When Alex Proyas’ latest film, Knowing, was released this past March, it did not fare well with either critics or at the box office. With the film being released on DVD and Blu-Ray today, Michael McGonigle offers a second look at the film.
There is no way to write about Knowing without giving the plot secrets away. If you are planning to see this film and want the narrative surprises to remain surprising, you have to stop reading this article now. I really mean it. Stop now. I will not be blamed for spoiling the film if you keep reading. See the film and come back.
If you are still reading, I will presume you have seen the film and will not be bothered by the plot elements I reveal.
The biggest surprise about Knowing is the fact I liked it a lot. This will trouble my friends and fellow critics because on the surface, a film containing prognostications of disasters, coupled with science fiction and horror elements and leavened with unsubtle religious allegory is generally the kind of film I would avoid like a dose of the clap. Yet, director Alex Proyas’s stylish film about a grieving MIT astrophysicist who slowly comes to believe that a piece of paper listing random numbers unearthed from a sealed time capsule is actually a list of dates and death tolls for major disasters turned out to be one of the most emotional and moving films I’ve seen in years. If you haven’t seen this film, you should!
Except for the major disaster part, this does not sound like my kind of movie. Especially since John Koestler, the grieving MIT professor is played by the ever-eccentric Nicholas Cage. Unlike many others, Nicholas Cage’s name on a film will not automatically keep me away, but it isn’t enough to make me see a particular film either. In the past, I have liked some Cage performances (Adaptation, Raising Arizona, Lord Of War) and disliked others (Peggy Sue Got Married, Leaving Las Vegas, Birdy), but I do think your attitude toward Mr. Cage will have a lot to do with how you feel about Knowing. As for me, I easily believed he was smart enough to teach at MIT. I also believed that he was emotionally devastated by the recent death of his wife in a hotel fire and that he is now struggling with the challenges of raising his young son as a widower and as a way of dealing with his pain, he is slowly becoming an alcoholic. But we don’t get to that part of the story for a little while.
Knowing begins in 1959 at an elementary school about to bury a time capsule slated to be opened fifty years hence. All the kids in 1959 are asked to draw a picture of what the year 2009 will look like and among the various drawings of space ships, jet packs and rocket cars, one creepy little girl named Lucinda (Lara Robinson) writes out a list of numbers, filling an entire page while seemingly in some kind of trance. What these numbers mean, who this girl is and how she got so creepy are not explained. But her paper is sealed in the time capsule along with the others.
Fifty years later, in 2009, the time capsule is opened and John Koestler’s son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) finds himself in possession of the paper with the numbers, whose meaning is a puzzlement to all. Later that night, as a drunken Koestler looks at the numbers a little closer, he makes tenuous sense out of this grouping – 911012996 – which, if you put in the right dividing punctuation, looks like 9/11/01-2,996 or, September 11, 2001 with the 2,996 being the official death toll for that horrible day.
With this key in mind, the meaning of the “random” numbers now pops out like a revealed text. These numbers correspond to the dates of major disasters since 1959 including everything from Chernobyl to Lockerbie. Koestler also discovers that some of the other numbers on the page translate into geographic coordinates of latitude and longitude for the disasters listed. Even more frightening, at the end of the page, there are numbers for future dates; and I mean dates only a few days away. John is stuck with a dilemma, he believes he has foreknowledge about the date, location and death toll for some future disaster; but what kind of disaster he has no clue. Naturally, his family and MIT colleagues discount his theories. It seems John Koestler has truly become a male Cassandra; cursed with an ability to see into the future, but with a complete inability to get anyone to believe him.
We get a full on taste of what this means when John is on his way to pick up his son from school on the date of one of these disasters. As he is speaking with a highway patrolman about a massive traffic jam, suddenly, an airliner in trouble comes whizzing in, its left wing tearing into the ground and slicing through stalled traffic like a laser beam through butter, and then crashes, breaking apart and exploding in a field next to the Interstate. Believe me when I say everyone is shocked by this, myself included. John rushes toward the fiery wreckage to help but there is little he can do for the people burning alive in the wreckage. My friends know I have a lot of knowledge about plane crashes, but I have never seen one done in a movie as well as this.
While this plane crash seems to confirm that this paper is accurate, it takes another disaster to make others truly start to accept it. But this time, John is determined to make a difference, so he heads to New York City based on the coordinates of where the next disaster is supposed to occur. And there, on a crowded subway train, Koestler manages to corner a scary looking man wearing a suspiciously lumpy overcoat. For a moment, it looks like Koestler has stopped a possible suicide bomber, which means that the numerical prophesies don’t have to come true. It means that an individual person can somehow change a seemingly pre-ordained destiny. This thought actually made me breathe a sigh of relief, but it was short lived.
As our suspicious looking “bomber” opens his overcoat to reveal nothing more dangerous than some stolen DVDs, further down the tunnel, a speeding subway train jumps the track at a faulty switch and breaking through some supporting walls comes roaring into the Lafayette Street Station on its side, horribly mashing up hundreds of people as it relentlessly tears through the crowded platform. I said “WOW!”, when this scene was over. But exciting as it was, it all looked very fake. The derailed subway train appeared to gain speed with each obstacle it barreled through and this is not physically correct. I mean, here in Philadelphia, we had a subway derailment back in the early 1980’s and when that train hit the subway columns, it was the train that crumpled, not the supporting beams. Still, it’s an impressive sequence.
While all of this is happening, there is another subplot showing some strange humanoid figures that always seem to be in the background behind John and Caleb. Caleb also has haunting visions of the Earth in flames and this coincides with an unusual amount of solar flare activity which is causing major problems on Earth with freaky weather, cell phone connectivity and failing GPS navigational systems. Knowing seems to be implying that we are quickly approaching the actual end of the world as we know it. I recognize that this becomes a tough pill to swallow for many people who may have been enjoying the thrill ride that Knowing is giving them. It means you now have to shift your narrative perspective to include a larger and more all-encompassing ontological philosophy.
So, if you have bought your ticket to Knowing with the intention of seeing a paranormal thriller with good special effects and some tense, scary scenes, the last thing you want is to suddenly have this film start posing questions about the nature of the universe and whether our existence is random or deterministic. In fact, I believe the word deterministic has more syllables than is currently allowed by law in the state of Texas. I would normally be troubled by this sudden shift in a film’s point of view as well; all I can say is I felt it worked in Knowing. I was totally swept up in the story, the drama and the characters. Furthermore, this film adroitly manages to show us the more fantastic narrative elements at the same time as the Nicholas Cage character John Koestler sees them and this is crucial to the success of the film.
Like John Koestler, I have a scientific viewpoint regarding the world. But since I am scientific, I maintain an open mind and will adjust my beliefs if new evidence warrants it. So, as John Koestler began to grasp the larger dimensions of what was happening to him and to realize that it didn’t comport to his current notions of reality, Koestler had to make a philosophical shift and I made the intellectual leap along with him. Like John Koestler, I didn’t fully understand exactly how the bizarre things that were happening were actually happening, but I could not deny the reality of them happening.
So, when it came time for John to say his final goodbye to Caleb, his son, like Koestler, I was wracked with tears and emotions and while I knew that staying behind would mean I would get fried by gamma radiation from a gigantic solar flare, I also knew that I could not, and more importantly should not, keep young Caleb from leaving with the aliens who while scary at the start of Knowing, have since turned out to be the benevolent saviors of humankind. If my last few paragraphs seem like I am talking about a different movie than Knowing, I understand your confusion. All I can say is that Knowing tries one of the most risky and difficult gambits for any movie, it undergoes a complete shift in tone and story, but it works here.
In life, I have never understood the feeling of making a “leap of faith” or the kind of soul satisfying inner comfort that people who claim to be “Born Again” blather endlessly about, but if it is similar to what I felt at the finale of Knowing, I must say I now have at least an understanding of what these people go on and on and on about while trying to convert you.
Yes, this shameless final sequence in Knowing with its grand special effects and heavy music (by Marco Beltrami) is a direct attack on your emotions and manipulative as all hell, but it worked. These clever filmmakers made me believe in what was happening on screen and that is really all I ask of movies. I have no doubt there will be people offended by the plot convolutions and semi-religious imagery that mark the denouement of Knowing. But in my lifetime of movie going, I have frequently found that some of the most memorable films to me personally are the ones I can’t easily categorize.
Knowing crosses several film genres and will probably displease the die-hard fans in each of them. Sci-Fi lovers will find it too much like a thriller. Thriller lovers will find it too much like a horror film. Horror lovers will find it too scientific. Scientifically-minded people will find it too religious and religious people will hate it because it doesn’t exclusively promote whatever religion it is they believe in and to top it off, the whole thing reeks of crappy New Age ideology. I should really hate this film, but I don’t. In fact, I really love it.
For me, I found Knowing to be a compelling, visually stunning, dramatically interesting and narratively challenging film and I was totally taken to a different world created by filmmaking professionals who clearly knew what they were doing.
And that is an all too rare experience at the movies today.