I feel for Nicolas Cage. I really do. He’s had some rotten luck in the past decade, with movies like Ghost Rider and Next making everyone forget that he is a solid and interesting actor. He is accused of just saying yes to everything that comes his way, but in reality, you gotta look at the details. Sure, Ghost Rider turned out pretty lousy, but he’s been dreaming of playing a comic book character for the past decade, and his options are getting pretty limited. Wicker Man? Personally I think the movie’s fine entertainment (if not as intended), but can you blame him for wanting to work with Neil LaBute? And as for Next… well, I got nothing there. Julianne Moore, I guess?
His over-the-top performances in those (and several other) films over the years gives Knowing the unique challenge of having an actor act serious enough to buy the rather silly plot – a sheet of paper with a seemingly random series of numbers is actually a code to place the date and location of every major tragedy over the past 50 years is discovered by Cage and his son (Chandler Canterbury) – so that the audience can believe in it. So it’s interesting that Alex Proyas would cast the increasingly gonzo Cage, as he turns out to be the most grounded character in the entire movie. You keep expecting him to “Cage out”, maybe toss on a bear suit or demand that bunnies are put back in their boxes.
(Hilariously, he actually DOES tell his son to put his pet rabbit away at one point, and you could tell which audience members were well-versed in Cage lore by the intermittent chuckling.)
Cage’s underplayed performance isn’t even the biggest surprise here, though. That belongs to the fact that the film got a PG-13 rating. It’s not a particularly action packed film, but there are two disaster sequences that are depicted in a much more realistic manner than usual, even in R rated films. When a subway car hurtles at top speed into a human being, that person will more or less explode into body parts and red mist, and that is exactly what we see here. Top notch effects and camerawork (the plane crash and aftermath is depicted entirely in one shot) aid in creating some truly astonishing and brutal sequences, putting similar scenes in the 2nd and 3rd Die Hard films to shame.
And being a Boston native, I got to give props for making an admirable fake Massachusetts. Some shots were obviously filmed in Beantown (the Museum of Science!), but the bulk of the film was shot in Australia. It’s not always perfect, but the geography of small towns like Lexington, Westford, and Groton in relation to Boston proper is spot on. I know this takes little more effort than looking at a map and guessing the amount of time it would take one to drive from one place to another, but most movies (or shows – the Boston set Fringe is particularly lax with realistic travel MA) don’t even bother with that much.
It’s also surprisingly scary at times. There is a group of people who are seemingly trying to interfere with Cage’s attempts to stop impending disasters, and the scenes of them stalking or simply watching him and his son are admittedly freaky. One might recall the “Low Men” of Hearts of Atlantis, but suffice to say that their motives and origin are hardly cliché.
On that note, the film’s biggest problem is that of familiarity. Various disaster and prophecy films of the past (particularly Signs, right down to the fact that the hero has lost his faith due to the death of his wife)) will come to mind as the film unfolds, and the human dramas are fairly generic as well: Cage is a single father, his son is wise beyond his years, the pseudo love interest (Rose Byrne) thinks he’s crazy, then come around after a tragedy proves he was right, etc. In his first scene, we see Cage cooking for the son, and thus we know instantly that the mother is dead, due to the cinematic shorthand that has simply been done to death. In a normal movie, such things wouldn’t bother me, but Alex Proyas’ Dark City is one of the all time best examples of non-traditional storytelling, and I expect a bit more out of him.
Another issue is that the scene in which Cage realizes the numbers are a code is clunky as hell. Given its importance to the plot (and the audience BUYING said plot), they should have come up with something a bit more clever than Cage awkwardly placing a coffee mug on the paper (he actually leans out of his way to put it there), and then seeing 911012996 in the residue circle. And despite the fact that this sequence is in the middle of a bunch of other numbers, he still goes through a trial and error process with these specific numbers before realizing that it stands for 9/11/01, 2996 (victims). Since the tragedy that took his wife is also on the paper, it would have made more sense for that to be the number sequence that catches his eye, as he would likely have it burned into his memory.
(I will ignore the idea that an astrophysicist would take half the movie to figure out that the eight numbers following the date/body count is the latitude and longitude of the respective disaster).
Blemishes aside, this is not the typical “end of the world” disaster movie, by any stretch. Some might balk at the revelations and conclusion, but I found it refreshingly unique and ballsy. Proyas has been openly dismissive of his experience working with FOX on I, Robot, and seems to be much more at ease with (the smaller) Summit. There’s no way in hell this film would be made as is at a major studio, with or without a big star like Cage, and therefore I have nothing but respect and admiration for both men for delivering such a risky denouement to an ultimately satisfying thriller.
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