Gotta know when to hold back

"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.

A different Cage is coming to theatres in the 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," says Cage, now 45 and 26 years removed from his breakthrough performance in the quirky 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 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 its centre.

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 co-ordinates 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 might foretell a looming disaster of global proportions.

"He's a man of science with a pragmatic view of the world," Cage says.

"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 film-making 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."

To ground the film, Proyas, whose previous projects include The Crow, Dark City and I, Robot, put in references to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and also took the supernatural script towards science fiction: "It's a genre I'm secure in; there are rules and parameters around the story. ...

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 says.

"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 says.

"I wanted this naturalistic approach. I also didn't want to glamorise the events. ... I wanted it to be raw and brutal in every way."

Cage, coming off Bangkok Dangerous, National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Next (which also had a see-the-future plot), was concerned about the calibre 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 says.

"I never appear in posters with a gun - that's a career decision I've made - but the films, I'm realising, when you take a step back, there's quite a few that have guns.

"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 says he also had 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.

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 says, "is deep beyond his years"), but at times Cage felt as if 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 says.

"Sometimes, it all comes together. You can never really predict it."

- Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post


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