Thursday, August 11, 2011

Justify Your Shitty Taste: Knowing

Here’s an interesting query: You’re running late for work and in one of those “doh” moments can’t find your keys, only to realize they are in your pocket. The whole ordeal only takes about thirty seconds out of your day but, while approaching a stop sign on the way a car appears out of nowhere and runs it. If you hadn’t had that momentary lapse, you very well could have been road kill.

Question is: was our losing the keys just a random hiccup of the brain or part of a preordained destiny? How easy it is to take for granted that stopping to tie a shoe, turning left instead of right, looking down instead of up, etc. could potentially be the difference between life of death. But whose terms do we really operate on, ours or the universes?

Think before deciding. If life is random than we simply go through the motions until our death and everything is meaningless, but if life is predetermined, free will is an extinct commodity, ultimately thwarting many religious and political debates as every suicide or abortion were already planned by a being greater than our human capacity could ever comprehend. If I’m writing this because it’s my destiny, then you’re reading it for the same reasons.

These are the things that entered my mind while watching Alex Proyas’ Knowing, which does something rare for this day and age: it manages to be both a stunning entertainment and unimaginably intelligent. It’s a rare science fiction film that doesn’t compromise its integrity by throwing it away to spectacle.

Knowing is a film that asks its audience to sit, watch, listen and, most importantly, pay attention while it spins its tale of destruction. So rare is it that a film stretches itself without apology to the very limits of its narrative possibilities (even if that means into the realms of the preposterous) these days that it is mistaken as bad filmmaking. Knowing is a film that, like all great science fiction, knows that art is a vehicle for raising questions, not giving them arbitrary answers.

Nicholas Cage stars as John Koestler, a professor of astrophysics who believes that the universe is comprised of a series of random events after his wife was killed while out of town when her hotel catches fire. John has a young son named Caleb who receives a mysterious paper covered in random numbers when a ceremony is held at his school to unlock a time capsule buried fifty years prior. The paper was written by the disturbed Lucinda Embry whose assignment for the capsule was to draw a picture of how she though the future would look.

What John slowly begins to realize after analyzing the paper is that the numbers form a code, predicting all of the disasters that will precede the end of the world. The numbers provide the date of the tragedy, the body count and the coordinates of the location. According to the code there are three disasters left before the world ends, all three of which, visually speaking, set a new standard in what special effects can achieve.

As John becomes obsessed with the code he desperately tries to track down the late Lucinda’s daughter for answers. Meanwhile, Caleb begins being visited by strange, darkly cloaked men whose constant whispers in his head also afflicted the young Lucinda and seem to be telling him something. Is Caleb a messenger for God or a victim of his own psyche?

Proyas, whose Dark City was also a (very different) masterpiece about the nature of human existence, takes what could have easily been a mindless entertainment (as the trailers make it out to be) or an absolute train wreck (as it would have been under original helmer Richard Kelly) and infuses it, not only with mind bending special effects, thrilling chases, and gripping storytelling, but with complex and intelligent images that are constantly contradictory to one another. At its heart Knowing is a constant battle between science and theology, the possible and the divine, the physical and the metaphysical, and so on. It, like The Dark Knight and Watchmen will be the central focus of many scholarly essays to come

The brilliance of the film, and arguably most of its suspense, lies in how it is never quite willing to tip the scales in favor of one side. I dare not even hint at the outcome of the story, which is next to impossible to predict, but to draw attention to how even the circumstances that govern it cannot simply be pegged down to that of the scientific or the Biblical. Can it be that one becomes real, or at least possible, in light of the other? Or will they constantly cancel each other’s integrity out: the Bible explaining everything that science can’t and science explaining everything the Bible can’t? What does that say about the nature of our existence? It may be easy to write the conclusion of this film off as improbable, but the debates it raises are real and, like all great science fiction, it believes in them down to the very last frame.

It’s truly rare these days to find a film whose vast intelligence is not confined to the insufficient demands of the running time, nor whose ideas are limited to the images on screen. A film whose musings slowly slip from the screen and out into the world because they are larger and more important than just getting a story from beginning to end. A film that is, to top it all off, one hell of a thrill ride. Yes, films like that are rare. Knowing is exactly one of them.


  1. Well, you and I have talked about this. I think Knowing is a fine, fine film in ways I found surprising and moving. Nice to see it again in print. Hope it can convince some folks to check it out.

  2. I also like Knowing quite a bit. However, I think you sell short one of its most chilling aspects in this description here. When the code is first discovered, they don't know that it's leading up to the end of the world -- they just know the numbers ominously stop three incidents from now. They believe the last incident to involve the deaths of 33 people. But it isn't 33 -- it's EE, which is first read as 33 because it keeps with the numerical pattern to this point. It's the moment when you learn what EE means -- Everyone Else -- that Knowing truly blew my mind.

  3. Very interesting concept and might do one myself. Have to go through my list of movies to see which ones everybody seems to hate, but I absolutely love.