When a time capsule is opened at his son’s school’s 50th anniversary, Nicholas Cage, a professor at MIT who has given up the search for meaning in life after his wife’s death and become estranged from his father (a minister), discovers that a piece of paper covered with numbers by a schoolgirl 50 years before in fact predicts major global disasters since it was buried. There are only three left, and the last one may be the end of the world.

Knowing was visually lovely: the observatory white over autumn foliage, the floating stones, the quality of light in the 1959 classroom, the little details of life. Visual beauty cannot always save a speculative/philosophical film (c.f. What Dreams May Come, Dreamcatcher), but it can make it a pleasure to watch with the sound off. What seemed ultimately hollow was the loss of that beauty.

It was also remarkably restrained. There was a surprising amount of hugging (I’d be interested to get a final tally), but no love interest. What promised to be an awkward blind date never eventuated. The major female characters were Cage’s sister and a drawn and haunted Rose Byrne who never was the subject of a romance (she got hugged, but no-one will escape). Considering the final role of the children, the child characters never took centre stage. Necessary graphic violence was not accompanied by gratuitous gore. Anguish and heartbreak and terror, while visible, were not dwelt on, and there were scenes and histories and possible side-stories which were alluded to but not pursued. That same restraint, however, ultimately cheapened all those lives.
The restraint did make the movie occasionally creepy. We knew we were being played – the light, the music, the placement of windows in a scene – but the audience, to its own amusement, yelped more than once. The sudden contrast of the full-on scenes of destruction were also (variably) effective. I quite like epic, world-destroying cinematography, and although the scenes were not always believable and sometimes over the top, they weren’t flinching, and the devastation seemed appropriately devastating. It’s just a shame that the destruction was more interesting than what was being destroyed.

The lack of connection may be Nicholas Cage’s fault, because I don’t watch him to see him emote. It’s not that he can’t. I could see the emotions he was going for quite clearly. I wanted to feel for the man, but I kept giggling, or worrying he was accidentally going to do the splits. Of course, it may not be all Cage’s fault – I noted at the very beginning that I wished the X-Files movie had started like this one, and all to the end I kept thinking that a few tweaks would have made this a passable X-File, and in that case we could have watched David Duchovny while not thinking about the science or the plot (which were so aerated I’m not going to go into them).

In the end, there was no-one else to think about except Cage. No-one did anything. Well, Rose Byrne stole a car, and we approved of that, but most characters stagnated and were odd, or off-screen and I didn’t care about them one way or the other enough to be particularly concerned with their fates. Not even the animals. Not even the rabbits. Especially not the rabbits. As a result I did not find the ending hopeful or tragic or appropriate or anything I thought it might be meant to be. Disturbing and peculiar and odd, yes. With alien-angel beings and religious references which didn’t prove anything or go anywhere, and vaguely prehensile-looking grass.

Without the philosophical/religious underpinnings, this might have been just another end of the world, but the movie’s allusions and questions and conclusion didn’t make me think or twist my view of reality or raise or answer any questions. They seemed to me to be so shallow, gratuitous and wrong that ultimately my reaction to the movie was not “whoa” but “huh”. Or possibly, “Huh?”.

Disclosure: I received the pass in return for doing a review.

If you like one-line reviews: It was Deep Impact meets a Watchtower tract (purely for the visual impact of the final scenes).

Further thoughts: Lately I’ve been thinking about whether and how religion and philosophy combine with science fiction (or fiction at all). For example, if you level the playing field as far as research and characterisation, I have big (literary) issues with a lot of ‘Christian fiction’ and barely any with secular fiction which happens to have Christians in it, even if one is as orthodox as the other. It may be a difference between being hit over the head with something and observing someone else live out what they believe, but I’m still refining those thoughts.