"Eccentric" can be a coded insult when it comes to Hollywood leading men unless they happen to be named Johnny Depp. Take Nicolas Cage, whose bellowing, wild-eyed performances can make him seem as measured as a man with his head on fire -- and not just in "Ghost Rider." This Friday though, a different Cage is in theaters in the eerie Alex Proyas thriller "Knowing." In this movie, the star known for "taking chances" (another bit of code) is a model of restraint in a world wobbling on the edge of disaster.
"This is the perfect movie for what I wanted to do at this time," said Cage, now 45 and 26 years removed from his breakthrough performance in the quirky classic "Valley Girl." "I'm attracted to science fiction films because they are the place now where you can address powerful subjects in an abstract landscape. These are the films today that ask the intelligent questions. My feeling too is that when you're in a film with extreme and paranormal things happening, one approach is to take the character to a very natural performance, which is the choice that Alex and I made with this film."
The result is a caged Cage, one that might remind some viewers of fellow action-hero Bruce Willis in his relatively stately performance in "The Sixth Sense." Like that 1999 hit thriller, "Knowing" presents a man trying to make sense of a disturbing puzzle that has a youngster at the center of it. Cage portrays John Koestler, an astrophysics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose son, Caleb (played by Chandler Canterbury), attends a school ceremony at which a 50-year-old time capsule is opened. The child ends up with a piece of paper from the capsule that is covered with rows of numbers; his father discovers that the digits are hardly random -- they accurately predicted the date, death toll and coordinates of every major disaster since the Eisenhower administration.
The perplexed scientist delves further into the mystery and a dark suspicion begins to grip him: The document may foretell a looming disaster of global proportions.
"He's a man of science with a pragmatic view of the world," Cage said. "He subscribes to the world view that everything can be explained by science and Alex and I both agreed that he should be constantly challenging these incredible happenings. His disbelief makes the movie believable. And the approach of the filmmaking is natural and realistic, but also very gripping and unique. And that's Alex. Alex Proyas is definitely an artist. I've enjoyed his work for many years. He has the signature films of a visionary."
Proyas, born in Egypt and raised in Australia by parents of Greek heritage, does have an intriguing filmography. His work on "The Crow," the brooding and bloody 1994 comic-book adaptation, now seems ahead of its time with the success of such films as "The Dark Knight," and though his films "Dark City" and "I, Robot" were given mixed reviews, they were generally praised as stylishly intriguing. With this movie, Proyas joins a busy Hollywood sector: There seems to be a robust interest these days in End Times cinema, for lack of a better term, with movies as varied as "Children of Men," "I Am Legend" and the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Proyas said the script for "Knowing" circulated for years but that, without a doubt, it resonates in the modern mind-set.
Rooted in reality
"I think it does speak to some of the things that people are thinking about," Proyas said, "and in times of crisis our thoughts go to our families, we get a focus and intensity, and this movie is about that."
To ground the film, Proyas put in references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and also took the supernatural script toward science fiction: "It's a genre I'm secure in, there are rules and parameters around the story. This is a script that many people have been interested in; a time capsule that predicts the future, that's an idea that gets under people's skin. To me the film is about a spiritual quest for this man who believes the universe is governed by random principles [not destiny]."
The director mulled over different leading men but Cage kept coming back to mind.
"There's an incredible range of extremes in his work, he's been very brave in his choice of roles and the way he plays them and I always admired that," Proyas said. "He has this combination of intelligence and passion both as an actor and as a person."
As the movie hurtles along, Cage's character seeks out the predicted calamities. Two scenes will be certain conversation pieces for moviegoers: a plane crash and a subway disaster, both filmed with spare, methodical camera movement that heightens the shock of impact as well as the fragility of the human body amid metal masses. Proyas said it was not the modern ballet version of movie mayhem.
"Right before you're in a car accident, the orchestra doesn't play really loudly right before it happens," Proyas said. "I wanted this naturalistic approach. I also didn't want to glamorize the events. I was reacting against the Hollywood movies that makes these disaster sequences almost glamorous in a way with these unnatural camera angles. I wanted it to be raw and brutal in every way."
The film not only sidesteps fashionable explosions, it doesn't give the tidy answers.
"I think the movie will make people think but it won't tell them what to think," Cage said.
For Cage, coming off "Bangkok Dangerous," "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and "Next" (which also had a see-the-future plot), he was concerned about the caliber of his next film, literally.
"I'm at a place in my career where I'm a bit concerned about the frequency of seeing my face in movies where the screen is full of people with guns; I'm tired of this hieroglyphic of me and a gun," Cage said. "I never appear in posters with a gun, that's a career decision I've made, but the films, I'm realizing, when you take a step back, there's quite a few that have guns. For me, personally, I wanted to spend less time with gunfire. One of the things I'm attempting to be more aware of is the power of films and the responsibility that comes with that. Movies have the power to change people's minds."
Cage said he had also been wanting to make a film about a single father (his character in "Knowing" is a widower) and that issues of mortality and parenting in "Knowing" resonated with him personally. During the four-month shoot in Melbourne, Australia, Cage mined his own emotional memories of raising his eldest son, Weston (now 18), and speaking to the youngster about fear of loss and the unknown.
Part of that came from working opposite 10-year-old Houston native Canterbury ("This young man," Cage said, "is deep beyond his years"), but at times Cage felt like he was trading lines with his own past.
"My life experience and my desire to make a film at this time that spoke about important things, it came together into this perfect marriage," Cage said. "Sometimes, it all comes together. You can never really predict it."