Apr 11 2009
Knowing is a film by Alex Proyas (“Dark City,” “The Crow,” “I, Robot”) and stars Nicholas Cage. I saw “Knowing” today, and my little brain has been loudly, intelligently, chillingly, fearsomely, alarminlgy blown. I’ve wracked my imagination to try to think what sort of story would scratch the itch of this time, these days. As I watched this film, I realized with great satisfaction that Alex Proyas has accomplished what I have been trying to discover. This is a great film for our time, and while it is not perfect, it is very powerful. The last time I was moved in a movie theater was last summer for Chris Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” This feels like a more important film. It deals with titanic themes in a thoughtful way, and tapped into the growing dread of a future that may be spinning out of our control, if indeed we had any control over our lives to begin with..
This is the sort of film that the less you know about it going in, the better, so I’ll write this review in very general terms. Those who have seen the film will know what I’m referring to, but those who haven’t will only get a taste of the overall production.
“Knowing” is not an easy movie to unpack, so I’ll divide this review up into sections. There are a few interesting things going on here:
- A discussion of determinism versus randomness
- A filmatic style that is part thriller, part mystery, part disaster film
- A musing, as Roger Ebert wrote, “…about the hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit”
I’ll write about these three first, but will finish with one last thing that undergirds and overshadows everything else.
[Determinism versus randomness]
Let’s begin fifty years before the events of the current day. What if a tortured little girl left a message in code that accurately depicted when every major disaster occurred for the next fifty years? What if you were the gifted M.I.T. professor who decoded the message. What if she predicted three final disasters. Knowing that fact, what would you do about it? For that matter, what could you do about it?
The main character, John Koestler, played to perfection by a nuanced, angsty Nicholas Cage, is a professor of astrophysics at M.I.T. He’s lost his wife, and his faith, but enjoys a great relationship with his son, Caleb, (Chandler Canterbury). Caleb loves animals, has a hearing aid in his right ear, and worries about his dad. He has a childlike faith in heaven that his father is not able to bring himself to replicate. It becomes a theme in the film.
John has his own issues with faith and relationship, having been estranged from his own minister father in the aftermath of his wife’s random and seemingly senseless death. However, instead of being a staunch unbeliever, his current belief system is pragmatic; that one can’t know if there is or isn’t a heaven. I can’t say much more without giving much away, so I’ll move on. Suffice it to say that Orson Scott Card didn’t have any use for the terms as they were used in the film, but that I didn’t give them much thought because I was more interested in the characters and what they faced, and how they faced it.
When I saw the updated Godzilla in 1998, I was disappointed with a scene late in the film where Madison Square Garden has become a spawning nest for little dinosaur-like lizards, all as immediately feral and intelligent as the raptors in the earlier Jurassic Park films (1993 and 1997). It seemed like a classic case of ‘me-too-ism.’ There are elements of suspense in this film that seem like horror, but they are not. They were spooky and terrifying in the moment, but when seen in the larger scheme of things, they are rationally and appropriately explained. My primary problem with similar scenes in horror films is that the underlying premise is so absurd that what follows has little resonance for this reality.
In “Knowing,” there are scenes where a thin, blond, mysterious man (or men) is watching John’s son, Caleb, and they get closer as the film ratches up the tension of events. They almost appear albino, which might explain why they only appear at night, or it may be that they are, instead, figments of nightmare. A pivotal encounter between John, who has bought a handgun, and one of the ‘whisper people’ ends in (for me) a delightfully unexpected fashion. I have long been taught that light is a metaphor for truth, and casts out all darkness, a metaphor for death, however, in this film, the light itself is a metaphor for death, and is used to great effect in their encounter. But while startling, many of the elements in this film are not, in themselves, fatal, and that brings an interesting flavor to things. The things that appear dangerous may be something else, and the things that appear to be normal and ordered are shown to be sometimes untrustworthy and very, very deadly.
I thought the overall feeling of mounting dread was handled very well, and were not unfairly foreshadowed. Everything fit, and nearly everything had an answer I could buy.
[The hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit]
In his first review of Alex Proyas’ science fiction masterpiece, “Dark City” (1998), Roger Ebert wrote “If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then “Dark City” is a film to nourish us.” With “Knowing,” Proyas has done it again, giving us, if not new images, at least a new way of looking of the world we inhabit. In the recent version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008), there is an exchange that treads some similar ground.
Regina Jackson: I speak for the President of the United States. Now, please; tell me why have you come to our planet.
Klaatu: *Your* planet.
Regina Jackson: Yes; this is our planet.
Klaatu: No, it is not.
In “Knowing,” a sequence of fantastic events and visitations by elusive strangers create the uncomfortable feeling that our collective assumptions about our place on this earth may be incorrect. Does man have dominion over the earth, or is just where he happens to live at the moment? It can be very disquieting to believe, for one’s entire life, that one is master of a thing, only to discover that there is ultimately very little one truly owns with complete and utter authority. If Proyas released this film early in 2009, he likely took a year or two to craft the film, and probably was working on the script for far longer than that. And yet, in light of the current global geopolitical situation, the film seems almost prescient. How much of our own ownership and freedom is genuine, and how much is at best illusory? How much will change in our lifetimes, and perhaps even in the next few years? Is there nothing we can do, or do we have one last trump of our own to play that might change everything?
“Knowing” has been received in an interesting fashion. Some love it, some hate it, but the divide is not so easily apparent. Some very heavy hitters adore the film. Roger Ebert, who tends to lean to the Left, gave it four stars.
“”Knowing” is among the best science-fiction films I’ve seen — frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome.”
Orson Scott Card is as Conservative as they get, and also raved about it.
“The mainstream critics have generally been spiteful to this movie, faulting it for depending on too many coincidences in the plot, Nicolas Cage being an unlikely hero, and melodramatic music popping up at inappropriate moments.
By the end, all the coincidences are fully explained and make sense; Nicolas Cage is supposed to be an unlikely hero so casting him was one of the best decisions in this film.
My family and I enjoyed this movie. We found ourselves caring about the family and empathizing with the situation. Knowing is far from perfect, but it’s also far from bad. It makes some brave choices and deals with issues of faith and religion with balance and sense.”
However, noted SF author Nancy Kress was less entranced.
“This movie does what 90% of SF movies do: sacrifice sense and logic for special effects. It starts out well enough, with the planting of an intriguing supernatural mystery exemplified by one of the spookiest little girls I’ve ever seen. Then 50 years pass, the mystery is logically brought to life and begins to operate in the present, and I was genuinely interested. Where might this go?
Where it went, was off the rails.”
However, critic Peter T. Chattaway summed it up this way:
“…even when Proyas takes the movie in a truly grandiose and even cosmic direction, he never loses sight of the human elementâ€”and full credit has to go to Cage (who has been known to slip into self-parody all too easily in other, ostensibly serious films) for giving his role here just the right degree of dramatic weight. A climactic scene between John and Caleb is especially devastating, as father and son confront an outcome that is, at once, both arbitrary and inevitable, both a result of their own free will and something that has been forced upon them for reasons that they simply do not understand.”
The last point I referred to earlier is the trickiest, and concerns the nature of sci-fi versus what I think of as spiritual reality, and most will call ‘religion.’ The film concerns a pattern in numbers buried for fifty years as part of an elementary school ‘time capsule.’ Even in this telling of the story, I’m being a little disingenuous. The numbers constitute an apparent prophecy, and this angle needs to be discussed.
The very title of the film has multiple meanings. The word ‘knowing’ is, perhaps, another word for ‘faith,’ but faith in what or whom, and why?
In scripture, a prophet was one who spoke with the voice of God himself and foretold events with complete accuracy. Because God himself claims to exist outside of time, he states he, alone, knows the future and can convey completely accurate information about the future to mankind for his own glory. In the film, the prophecy in 1959 does not come from God, but from another source. While that works to make a very compelling sci-fi film, it does create trouble for people who take the scriptural definition of a prophet and prophecy at face value. God could use other means to predict the future, but he has not used sci-fi conventions in the past, so it strains the imagination that he would start to do so in 1959.
I’ve long thought that the right story at the right time can capture the fancy of a nation, or a world. When Star Wars hit in 1977, the political and social times were ripe for a little shamelessly escapist good vs. evil fantastic fiction. We were coming out of a brutal and distasteful conflict, when we were suspicious of government and collectively looking for something heroic. But at the risk of alienating part of my audience, Star Wars was a merely secular story. For a more appropriate analogy, we should go back back to 1886, the year when Robert Louis Stevenson’s nightmares about darkness and death and the brutality of man bore interesting fruit. Seized by these dark visions, he awoke and wrote feverishly for three weeks to capture the dread message. But when he realized the dream was not meant to be an journal entry but an allegory for the brutishness of man, he burnt his original manuscript and furiously rewrote the story as prose. That story, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” was a smash hit. The reaction was swiftâ€”the people of the day loved it and embraced it as a moral cautionary tale.
The story has been considered an criticism of Victorian double morality, but it can be read as a comment on Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species – Dr. Jekyll turns in his experiment the evolution backwards and reveals the primitive background of a cultured human being. Henry James admired Stevenson’s “genuine feeling for the perpetual moral question, a fresh sense of the difficulty of being good and the brutishness of being bad”. (‘Robert Louis Stevenson’ by Henry James in Century Magazine 35, April 1888)
This is a frank film. The disasters are unflinchingly depicted, and while I enjoyed the brass that it took to so graphically display the events, the loss of human life was horrifying. The director, Proyas, didn’t pull any punches. In Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” one gets the feeling that the director wanted to show us D-Day in all its brutality for what it really was so the emotional impact in the conclusion of the film had appropriate heft. Ebert writes “Matt Damon, as Pvt. Ryan, exudes a different energy, because he has not been through the landing at Omaha Beach; as a paratrooper, he landed inland, and although he has seen action he has not gazed into the inferno.” It is as if the simple act of living a good and decent life is more harrowing, if less immediate, than enduring the crucible of death while storming the beach. In “Knowing,” the inferno comes in three distinct forms; sorrow at losing a loved one, terror of protecting (or not being able to fully protect) another loved one, and finally a literal inferno of such scope that it is literally unprecedented. And yet, despite all the dawning horror, the sudden and unexpected bouts with terror, and an inescapable and mounting dread, there is a core of hope and wonder in this film, a release valve if you will, that makes it all worthwhile.
But Proyas doesn’t make it easy. We all have our own journey, and we all have our own conditions of what we could define as victory. It was interesting to me that each character in the film had a different definition, and that what was a crowning moment of wonder and achievement for one was a moment of ultimate sacrifice and despair for another.
Setting aside the nit about the source of prophetic foretelling in the film, I was able to enjoy, and indeed, be caught up in, the film taken on its own terms.
Setting aside the quasi-spiritual hints in the film, the movie really seemed to me to be about the tenuousness of life, about keeping a short list of affairs. My favorite scene occurred in the denouement of the film, after the emotional climax, when the story was wrapping up. Proyas saved the biggest spectacle for last, after the primary events have been satisfied. There is a scene of ultimate dread juxtaposed with a scene of ultimate grace and peace and (dare I say) joy. The message I took away was that despite an increasing sense that history may be going in a different direction than we thought or hoped or expected, we can still find solace in taking care of unfinished business in our respective lives. That come what may, we can still find peace in the face of ultimate disaster, and that while we may come to realize that we control very little about our respective futures, we do control the choices we make in the present. Don’t waste the opportunity to make amends, for no one knows what tomorrow may bring with the next rising of the sun.
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