Just as the Bush years incited a resurgence of horror flicks and the popularization of torture porn, Hollywood has decided to ride the current cultural zeitgeist — mortgage failures, economic depression, global warming, political instability — with tales of the impending apocalypse. Strolling through the Ann Arbor Borders, you can't miss the end-cap display entitled: "Apocalypse Wow." A slate of end-of-world scenarios has entered the cinema pipeline with Roland Emmerich's 2012 set for release in November and Cormac McCarthy's doomsday gagfest The Road due in theaters later this year. Never let it be said that corporate America didn't know how to exploit fears for dollars.

Considering Nicolas Cage's recent cinematic batting average, Knowing probably isn't high on anyone's must-see list. The good news is that this sci-fi end-of-days thriller is head-and-shoulders above his last half-dozen flicks (Bangkok Dangerous, Next, National Treasure 2, Ghost Rider and Wicker Man). The bad news: It's not that much better.

Directed by Alex Proyas, who once showed much promise with his moody goth-fantasias Dark City and The Crow, Knowing is stunningly stylized with nightmarish imagery and thick atmospherics but hopelessly muddled and clichéd.

Cage plays a shell-shocked MIT astrophysics professor and widowed dad, struggling to raise his obstinate son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) while hitting the bottle each night before bed. When the boy's school unearths a time capsule full of letters from students 50 years ago, Caleb falls under the spell of a note written by a tormented young girl from the past. Unlike the other letters to the future, which feature sketches of rocket ships and robots, hers contains a long string of nonsensical numbers — nonsensical to everyone but an MIT egghead who connects them to both past and future calamities. Soon mysterious figures haunt the house, Caleb starts hearing voices and disturbing portents point to a horrific catastrophe. Joining forces with the adult daughter (Rose Byrne) of the letter's distraught author, Cage races against time to, yup, save the world.

The funny thing is, Knowing starts on an intriguingly paranormal note — Cage holds attention as a man spiritually wounded by the death of his wife but driven to understand the letter's unfolding mystery. By midpoint, however, Proyas has shifted to creepy disaster-movie mode, unleashing some frighteningly violent mayhem — a plane crash where burning survivors rush the camera and a bone-crunching subway disaster. It's here that Cage's deadpan brooding overstays its welcome and we wonder where the hell things are going and why we should care. Full tilt sci-fi is the answer. The screenwriters blend Close Encounters of the Third Kind metaphysics with a bunch of religious mumbo jumbo to deliver an eye-rolling finale that even the shameless Cage can't quite swallow. And despite its silly stab at "angelic" intervention, Knowing's biblical implications will only piss off the Left Behinders.

The movie might've come a little closer to working if its performances weren't so hollow and clichés weren't so thick. From the "I know how this sounds" dialogue to the crazy person's news-clipping room, Knowing is a long parade of overly familiar milestones and soap opera-ish contrivances. Can you predict the box-office future of this terribly titled thriller? For the studio execs who greenlighted this script, ignorance is probably bliss.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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