Knowing

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“Knowing” seems like a generic title for anything, let alone a tense cinematic thriller, but it turns out to be a good choice. The film takes place at the intersection of science and religion, at the point where faith and certainty meet, and it has some subtle, thought-provoking themes lurking below its deceptively simple title. How would your actions be affected if you knew, rather than believed, something?

My use of the word “subtle” may raise red flags for readers who know that the film stars Nicolas Cage, whose relationship with subtlety is strained at best. And he does have his share of insane Nicolas Cage moments here, shouting “You want some of this??!” while striking a tree with a baseball bat in one scene and hollering “The caves won’t save us!!” in another. The film also includes an image of a moose on fire and the depiction of someone stealing a door, in case you’re keeping track.

So, OK, some of the details are a little nutty. But this sci-fi tale, directed by Alex Proyas (“Dark City,” “The Crow”) and based on a story by Ryne Douglas Pearson (who wrote the novel “Mercury Rising” was based on), moves with urgency and unflagging energy. Were it not for its disappointingly mundane final explanations, it would be captivating from start to finish. Yet even those explanations qualify as “satisfying” in that they reasonably follow what has come before. Once we have all the facts, the ending really is the ending that makes the most sense.

Cage plays John Koestler, an M.I.T. astrophysicist raised as the son of a pastor but now a bit more agnostic in his beliefs. His wife died a year ago, leaving him to care for their young son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), and this may have been the final nail in the coffin of his religious faith. He tells Caleb that “we don’t know for sure” about heaven, but it’s OK to believe if you want to. For himself, John thinks the world is just a random series of events, with no greater purpose.

Having established this, the film must now pick John up by his feet and shake him around until he starts rethinking his position. A time capsule is opened at Caleb’s elementary school, and among the children’s drawings from 1959 is a sheet of paper covered in numbers, seemingly with no pattern or logic. John, intrigued and a little obsessive (and fueled by bourbon), notices the sequence 911012996, does some googling, and realizes: 9/11/01 was a day on which 2,996 people were killed. It turns out many sequences on this sheet of paper follow the same pattern: first the date, then the number of people who were killed in some disaster or accident. Even better, three of the dates and their accompanying death tolls haven’t happened yet!!

It’s hard not to be sucked in by a premise this nifty — admit it, you really want to know where that paper came from, and how (or whether) John can prevent the upcoming tragedies. This leads to the bigger question of determinism versus randomness, and along with the religious and philosophical questions are some puzzling plot elements like a group of odd men who seem to lurk in the periphery of John and Caleb’s lives. What the eff does it all add up to?

As I said, some of the answers are a letdown, especially after the straightforward, white-knuckle excitement of the action sequences (including a horrific plane crash). In the end, the whole thing’s rather preposterous — but you gotta admire Proyas’ nerve for going there. There’s never a dull moment, nor is it a film you’ll soon forget.

B (2 hrs., 1 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some intense sequences of disasters, moderate violence, nothing too graphic.)

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