Nicolas Cage fans are a dispirited bunch by now. In the 14 years since his Oscar-winning performance in "Leaving Las Vegas," Cage has made a number of fine, underrated films (like "Matchstick Men"); some mega-profitable blockbusters ("Ghost Rider" the most baffling); and an awful lot of dreck (last year's "Bangkok Dangerous" being a resounding new low). Rarely has such a talented actor been so ill-served by his own career choices.

So Cage's new movie is a surprise. "Knowing" is a big creepy sci-fi thriller — or two-thirds of one, anyway — which, before it collapses into head-spinning silliness at the end, provides some real shivers and, thanks to ace director Alex Proyas ("Dark City"), some top-flight CGI mayhem.

Our man plays John Koestler, a widowed MIT astrophysicist who lives with his little boy, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), in a big gloomy country house with matching big gloomy woods out back. Being a scientist, John is in thrall to reason; however, in a movie like this, when you hear somebody say, "There is no grand meaning, there is no purpose," you know he'll be dining on that dialogue in very short order.

The story actually gets underway in 1959, with a classroom of kids being instructed to take up paper and pen and draw their idea of what the world will look like 50 years in the future. The drawings will be buried in a time capsule on the school grounds. We see the kids scrawling away, and then we notice a strange little girl named Lucinda (Lara Robinson) filling her paper with obsessively cramped rows of numbers. Weird.

Fifty years later — now, that is — the time capsule is exhumed, the papers inside are passed out to the youth of today, and Caleb gets Lucinda's sheet full of figures. He takes it home to Dad, who doesn't make much of it at first; but then he spots the number "911" — yes, that 9/11. Soon, Googling furiously, John determines that most of the numbers on the paper refer to major world disasters that have occurred over the past half-century. Some of the numbers don't seem to refer to anything, though — well, Not Yet.

It quickly becomes clear that Lucinda's numbers are a map of horrors both past and yet to come, and soon John — goosed along by a soundtrack scored for giant metallic insects — is racing around the East Coast trying to head them off. Before long a woman named Diana (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby (Robinson again) are drawn into his desperate quest, as are a group of strange blond men in black raincoats who loom up in unexpected places from time to time in an entirely successful effort to keep things scary.

There are two terrific action scenes. In one, an airplane comes plowing down out of the sky, just missing John as it cartwheels across a field spreading wreckage and flaming bodies across the landscape. In the other — a New York subway disaster — out-of-control trains fly off the tracks and up on the platforms as commuters flee in terror. These are almost pure CGI sequences, but they're so well-constructed, and executed with such maniacal brio, that they leave you gut-punched and breathless. People were cheering at the screening I attended.

So what did Lucinda know? What ever happened to her? What's gonna happen to us? John slowly learns the answers to those questions, and several more, and they're not reassuring. Global-warming enthusiasts may be happy to be told that their famous fears aren't entirely off the mark ("This heat we're experiencing isn't gonna get better," John says, prompting an irrational hope that the dialogue will), but generally the future depicted here is seriously cheerless. As it burrows down into seldom-explored depths of ridiculosity, however, the movie doesn't prompt speculation about how the world might end so much as it moves us to wonder what shiny black pebbles and fluffy white bunnies could possibly have to do with it. Did Nic know about this stuff going in? (Still a silly question, I fear.)

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "I Love You, Man" and "Duplicity," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Knowing." For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.