- The Washington Times - Friday, March 27, 2009

It isn’t a huge shock that “Knowing” has taken a critical drubbing; this is, after all, a big-budget Nicolas Cage picture, and they tend to get trashed. Rotten Tomatoes, the critic-aggregating Web site, shows his last five vehicles pulling in freshness ratings of 9 percent, 27 percent, 32 percent, 30 percent and 15 percent (60 percent fresh is the threshold for a good movie).

“Knowing” is no different, clocking in at 25 percent with all critics and an even more anemic 14 percent with Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics. What is surprising, however, is the level of vituperation aimed at the film by these critics and the source of that anger — not Mr. Cage’s typically silly performance, but, rather, the film’s discussion of faith.

The film “has the evangelical fervor of a movie that feels as if it were made during W’s first term,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli.cq http://chicago.metromix.com/movies/movie_review/movie-review-knowing/1031687/content — “Which is to say, ‘Knowing’ is as potent a slice of disaster porn as ‘Left Behind.’ It dabbles in faith and doubt and has no patience for fence-sitters.”

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune’s Colin Covert panned “the story’s ‘Close Encounters of the Theological Kind’ premise, which squanders a mysterious setup in promiscuous eruptions of sentimentality and New Age brain fog.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea complained that “it borrows from L. Ron Hubbard, the Rapture Index, and a mess of apocalyptic sci-fi movies.”

It’s impossible to understand just why critics are being driven to distraction by this harmless thriller without knowing what happens in “Knowing.” (Consider this your spoiler warning.)

Mr. Cage plays an astrophysicist who comes into possession of a string of numbers composed in 1959 foretelling the date and location of every major disaster, natural or otherwise, over the proceeding 50 years. He comes to realize that the last predicted disaster is actually the end of the world, makes peace with his estranged father (a pastor), and heads to the location the numbers predict.

When he arrives, he is confronted by a creepy-looking man and his three compatriots, seen previously stalking Mr. Cage and his son. His son tells him that the man has actually been protecting them (as well as a girl who is with them) and can save the children from the planet’s destruction. The children ascend into a giant spaceship, and the four shadowy figures shed their human appearance to become glowing, angelic figures.

After a nifty computer-generated take on the planet’s destruction by fire, the last shot of the movie is that of the boy and the girl deposited on a new, virginal planet. They are shown running toward a glowing tree, an obvious nod to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Borrowing heavily from the Book of Ezekiel, an Old Testament text written by a prophet who made his predictions in chronological order and exulted in the innocence of children, “Knowing” is an interesting middlebrow look at the endless debate over fate versus free will, and the role faith inevitably plays in such a debate. But even that was too much for some.

“Knowing’s” minimal discussion of faith and spirituality has made the critical corps apoplectic; the movie has been relegated to the land of hokey Christian cinema inhabited by clunkers like “Left Behind” and “Fireproof.” Their revulsion is practically palpable. Instead of engaging with the text and discussing its contents in a reasonable way with an eye toward deeper understanding of the source material, critics have lashed out en masse and rejected a stylish thriller because they can’t handle a mainstream film that deals with faith in a reasonable manner.

The one notable exception to this trend is Roger Ebert. In a four-star review, the critic wrote that the movie “is among the best science-fiction films I’ve seen — frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome.”

He then took to his blog to grapple with the deeper ideas that riddle the script and engage with his readers in a fascinating back and forth about the movie’s religious connotations. Although Mr. Ebert’s conclusions contradict a strictly religious interpretation of the film’s finale, he makes a good-faith effort to interact with it on its own terms. This is far more than the majority of his critical brethren have bothered to do.

Despite taking a hammering from critics, “Knowing” opened atop the box office last weekend, raking in $24.6 million. Its second-weekend box office will be an interesting test of how in touch critics are with popular taste.

A big drop will indicate that word of mouth on the film is poor and that the critical consensus is shared by mainstream moviegoers. A smaller drop will suggest something else entirely: that the audience is better prepared to grapple with deep issues than the media elites.