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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/20/2009 8:54:36 AM ET 2009-03-20T12:54:36

When a movie shows a subway train jumping the track and careening wildly through a crowded station, it’s unsettling. When a movie does a POV shot through the train’s windshield, so that we get a first-hand look of innocent civilians being mowed down and spreading their viscera across the glass, that crosses the line into the offensive.

But that scene is just part of the apocalyptic disaster-porn on display in “Knowing,” a movie so convoluted, idiotic and preachy that it plays like M. Night Shyamalan adapting the “Left Behind” books. Only dopier.

Nicolas Cage — who else? — stars as MIT astrophysics professor John Koestler, who’s still reeling over the death of his wife in a hotel fire. John’s son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) gets a strange sheet of numbers when his school opens a time capsule that had been buried 50 years before.

John analyzes the numbers and realizes that a little girl had written down the dates, longitudes and latitudes, and death counts of every major global disaster in the last five decades—including three that haven’t happened yet. On a rainy day, John gets stuck in traffic and winds up being present for one of them, a terrifying plane crash next to the freeway. In an attempt to make sense of it all, he tracks down the girl’s now-grown daughter (Rose Byrne)—lucky for him she still lives in the neighborhood—who reveals that her mother spent her life haunted into madness by voices.

Soon, like the little girl in 1959, Caleb and the girl’s granddaughter start hearing strange whispers and seeing odd, creepy men lurking about. And little black stones start popping up. And the audience thinks, “There’s no way the resolution to this is going to be satisfying.” And it isn’t.

If, in this post-9/11 age, you still enjoy watching realistic and massive carnage in movies, then “Knowing” delivers, what with the plane crash, the subway accident and an even grander finale. But the movie is so badly written (by Ryne Pearson, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White) that it violates what may be the most important rule of drama — at the end, we realize that the same things would have transpired had no one in the movie done or said anything. So, ultimately, who cares?

The closest thing to character growth comes when atheist scientist Cage embraces determinism and religion and the idea of heaven, but he arrives at this conclusion through such a ridiculous path that it’s impossible to take seriously for a second. (If someone made a movie where a Christian realizes he’s been barking up the wrong tree, the hue and cry would be deafening. So where’s the atheist outrage when movies constantly show non-believers getting all teary-eyed and born again?)

We’ve long stopped expecting anything but ludicrous hambonery from Nicolas Cage, but director Alex Proyas once brought us riveting and thought-provoking genre fare like “The Crow” and “Dark City.” Seeing him sink to this level — accompanied by a migraine-inducing score by legendarily hacky composer Marco Beltrami — feels like a bigger loss than any of the earth-shattering cataclysms of “Knowing.”

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