Where to begin? How to respond to a fiasco on the scale of "Knowing," the insane numerological thriller starring Nicolas Cage as an MIT prof whose scientific rationality is shaken by predictions of doom?

Do you start on the micro scale, with miscues and oops moments? It's hard to place much faith in a thriller where police search for a lost child in a schoolhouse by flashlight when they could just turn on the lights. Or to believe that a Boston astrophysicist would drive a globe-warming Ford F-150. Or that Cage's Prof. John Koestler, a boozing recent widower, would be focused enough to glance at a page of tightly packed number strings from a 50-year-old time capsule and recognize the month, day, year and fatality toll of the World Trade Center attacks.

Maybe it's best to open on the macro scale, challenging the story's "Close Encounters of the Theological Kind" premise, which squanders a mysterious setup in promiscuous eruptions of sentimentality and New Age brain fog. Cribbing shamelessly from M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," the film gives us Cage as a rationalist who sees existence as sheer coincidence. He's the resentful son of a pastor, and what little faith he had was erased after his wife died.

When John's son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) opens a note from his school's time capsule, crammed with data relating to high-fatality disasters over the past 50 years, it's clear that John will have to wrestle with the demons of his skepticism. The stakes are life and death, because the final three clues point to imminent catastrophes. Soon menacing figures are appearing in Caleb's bedroom, frightening him with images of horizon-filling forest fires.

Cage, whose name on movie posters has become a kind of Mr. Yuk warning label, acts with the grimace of a man suffering a savage stomachache. When he chases an intruder into the woods, pounding his baseball bat against a tree as a warning, the moment teeters from drama to unintended comedy.

It's best not to be too specific about the later acts of the story, except to say that a great deal of money was spent simulating global disaster. The resolution of the mysterious visitors' mission and John's crisis of faith feels more like an excuse to stage some hellacious cataclysms than the product of a genuine belief in anything at all.