American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Knowing" is among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome. In its very different way, it is comparable to the great "Dark City," by the same director, Alex Proyas. That film was about the hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit, and so is this one.
The plot involves the most fundamental of all philosophical debates: Is the universe deterministic or random? Is everything in some way preordained or does it happen by chance? If that questions sounds too abstract, wait until you see this film, which poses it in stark terms: What if we could know in advance when the Earth will end?
Nicolas Cage, in another wound-up, edgy performance, plays John Koestler, a professor of astrophysics at MIT. He votes for deterministic; as he tells his class, he believes "s**t happens." His wife has died, and he's raising his young son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). A time capsule is opened at Caleb's school, containing the drawings of students in 1959 predicting the sights of 2009. But the sheet Caleb gets isn't a drawing; it's covered with rows of numbers. In a prologue, we've seen the girl with haunted eyes, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), who so intensely pressed the numbers into the paper.
What do these numbers mean? You already know from the TV ads, but I don't believe I should tell you. I'll write another article that will contain spoilers. Let me say that Koestler discovers almost by accident a pattern in the numbers, and they shake his scientific mind to its core. His obsession is scoffed at by his MIT colleague, a cosmologist named Phil Beckman (Ben Mendelsohn), who warns Koestler against the heresy of numerology -- the finding of imaginary patterns in numbers. Mendelsohn's passionate arguments, which are not technical yet are scientifically sound, raise the stakes. This is not a movie about psychic mumble-jumble; Koestler is a hard-headed scientist, too, or always thought he was, until that page of numbers came into his hands.