding hairline don't make him a natural leading man. But he makes up for it in intensity. When he isn't the hoarse whisperer, he's going utterly berzerk. Subtle? No. Entertaining? Yes. And, as such, he seems to be able to notch up a hit in 1 out of every three movies, most notably the "National Treasure" franchise. (Every once in a while, the Oscar winner will also remind us that he's a terrific actor by taking on roles in projects such as "Adaptation," "Matchstick Man," and "Bringing Out the Dead.")

I caught a screening of "Knowing" last night followed by a Q&A by leading lady Rose Byrne and producer David Alper. I think she sensed the palpable lack of enthusiasm in the audience. Frankly, the movie's only hope of box-office redemption is if the Christians who worship the "Left Behind" series turn out in droves for this Rapture-like vision of Earth's apocalypse. Everyone else is going to stay far away.

If you haven't seen the trailer, I'll fill you in on the story. John Koestler (Cage), a MIT professor, comes across a piece of paper from an unearthed time capsule that was buried 50 years ago. It's filled with seemingly random strings of numbers. But then Koestler starts to notice a pattern -- the numbers on the piece of paper all refer to tumultuous events in human history such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Yeah, I know. The premise sounds like "The Number 23," that disastrous Jim Carrey vehicle in which a man goes bonkers when he discovers that the number 23 is at the core of everything -- from JFK's assassination to 9/11. The difference in "Knowing" is that the numbers are somehow related to mysterious beings (all of whom resemble Rutger Hauer circa "Blade Runner") who have been watching over Earth -- and Cage's young son.

Cage invests his role with typical bug-eyed fervor as he tries to get nonbelievers to understand that he has stumbled on a code that predicts several disasters, including the end of times. (In the Q&A, Byrne testified to Cage's intense devotion during filming.) The movie, which effectively uses its Melbourne location to sub in for Boston, is most effective when its staging visceral disaster sequences. The movie's best scene, shot in a single take, follows Cage as he watches in horrific disbelief as an airliner crashes in front of him. (Producer David Alper reveals they only had a brief window of a one-off take in which to flawlessly capture the lengthy scene.) As critic Ty Burr notes in his review, director Alex Proyas ("Dark City," "I, Robot") is no hack.

Alas, the film is confused about its meaning. It frequently alludes to Biblical connections -- a passage in Ezekial, for instance -- but ultimately shies away from whole-heartedly embracing this direction. Turns out -- SPOILER ALERT -- that the Nordic blonds in long dark coats are actually aliens and, in a "Close Encounters" finale, they call down their cylindrical UFO. But the film's producer revealed that he likes to think of them as benevolent angels, though the film doesn't make that at all clear clear. Benevolent? Malevolent is more like it.

Come the end of the movie, when it's clear that a solar flare is about to wipe out all of planet Earth, it transpires that these beings have come to transport boys and girls from all over the world, two-by-two, to a new planet where mankind can start anew. But they refuse to take Cage's character for some inexplicable reason. Is the movie trying to make some point about the innocence of children and the sins of elders? It's not clear on that point and, at any rate, Cage's dad seems like a thoroughly decent guy even if he is estranged from his father, a pastor, for some unclarified reason.

And so the film ends with these space ships just ditching all these young kids on this seemingly unpopulated planet. With its two moons and waves of amber grain, it sure looks idyllic and haibitable but these young kids now have to fend for themselves without the help of any adults. Doh.

Meanwhile, Cage's character visits his father -- who alludes to the apocalyptic event as the Rapture -- and the hug each other at the very instant that a cosmic wildfire wipes out Boston and New York in a flash. Thus ends the feel-bad movie of the year.

Cage will rebound from this disaster. After all, he's more than a star. He's a genre.

UPDATE: Well, what do I know. Turns out that "Knowing" topped this weekend's box office by a robust $24 million. It'll drop next weekend due to word of mouth. But, for now, Cage remains a powerful genre unto himself.

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