Apocalypse Pow

Alex Proyas’s KNOWING had the rep of being one of those awful treacly and misbegotten Nic Cage movies that make you despair of the strange, droopy-faced action star (until something like KICK-ASS reminds you of what a funny and interesting presence he can be) but I wanted to give it a shot, since I always felt Proyas had some kind of talent and some kind of unfulfilled potential.

“Go towards the Ladd Company!”

How nice it would have been to be a lone voice of praise for the movie. The first half-hour, in fact, setting up its intriguing presence (a document written by a child in 1959 and sealed in a time capsule turns out to predict every major 20th Century disaster), is compelling and exciting, although there are aesthetic fractures peeping through the shiny veneer. In fact, maybe the shiny veneer is the problem: everything is so glossy and pretty, from Cage’s unnecessarily vast and gorgeous house, to his improbably beautiful dead wife (seen in home movie form). Proyas can certainly compose a striking shot, but as with his fellow antipodean Vincent Ward, he often seems to mistake aesthetics (literally, making visible, ie creating the perceptible form of an abstract thought or emotion) for prettification (and the CGI alien heaven at the end is horribly reminiscent of Ward’s WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, a dreadful milestone in the history of the trash afterlife). By the end, the movie had become a rather horrible exercise in post-9:11 apocalypse kitsch. If only they’d played to their strengths and marketed the film not as a CGI demolition derby, nor as a SIXTH SENSE boogeyrama, but as the film in which Nic Cage steals a door from a school gymnasium. Because you don’t see enough of that kind of thing.

The more attractive parts of the film are the mysterious ones, resistant at all attempts at neat wrap-up. The Men in Black characters never make any sense, which is pretty true to real-life accounts of such persons, but alas they’re not crazy in the evocative ways the real MiBs excel at.

“After grinning madly at me for what seemed like ages — but probably only a few seconds — the man’s whole body jerked, then he said, ‘Have you got insurance? Is it now?’ His voice was most odd. Like a robot’s — jerky and without feeling. Looking back, I’d say it was more like a computerized voice. You know, the sort that says, ‘Printing completed'”.

Adele thought there was something very peculiar about this (“Is what now?” she thought, mystified), but politely said that her parents would know about insurance but they were out, suggesting that he came back later to talk to them. At that he seemed, quite suddenly, to “sweat from every pore”, removing his hat to wipe his forehead with the back of his hand — revealing a completely bald, and totally white, head. The florid “complexion” was now revealed to be a thick layer of badly applied stage makeup, some of which came off on his hand. Still smiling fixatedly, he looked her in the eyes and said: “Can I see a glass? Of water?”

~ from The Mammoth Book of UFOs by Lynn Picknett.

Nothing in MEN IN BLACK or KNOWING or THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (the real-life accounts of which are swarming with MiBs — none appear in the movie) compares to this kind of Lynchian absurdity, which admittedly might be harder to deploy in a conventional narrative movie.

UK buyers: Knowing [DVD] [2009]

US buyers: The Mammoth Book of UFOs (Mammoth Books)

15 Responses to “Apocalypse Pow”

  1. Sorry you were disappointed – I agree it’s completely silly and there’s no follow-through with all the creeping around and red herrings, etc. – but I quite liked it anyway. Proyas has a real eye, a rare thing now matter how you slice it, and the spectacular disasters have a refreshing nastiness.

  2. That one shot looks like an alien invasion as painted by Thomas Kinkade.

  3. Why the Bald-Headed White Guy?

    Can we say “Sci-Fi cliche” boys and girls?

  4. Well, not actually bald, but still a hackneyed figure. If he’d had blusher and lipstick like some of the MiBs reported in reality, he’d have been lifted out of cliche, no problem!

    I think the gleefulness of the disasters was tonally a mistake for the film, given what our attitude was supposed to be. And I choked back a laugh as a flaming man staggered past Cage at the air crash. “Hey!” shouts Cage after the guy. I just don’t now what we’re supposed to take from that “Hey!” Is it, “Hey, you petrol-soaked idiot, come back here and be extinguished!” ?

    Fiona’s final word was “Oh Alex Proyas and friends, you crap fools!”

    Agree that there’s an eye at work, just not sure there’s anything at work BEHIND it.

  5. I won’t erect a defense for it – not when there’s now a box set of Sacha Guitry from Criterion’s Eclipse label – and I didn’t include it in my “favorite films” list for 2009, but my concern for Proyas’s visuals is far from damning praise. Vimeo is filled to the brim with artisans who make pretty pictures, with a virtuosity that I often find pretty dull. Proyas, on the other hand, is worth tracking because his images don’t impress me as superficially “amazing,” but have a sense of balance and color that is as difficult to describe as it is to find in many other places. (Mark Pellington is another good example – as is Paul W. S. Anderson and a few others working in the pulpier depths of the art form.) Your selection of screen shots actually bear this out, I think.

  6. I think when he’s got a strong dramatic situation he can do something that’s both attractive and unusual… but he tends to lean towards cliches in his scenarios, and when the situation is a simple one, his use of colour and composition sometimes strikes me as excessive. But there’s something there alright, and I keep hoping he’ll do something good with it.

    Perversely, he seems attracted to the kind of actors he can’t rely on and doesn’t have the skills to control, and there’s an attraction to cliche that really shows in his use of classical music favourites.

  7. Filmed here in Melbourne a couple of years ago. Cage spent a lot of his downtime in the corner of Readings Bookshop in St Kilda on the floor of the kids corner with his wee boy. Nice guy by all accounts.

  8. Appearing in Edinburgh with Wild at Heart, Nic Cage looked approvingly at Fiona’s boots. So he has good taste.

  9. You’re so right, Jaime. Le Roman d’un Tricheur has the greatest special effect of them all — Genius!

  10. I saw a few Guitrys at the FI/AF years ago, all terrific, but the set has a few more. Can’t wait!

    Although it’s not confirmed, it seems plausible and likely that Welles’s trailer for CITIZEN KANE was inspired by the opening of TRICHEUR.

    Welles acted for Guitry in the ’50s.

  11. Am looking forward to indulging in SG soon!

  12. I managed to see Pearls of the Crown some years ago and because of it became interested in seeing Story of a Cheat and Bonne Chance! (the Milestone-directed Lucky Partners seems bowdlerized), and some of his work in the ’50s as well.

  13. Really time I ran Tricheur or Pearls and wrote him up for The Forgotten.

  14. For most of the running time I only mildly disliked this film, but the ending – which seems to be all about defining Cage’s character as one who runs from the Way, the Truth and the Life, as expressed in good old Western Christianity, until he can’t hide from it any longer, and gives in to the beauty of Jeebus – really ticked me off. It’s months since I saw it so I can’t summon up chapter and verse to illustrate this but it really had a 1950s feel to it towards the end, and not in a way I found pleasant to watch.

  15. Possibly the influence of Icon Entertainment? Mel Gibson lurking somewhere in the background. That theme is certainly forced on us early on with Cage lecturing about whether life has a meaning.

    Without getting into a big spoiler about the end, it is pretty hard to take those MiBs seriously as divine messengers, given their ultimate actions.

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