Now on DVD: "Knowing" Balances Hope and Annihilation
DVD Release Date: July 7, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: March 20, 2009
DISTRIBUTED BY Summit Entertainment
DIRECTED BY Alex Proyas (I, Robot)
STARRING Nicolas Cage as John Koestler; Chandler Canterbury as Caleb Koestler; Rose Byrne as Diana Wayland; Lara Robinson as Lucinda Embry and Abby Wayland
If ever there was a time when most of us should feel like rending our garments and gnashing our teeth, now might be it.
The economy's tanked. Coffee costs $4. We're overworked and underemployed. Our 401(k) accounts are shot. Al Gore keeps talking about the polar ice caps. Our kids are sick. Our toasters are broken. Our spouses keep drinking milk straight from the carton, no matter how many times we've told them not to. Our favorite franchise quarterbacks are feuding with their teams.
Yes, we as a nation are in collective need of some comfort food—meatloaf and mashed potatoes, maybe. We need something to help us forget our trials and travails ... a nice hunk of cinematic escapism, perhaps. We need something that will remind us that, in the words of Scarlett O'Hara, "Tomorrow is another day."
And what do we get instead? Knowing—a movie that tells us "tomorrow" might be the end of the world.
But I get ahead of myself. The story opens in the sweet-and-innocent 1950s, when all we had to fret over were Russians and nuclear war and whether we really needed to see Elvis shake his pelvis on national TV. The children—at least the children at William Dawes Elementary School—are full of optimism and hope: When their teacher asks them to draw pictures of what they think the world will look like in 50 years—pictures to place in a time capsule—they draw rockets and flying cars and iPods.
Well, except for one little girl named Lucinda, who instead covers her paper with lines and lines of numbers. So absorbed is she that she doesn't even get to finish writing before the teacher whisks her paper away.
Fast-forward 50 years, and a new generation of William Dawes students opens the capsule to marvel at these bright pictures of the future. Well, except for the kid who sees Lucinda's numbers.
The kid—Caleb's his name—brings home the paper and obliquely suggests that it might be a code of some sort. John, Caleb's father and a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decides (after a few whiskeys) that Caleb could be right. In fact, many of the numbers seem to correspond with the dates of every major tragedy in the last 50 years, along with the number of those killed. 9/11? It's on there. Tsunamis in southeast Asia? Check. Oklahoma City bombing? Check.
John sees that there are just three dates left on the sheet—and all of them are set to take place over the next few days. Which leaves John to ask himself some pretty hard questions:
Does this mean that our lives are guided?
That our fates are predetermined?
Can we change our future?
Am I going crazy?
Could this sheet of paper represent an even more ominous future than a few plane crashes?
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
Impending doom has a way of forcing us to re-evaluate our lives. Take John—an absentminded professor loves his son dearly, but still has trouble remembering that he needs to pick him up from school. The crises he and Caleb face help them forge stronger bonds, culminating in a semi-sacrificial farewell. John also patches things up with his estranged father.
Along the way, John and Caleb meet up with Diana, a thirtysomething single mom, and her daughter, Abby. Diana, like John, would do anything for her child. "Abby's all I got, John," she says. "I can't let anything happen to her." Both parents try to shield their children from discomfort and hurt—efforts that feel a bit counterproductive in the film's ethos, but their hearts are in the right place.
Let's get this out of the way right here: The movie does not end well—at least not in a conventional sense. Earth, and everything on it, gets zapped by a gigantic solar flare, leaving it a big, charred piece of space rubble.
I'm spoiling that ending to say that this weighty prospect prompts some profoundly spiritual musings—musings rooted more in a kind of Christian mysticism than anything truly biblical.
John is a widower, and he seems to have lost any semblance of faith after his wife died. She was reportedly killed in a hotel fire while John was grooming his front yard, and because he didn't feel any psychic pangs at the moment of her death, he decided there was no force looking out for anyone—that he and everyone around him were merely the result of a grand accident. During one of his lectures he asks his students to grapple with the theories of determinism and randomness and, while he lays out a pretty good case that "everything has purpose," he admits to his class that he's not buying it. "But that's just me," he says.
When his son asks him about the potential for life on other planets, John says that, for now, we appear to be alone—then amends his statement later to reassure Caleb he wasn't talking about heaven: "I just said we can't know for sure, that's all. If you want to believe, you go ahead and believe." When his sister, Grace, asks him what's wrong so she can pray for him, he answers her by saying, "Please. Don't."
The numbers on the paper shake John's belief in "randomness," of course. If a child could see the future with such uncanny accuracy, that must mean something knows what's going on. A fellow professor at first shrugs off the predictions as coincidence—a numerology trap that esoteric religions have dabbled in for millennia. "People see what they want to see in them," he says. But John becomes convinced there's something more to it.
From that point forward, the film chugs into a plot loaded with Christian imagery and creative license. Much of what we see plays around with Ezekiel's vision in the first chapter of his Old Testament book. The film's mysterious and ominous "whisper people" seem to loosely correspond with the angels described by the prophet (though none of them have heads of oxen or lions), and their mysterious craft looks like a representation of Ezekiel's wheel.
These angelic creatures haunt much of the film like shadows, whispering strange words into the children's brains and unveiling horrific images of the future. Paralyzing light spews from one being's mouth. But by the end, they're revealed as pretty good guys. Caleb tells his father that they, the whisper people, were "protecting us all along."
Are these creatures actually angels? Or are they extraterrestrial beings that Ezekiel long ago confused as angels? The film leaves it open to interpretation. Regardless, they do nothing to save the earth from impending doom, but rather sweep up chosen children and drop them off on a new, beautifully unspoiled planet with a gorgeous, silvery tree of life—a new crop of Adams and Eves destined to re-start humanity.
Interestingly—from a theological perspective—while these children are "chosen," they also must "choose." They are not taken by the whisper people. They decide for themselves whether to go or not.
Also worth noting is the fact that John's dad is a pastor. John reminds him of one of his sermons about prophesy. And then he tells his dad that he can now foretell the end of the world.
A mild, anatomical line involves a reference to "double-D's." A remark is made about somebody thinking somebody else was "gay." We see John's upper body in the shower.
John, while intrigued by the list, questions some aspects of it right up until a plane crashes in front of him—exactly when and where the list said a disaster would strike. He runs to the wreckage and finds lots of folks staggering around on fire. Not pretty. "I keep seeing their faces," John says afterwards, "burning."
The second disaster is even more jarring. A subway train rockets off the rails and smashes into another train and subway platform, mowing down scores of people as they try to flee. The final catastrophe involves a huge, rolling wave of fire that obliterates a whole city in spectacular CGI fashion.
A little girl claws numbers into a door with her bare, bloodied fingers. John brandishes a gun and points it at a mysterious stranger. Diana's vehicle is smashed to bits by a semi. Caleb is shown a vision of a forest fire, complete with burning, anguished wildlife (particularly a large, flaming moose). We learn that Diana's mom OD'd on drugs, killing herself. In anger—and as a threat—John smacks a tree with a bat. Citizens of Earth riot.
CRUDE OR PROFANE LANGUAGE
Four or five s-words. "A--," "h---" and "d--n" are used a couple of times each. God's name is misused several times.
DRUG AND ALCOHOL CONTENT
John drinks quite a lot. We see him sip wine while cooking hot dogs, but a bigger issue is the whiskey he guzzles after his son goes to bed. The whole reason he starts playing around with the 50-year-old page of numbers is because 1) he's tipsy, and 2) he spills some booze on the paper. At one point he falls asleep on the couch, an empty bottle beside him. He doesn't wake up until Caleb calls him from school, reminding him that he has carpool duty. He visits an old lady who spikes her tea with liquor.
OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS
John breaks into the school desperate to find more numbers. Diana swipes an SUV to chase down the whisper people, after they take both her car and the kids.
Knowing is undeniably bold, in that it takes a certain courage to callously obliterate Earth without giving anybody—not even Will Smith—the chance to save the day. And I, Robot director Alex Proyas is, perhaps, even more bold to suggest that such an ending is a happy one. "They haven't chosen us, Caleb," John tells his son at the end. "They've chosen you." He tearfully bids farewell to his son, hoping—knowing—Caleb will be safe.
It's this dichotomy, I think, that will split moviegoers, especially Christians. Some, I imagine, will appreciate the fact that Knowing deals with spiritual themes head-on. The film suggests that when science runs out of answers, faith still holds the trump card. It tells us that, even in the midst of the worst sorts of disasters, we're still in Someone's hands. And it reinforces the idea that families are really, really keen.
Others will be appalled by the fact that this transcription of doomsday events doesn't even share page numbers with the Book of Revelation. The whole idea of plucking a chosen few children for a second reboot of humanity (thinking of Noah as the first) will strike many as anathema.
I left the theater with more questions than answers. What was Proyas trying to tell us about God's nature? God's power? God's judgment? God's compassion? Or was he just trying to say that Ezekiel and the Apostle John got it all wrong, and it's really translucent aliens who hold our destiny in the palms of their cold hands?
Knowing tries to tell us we're not alone—then locks us in a closet and lets us stew in the dark as we imagine all manner of horrible ends we might soon face. It's like I said, So much for comfort food.