I wonder how many people today know who Rube Goldberg was. He was a cartoonist who specialized in the creation of elaborate mechanical devices to accomplish simple tasks, like those contraptions in old cartoons that go through a variety of actions just to drop a bowling ball on a cat’s foot.

The characters in “Knowing” are all living in a Rube Goldberg device, but don’t know it.

John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is an M.I.T. astrophysicist who lectures on the philosophical basis of the universe. Is everything determined so that whatever happens is for a reason, or do things occur at random “” the “shit happens” view of life? Koestler has recently lost his wife in a hotel fire, so he’s a “shit happens” kind of guy.

One day, his son (Chandler Canterbury, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) brings home a sheet of paper filled with what appear to be random numbers that’s been unearthed from a 50-year-old time capsule. John fools around with it and discovers the numbers predict the date of every major global disaster since 1959. Koestler suspects the last few dates are predictions of disasters yet to happen, ending in 2009.

Then mysterious strangers start showing up around the house, whispering silently to his son. He tracks down Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne, “28 Weeks Later”), the daughter of the little girl who wrote down the numbers in 1959, only to discover that she and her daughter (Lara Robinson, who also plays the 1959 girl), are also being spied on by strange men in long black overcoats.

What is the nature of the last predicted disaster on the list of numbers? Who are these weird, whispering men? Is everything already determined or can the future be changed?

The film is directed by Alex Proyas (“I, Robot,” “Dark City”), who has a good eye for spectacle “” plane crashes, subway crashes, large-scale fires “” but who allows the script by Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White and Stuart Hazeldine to get too complicated and apparently wouldn’t understand basic logic if it dropped a bowling ball on his foot.

The writers all have a problem with story construction. There’s a theory of comedy that suggests laughter results when too much energy is expended to achieve a slight result, hence the Rube Goldberg machines. Or think of a cartoon character “” say, Bugs Bunny “” going through a series of wild gyrations and physical contortions to pitch a baseball, only to have it leave his hand and sail a few feet before hitting the ground. Or “” and I’m not implying that I find this funny “” think of opening a watermelon with a sledgehammer.

The first two-thirds of “Knowing,” when everything is still a mystery, is quite good. Proyas keeps the characters nervous and perplexed, and the suspense level remains high. It’s only when explanations are offered that shit happens. The spectacle content remains high (the sledgehammer), but the intellectual contents bottoms out (the watermelon.)

“Knowing” is a nice try, but it doesn’t win the cigar.

“”Doug Bentin


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