Here's a hypothetical for you: suppose that there is a director who is - fully justifying a much-abused noun - a "visionary". Does that director have the ability to save a film from itself?

Not, unfortunately, in the case of Alex Proyas's Knowing, although in this particular case, there are some caveats. This isn't simply a case of a screenplay that isn't particularly good; think of the films of Baz Luhrmann, or The Fall by Tarsem Singh for an example of a brilliant stylist working with a script that doesn't have a whole lot of substance to it, but able to drag a masterpiece out of it anyway. No, one of the chief problems with Knowing (maybe even the biggest) is that Proyas, who eleven years ago helmed one of the finest of all modern science-fiction pictures with Dark City, completely bought into a screenplay that suffers from a pronounced case of brain rot, such that all of his very best ideas are in service of a story that doesn't come within spitting distance of deserving the effort that the director put forth to execute.

The other caveat is that Knowing is a vehicle for actor Nicolas Cage (in full-on Cage Mode, which I will not further elaborate on, since everyone who's ever seen a sketch comedy knows what I'm talking about), who has well and truly squandered the last tiny bits of respect any thinking person could have for him. Feeling disappointed in a Nic Cage film isn't unlike feeling disappointed in a film directed by Uwe Boll: only an insane person would actually have any expectations for the project in the first place. So the fact that it's a miserable failure is more a validation of the way that things are, rather than standing as any kind of violation of the audience's desire for a great movie.

Knowing is essentially nothing more than an unwanted cross between The Happening and The Number 23, with an unexpected though ultimately not inexplicable dusting of the TV series Lost for flavoring: agnostic MIT cosmologist Jon Koestler (Cage; the character is credited as "John", though at one point we hear his father call him "Jonathan") comes into possession of a fifty-year-old page of numbers written out by a schoolchild, that when correctly decoded provides the date, location and body count of every major global disaster between the Octobers of 1959 and 2009. Armed with this knowledge, Jo(h)n attempts to stop the global catastrophe that may or may not be coming in just a couple of days.

The best defense (appearing most prominently in Roger Ebert's notorious four-star review) is that the film presents a compelling question about how the universe runs: is it predetermined by a hyper-intelligence, or subject to random chance and free will? This reading is based largely on a single scene in which Koestler presents exactly that question to his students, before collapsing in a depressive fit (like Mel Gibson in Signs, Koestler suffered an incredible crisis in faith when his wife died in an apparent accident). But other than that, Knowing comes down very hard and very unambiguously in favor of "predetermined". There's barely a single moment where we're actually invited to believe that everything in the film is the result of sheer chance and coincidence, and throughout, it's quite clear that everything that happens is happening because an outside being - who isn't by any means meant to be the classically-defined "God"- has decided that it needs to happen. It's a bit like the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, which aired the night that Knowing opened, although it's incalculably stupider.

Although I disagree with this central conceit, I could still find Knowing a worthwhile thriller, if only the screenplay weren't such a disaster. Written by a fair hodgepodge of men, Knowing is plagued by erratic story leaps that aren't "plot holes" in the classical sense, but are possibly much worse; for they hinge on characters behaving in ingeniously contrived ways, the only justification for which is "it was in the script." That, plus the usual assortment of dumb and obnoxious screenplay moments, the most obnoxious of which I believe to be Koestler's realisation of what the numbers mean, based on recognising the chain 9/11/01 - easily the most disreputable reference to that terrible date in any film yet made. Running a tight second in the obnoxious race is the revelation of what's going on, late in the film; I won't spoil it, save to say that God or the aliens or whoever has a tremendously cynical view of the worth of the human race.

If I don't spend more time with the screenplay, it's only because it depresses me to do so. I'd imagine that smart people could find all of this compelling and thought-provoking, and I support entirely their right to think that, even while I vehemently disagree. That leaves us with the question I raised up top, though: what of Proyas, and his visionary visions? Well, the mind that gave us the ingenious Brazil-noir-apocalypse mixture of Dark City is fully back in business, after the deeply regrettable I, Robot. Visually, Knowing can stand proudly against any other film in the same style in recent memory. There are moments of incomparable dramatic beauty all throughout the film, taken as abstract singularities, and even some bits here and there that work completely well given their context in the film; the appearences of the men in dark suits stalking Koestler's son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), calling to mind Dark City in all the right ways, always work, even for the viewer who, like myself, has long since checked out of the film's overwrought goings-on. But what I attended to even more were the isolated bits like a balloon floating against a grey sky, or the Children of Men-inflected long take of Koestler working his way through a plane crash, trying to help survivors, or the hypnotic shots of Caleb watching as the forest outside his room burns in a vision. Individually, there are more than enough moments of absolute power in Knowing that a non-speaker of English, watching without subtitles, would probably find the film a flat-out masterpiece.

But oh! the connective tissue is incomprehensibly dreadful! The film is just plain wrong on a story level, contrived and unconvincing and centered on a grumpy Old Testament idea of how we all deserve to die. The handful of slam-bang action setpieces that would have been absolutely earth-shattering fifteen years ago may have been enough to propel the film to the top of the box office charts, but this is no mere bit of explosiony entertainment: it's the worst kind of idiocy, the kind that's wholly invested in its own profundity.