The artistic decline of Nicolas Cage isn’t news any more, so how about the artistic decline of Alex Proyas? The Egyptian-born, Australian-raised director was in his 30s when he captured the moviegoing public’s imagination with his 1994 debut The Crow and his 1998 sci-fi-noir thriller Dark City.

Though those films borrowed heavily from Blade Runner and Tim Burton’s Batman movies, their stylishly grungy attitude and innovative use of special effects gave them a feel all their own. Now Proyas delivers studio hits like the Will Smith vehicle I, Robot and last week’s box-office champ, Knowing, that feel hollow and impersonal and, worst of all, stale. Maybe there was less than met the eye with his older films, but even so it’s sad to see a once-hot filmmaker become passé so quickly.

knowingThe prologue of Knowing is set in 1959 and shows a group of schoolchildren in Lexington, Mass., drawing pictures to be placed in a time capsule. Lucinda (Lara Robinson), the intense girl who sits in the back of the class and creeps everybody out, doesn’t draw but instead covers her piece of paper with a string of numbers and places that in the capsule. Fifty years later, the capsule is opened, and her numbers are given to Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), the partially deaf son of widowed astrophysics professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage). It’s John who figures out that the numbers have correctly predicted the dates, casualty figures, and GPS locations of every global disaster since 1959. Unsettling as that is, only three dates are left on Lucinda’s paper. What happens when the numbers run out?

The answer, it turns out, is an incredibly silly climax that mimics the Left Behind series except with space aliens instead of God. Up until the last half-hour or so, the movie actually builds suspense rather deftly by showing portentous events impinging on the family life of a hard-drinking widower who maintains that he doesn’t need help raising his son by himself. Cage’s rote performance diminishes the effectiveness here, and Marco Beltrami’s truly awful musical score underlines the least significant details. Even so, the small scale of this early part is punctuated well enough by two gigantic set pieces: John’s witnessing a plane crash and a grotesque subway accident.

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Still, all the movie’s accomplishments are sunk by its ending, wherein John and Caleb make a panicked dash for safety with Lucinda’s grown daughter (Rose Byrne) and young granddaughter (Lara Robinson again). The overarching plot turns out to be so much gibberish, brought to a head by some menacing people in trench coats, which is a trope that Proyas has grown way too fond of. The acting by the adult performers grows overheated, and the relationships between them and their kids turn unbearably sentimental. All in all, this apocalyptic thriller falls apart even more spectacularly than The Happening. That isn’t good.

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