Sunday, July 12, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Knowing (2009)

"...Man proposes, but God disposes; neither is the way of man in his own hands."

- Thomas à Kempis (1380 - 1471 AD)

Knowing, the controversial and apocalyptic 2009 film directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow [1994], Dark City [1998], lands on The Big Issue of Human Existence during an early classroom scene set at M.I.T.

Astrophysicist, professor, and widower John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) debates with his students the competing values of "Determinism" and "Free Will" (or The "Random.") The mechanisms of the Universe, he is certain, operate by one of these governing principles.

If Creation is of a Determinist nature, everything occurs for a reason. There is order in the universe...purpose.

On the other hand, if "Shit Just Happens," and the universe is random in nature, Existence itself is the result of a chain of complex accidents with "no grand meaning," and "no purpose." What some people might view as Synchronicity is, in fact, nothing but mere "coincidence."

Having suffered a terrible personal tragedy -- the death of his wife Allison in a hotel fire -- Koestler believes that life is indeed random. That there is no greater purpose for his intense suffering; that "Life is just a string of random accidents and mistakes."

This belief puts Koestler in direct conflict with his estranged father, a Christan pastor. It also troubles his young, gifted son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), a lonely, brilliant boy who desperately seeks a deeper sense of meaning in his life.

But one day, in October of 2009, everything changes for the Koestlers.

At Dawes Elementary School, a silver, cylindrical time capsule buried in 1959 is excavated during a school event. Each student in attendance in 2009 receives an envelope from 1959; one with a "picture" inside of what the students of the Eisenhower Era believed the future would look like. Their imaginings were dedicated to "The Future and the Promise it holds."

From this undisturbed "Vault of History," Caleb receives the envelope of a troubled little girl, Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson). Fifty years earlier, in 1959, Lucinda drew a picture not of rockets, moon bases or flying cars. She didn't see promise in the Future...she saw dread. So she scrawled a very long string of numbers.

As Koestler soon realizes, these numbers are not random. On the contrary, the digits observe the date of every natural and man made disaster between 1959 and 2009 (earthquakes, hurricanes, train crashes, terrorist attacks etc.), followed by the exact number of casualties...and then the precise longitude and latitude of each catastrophe. It is a road map to human suffering.

Koestler hopes desperately to dismiss the Code as a fake, but after deliberately interfacing with two contemporary disasters (a plane crash and a subway accident), he realizes that Lucinda indeed knew about the events of the future...down to the last detail.

And worse, Koestler comes to understand he is helpless to stop or prevent the terrible events. Those accidents were not and are not, in fact, random...but pre-determined.

Although Koestler's skeptical colleague at MIT notes that such numerology codes are "a dime a dozen" and that "people just see what they want to see," Koestler grows increasingly obsessed with the Code, and the story of Lucinda, a very "sad little girl."

Meanwhile, strange platinum-haired strangers repeatedly visit Caleb (presenting him with a smooth black stone on one visit...). They even share with him a horrifying vision of Apocalypse. At the same time, Koestler learns of Lucinda's later life and obsession with Ezekial, a 6th Century (BC) prophet from her daughter, Diana (Rose Byrne). And then -- finally -- dangerous solar flares threaten to impact Earth on the very day that Lucinda's catastrophe Code ends: October 19, 2009. Her last casualty tally reads, ominously, "EE."

Koestler realizes with horror that EE stands for "Everyone Else..." All life on Earth.

As human beings, "we can't know for sure" (as Koestler says in the film) what the future holds for any of us.

What we can be certain of, upon a close viewing of Knowing, is that the Proyas film builds a case for a determinist existence. Our fates are known and have been written down. They are immutable, unalterable, and inevitable. The Strangers have come to Earth for a very specific purpose: because they know that The End was near.

I noted above that Knowing is controversial, and this deterministic approach is the source of that controversy. Many viewers and critics have dismissed the film as "Creationist" or "Christianist" propaganda because the film exploits religious symbols including The Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve, The Apocalypse, The Book of Ezekiel, Cherubim, and God's Chariot. It is therefore assumed by many (and I believe wrongly so...) that the film suggests the existence of a Supreme Being, or God. Some even say it pushes the existence of a Christian God, specifically.

On the contrary, however, the Proyas film might actually be viewed as a refutation of religion. Why? Because all that occurs in Knowing could be owed to quantum mechanics as much as to "The Hand of God," given one possible interpretation.

And that's one of the film's irrefutable strengths: it is open to interpretation. It invites it. If I went in to Knowing seeking to reinforce a hard, fast belief in God, I might find it here, at least based on a superficial reading of the text.

First, in the Prophecy of the Book of Ezekiel coming to pass, and secondly in the pre-determined nature of the universe, the film might appear to affirm the existence of God as we would understand him from the Bible.

And when Koestler tells Caleb at the film's conclusion that "they will be together forever," he could be describing a newfound belief in the Afterlife, in Heaven. If Existence is deterministic -- moving along according A to B to C to a Grand Plan -- then there is, at least, by inference, the possibility of God. Right?

Well, yes. But there's another valid interpretation of Knowing. One which, given my atheist predilections, I prefer. I can sum the case up, basically, by reciting one of Arthur C. Clarke's Laws of Prediction. The one that states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. "

Basically, what Knowing suggests is that the white-haired Strangers are extra-terrestrials who, 'knowing' the end is near for Earth, send messages to our population over time to warn us. The Book of Ezekiel was a recording of one such historical encounter with the whispering aliens. Lucinda's stream of numbers, her "vision," is another much more recent example.

The historical Ezekiel was (like Koestler, incidentally....) a widower, and he remains renowned today amongst Biblical scholars as one of the most specific of all early prophets; for his unique "systematic arrangement." This means essentially that Ezekiel attached dates to his predictions (as dates are attached to Lucinda's number chart in the film).

Ezekiel's first transcribed "vision" was of God's Chariot, a magnificent vehicle described as a "wheel-within-a-wheel" (Ezekiel 1:1-3:27). This divine Chariot was pulled by four beings identified by the prophet as Cherubim. And Ezekiel himself was recruited as a Sentinel or Watchman. His mission was to record an upcoming apocalypse: the destruction of Jersualem in consuming fire.

indeed adopts the symbols of Ezekiel's vision, but re-purposes and re-contextualizes all of them as completely scientific...and secular in nature. The Chariot is a huge, multi-faceted wheel-within-a-wheel spaceship, not a divine vehicle. The four Cherubim are the Four Alien Strangers, not Angels from Heaven. Ezekiel, Lucinda and to some extent, Koestler himself are the Sentinels or Watchmen standing witness to disaster. And the Earth -- rather than merely a single city -- ends in consuming fire (but one caused by a solar flare, not God's wrath). In particular, the aliens send visions to Caleb and the other "gifted" children (including Diane's daughter, Abby) that show fire in their imme
diate environs or "world" (Caleb's back yard...) just as Ezekiel witnessed a consuming fire in his neck of the woods, Jerusalem.

Importantly, there is no "God," let alone "Christ" in these symbols, just a very advanced alien race, who -- via the auspices of technology we do not yet understand -- are apparently able to see across the ocean of time: past, present and future simultaneously. They record the grand sweep of history, down to every last disaster and casualty.

This is why I mentioned quantum mechanics earlier in the review. Some physicists today believe that there is actually no past, present or future at all. Merely...the "Eternal Moment of Now." It is our brains, therefore, which build a connection - moment to moment - and thereby impose a chronological or temporal sequence to them.

Given this theory, assume for a minute that the alien species as seen in Knowing is endowed with the gift to "see" all possible iterations of Now. And it is by this very mechanism or capability that they can then account for how, where and when people die, disasters occurs, and planets are obliterated. This interpretation makes as much sense as "God" does, in context of the film.

More so, actually, because the Apocalypse that destroys Earth in Knowing is clearly no Biblical Rapture. Koestler's father is a devout Christian priest, and he isn't "saved." Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Agnostics and Atheists all get fried indiscriminantly in the coronal ejection and planetary conflagration. The only people "saved" are not The Faithful Christians, but rather a handful of innocent, gifted children, ostensibly of all religious and non-religious persuasions. And they are swept away not to a spiritual realm...but to a faraway planet to colonize. We see distant moons and planets in the sky of this world...not streets of Gold, flying Angels and the Gates of St. Peter.

Yes, you say, but the boy and girl on that planetary Eden run towards an imposing Tree of Knowledge, echoing the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden! Yes indeed, but if the Book of Ezekiel is a vision transmitted by the Cherubim/Aliens, then we must conclude that the story of Adam and Eve is the self-same thing. An image of a Beginning After An End; one that aliens shared with a human prophet as they later shared information with Lucinda, Ezekiel and Caleb. If there is no past, no future -- only the Eternal Moment of Now -- then the Adam and Eve Story is not strictly historical; but rather a vision of man on another world; one misinterpreted by primitive superstition, by religion.

My point is this: Just because an
alien race sees all of time/space (as well as who lives and who dies on this island Earth...), that does not necessarily imply a Universal God/Mind in the Christian sense. If Aliens boast the power to see all, then there is no need for God. The Aliens are essentially God, because advanced technology appears magical to the primitive.

When Koestler tells Caleb that they will be "together forever" he might very well be referring to their shared genetic heritage, not an Afterlife. Again, the film depicts no Afterlife for Koestler, his father, or anyone else living on Earth for that matter. No Heaven. No Hell.

What Knowing does depict is the human race continuing on elsewhere in the mortal the form of Koestler's progeny. Human immortality need not be the literal continuance of individual conscience, but rather the transmission of our genes in our children, grandchildren. and the generations beyond.

Alternatively, Koestler will also live on in the memory of Caleb and Abby, a reason, perhaps, that Koestler's final gift to Caleb is a keepsake: a locket with his photograph (and Allison's photograph, inside). The locket will always remind Caleb who and what Koestler was...and that memory will live beyond the Death of the Earth. By carrying the memory of his father (and by sharing that memory with his own children in the days ahead...) Caleb and his father will indeed by "together forever" after a fashion.

I submit that the quantum physics approach and non-religious interpretation of Knowing also fits better with Alex Proyas's previous efforts in the genre. In Dark City, the director presented us with God-Like beings who could effortlessly manipulate time and space and also shuffle human souls from body to body. In every aspect we -- as "primitives" --- understand...they are clearly Gods.

However, as Dark City's climax makes clear, the Movers and Shakers of that future-noir Metropolis are actually but highly-advanced alien scientists...seekers who are experimenting on humans and reliant on their own amazing technology. Again, return to Clark's Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That axiom underlines both Dark City and Knowing, and it is merely the human desire to impose meaning -- to impose determinism, even -- that causes a misinterpretation. Extra-terrestrials are mistaken for Gods and Demons and Cherubim because they possess an understanding of the
universe we don't have. Simple as that.

Is Knowing a great film? Our nation's most respected critic, Roger Ebert, praised the film highly and rated it Four Stars. He admires Proyas as an artist and similarly praised Dark City, ranking it as the Best Film of 1998. I can state this: Knowing is certainly a great film of modern vintage, and I understand why it strikes so deep a chord (or "vibrates") with Mr. Ebert.

I've told this story before, but when I interviewed an editor toiling in Hollywood today -- one who had been in the business for twenty-five years -- he told me a horrifying fact. Basically, he said that Hollywood studios and studio executives have forced him, on more than one occasion, to eliminate all subtext and ambiguity from the films he edits. Even if such complexities clearly appeared in the screenplay and survived the shooting. In whatever way you decide to interpret Knowing (and please...have at it...), it does not fit this inglorious trend. Knowing is a movie alive with possibilities, and it does not spoon-feed the audience any single answer. This alone distinguishes it from many movies made today.

Commendably, several important elements of the film are left to your imagination and given no clear explanation. What are the smooth black stones? What do they signify, and why are they important? Why do the aliens make gifts of them to the children? What, precisely, is the meaning of Koestler's assurance to his son that they "will always be together?" The movie leaves us to seek and ponder our own answers, and on those grounds, it is successful and provocative in a way that most movies made today simply are not. Some skeptics will deride the use of numerology to make the film's point, but again, this isn't a movie about numerology. Numerology only opens the door to a debate about the nature of human existence. It's a useful starting point, and the movie is in no way a validation of endorsement of it.

Though some critics faulted Knowing's philosophical underpinnings as being one-sided (either too atheistic or too religious...), it is difficult to find fault with the film on technical grounds. Knowing is beautifully shot and performed. At times the film is thrilling and awe-inspiring. And there are some portentous, visually dramatic moments too. Early in the film, for instance, Proyas gives us a long pan across Earth's curved surface from the perspective of the Heavens. We can detect man's roads and highways stretch across the horizon, looking like snaking, questing lines of light. Beacons of civilization in the dark...scattered but indomitable. This shot selection not only portends a "watcher" -- an observer from Above -- but also reveals to us the seemingly random nature of man's "path:" stretching in all directions across Earth. House after house, turn after turn...without purpose. Or is there?

Knowing also features a heavily autumnal color palette, rich in oranges, browns and apricots. Ubiquitous crimson leaves fall from the sky in many exterior shots. Because of their shading, these abundant, swooping leaves resemble cascading, burning embers from a dying, heavenly fire. Given the film's apocalyptic vision of a planet Earth consumed by flame, these shots are portentous too; harbingers. They hint (visually) at the terror to come; of whispered endings carried on the wind.

Even the artistic production design echoes the film's determinism vs. random debate. The Koestler family lives in a half-finished, haphazard, wreck of an old house. Some rooms are painted. Some rooms are not. The studs still peek out from sheet rock in some rooms. Yep, Koestler's house even looks like "Shit Just Happens." It's a nice, relatively subtle way of reflecting the character's world view.

Also, I especially enjoyed Knowing's central father-son relationship. I found it...affecting. As (the doting) father of an almost-three year old boy, I understood and empathized with Koestler's pain at being forced to part from his boy. As parents, I suppose that there comes a time when we all accept that our mortality is less important to us than that of our children. Knowing recognizes that too. And even though I'm not a Nicolas Cage fan, I found his performance, especially in these final scenes, quite powerful. As any good parent would, Koestler encourages his uncertain son to go with the aliens; that his old man will be all right. Koestler puts on a brave face. A false face. The minute that Caleb is gone and out of sight, Koestler doubles over -- as if in physical pain -- weeping at the ache of separation. I admit it: I was moved by this very human moment. By the passing of the generations; by the the final goodbye.

After this emotional scene, Knowing's final sequence doesn't disappoint, either. The last scene is...breathtaking. I'm not referring to the Apocalypse (which is pretty much disaster porn boilerplate...), but rather what comes after the fire. The alien "wheels-within-wheels" spaceship resembles a giant white snowflake (a deliberate contrast to the airborne scarlet leaves and burning flames on Earth...), and these ethereal, immaculate crafts deliver Earth's survivors to a pastoral, utopian setting. Knowing's final shot of the picturesque Tree of Knowledge intimates so much.

What fruit, I wonder, grows on The Tree of Knowledge in Paradise this time around? Could it be the Knowledge, perhaps, that there is a Purpose in the Universe, and that Man -- for all his chaos, confusion and pain -- is Part of that Purpose? Or is it simply the knowledge that though bad things may happen -- man proposes and God disposes -- we have to pick ourselves up anyway and go on? Make our peace with tragedy? Send our children into the future with hope instead of dread?

Knowing doesn't "know" the answers. None of us do. But it asks all the right questions, and then leaves the debate to the audience. People will see what they want to see, I guess. The question is...what do you see?


  1. Hmm... You know, I had shrugged this film off based on the trailers as another Nicolas Cage time waster with him on autopilot but I have to say your review has me intrigued. I like many of Proyas films (GARAGE DAYS is very underrated) and found DARK CITY a flawed but interesting film nonetheless. But this new sounds really thought-provoking.

    Well done. I will have to check this out.

  2. Hey J.D.:

    I avoided the film in theaters too.

    Roger Ebert's four star review (and blog post about the film) convinced me to try the film out.

    If you judge KNOWING in terms of Proyas's canon (particularly DARK CITY), and keep in mind Clarke's Predictive Law, it's pretty darn fascinating...if oddball. The ending is wacko...but inventively wacko.


  3. Anonymous1:04 PM

    It's "Ezekiel". El is one of God's names in Hebrew.

    Here's my idea of how the writing team came up with this:

    "We need an image from the Bible we can copy. Can't do the Horsemen; they're overdone."

    (sound effects: flip, flip, flip)

    "How about wheels within wheels?"

    "Sounds like a bad LSD trip. Perfect!"

    Making the Aliens "God" only begs the question. What makes an act immoral? If you can stop an immoral act and don't, are you immoral? If the aliens are somehow capable of stopping the deaths, and if allowing the deaths are immoral, then they are immoral. They are no more immune to the problem of evil than the Lord God of Israel.

    Unless you failed to mention it, the aliens have little to no limitations on their power (the ultimate definition of "Gods"). They weren't forced to pick only the kids; they chose to do so. Is failing to act just as immoral as acting? The traditional non-Christian interpretation of the Problem of Evil usually equates failing to act with acting. What's the difference here?

    Also, why the warnings? Traditionally, the character is being punished for past immorality or is given sufficient room to improve for later. The warnings perform neither: humanity is doomed, and a few children are given a ride off. No chance, no choice.

    To paraphrase Star Trek 1, we're once again creating God in our own image.

    I suppose I need to put Knowing on the Netflix queue now... :)

  4. Hey Kentucky Packrat!

    Thanks for commenting.

    More to the point thank you for correcting my spelling of the name Ezekiel. Jeez! I have corrected the spelling of Ezekiel throughout the post. Embarrassing really. Should have double-checked.

    You have an interesting point. If the aliens knew the end was near, why didn't they save more people? (If they had started in Ezekiel's time, we'd all be safe on a different planet today!).

    If God moves in mysterious aliens do so as well?


  5. Your review convinced me! I'll at least it give it a try.. I guess my anti-Cage filter blinded me on its original release.

  6. I gave it a try and i think it's a worthwhile movie! Nicolas Cage with another great performance, and a cool idea for a movie.

  7. I finally got around to watching KNOWING last night and was very impressed with it! It is really the thinking man's 2012 in many ways. While it does have the requisite mass destruction porn scenes (the airplane crash was particularly harrowing) the film is much more than that and I'm amazed that Proyas was able to push it through the Hollywood system preserving the downbeat ending (well, there is a glimmer of hope for the kids). I went back and re-read your review and found myself agreeing with a lot of what you said. I really don't see this film as a religious allegory, altho, I find it interesting that it is being read that way by some. Of course, I'm coming at the film from an atheist/scientific POV as well so there's that. Thanks so much for turning me on to this film, JKM!

  8. Anonymous2:34 PM

    But doesn't Determinism presuppose a Determiner?

  9. Anonymous6:02 PM

    The book of Ezekiel speaks of the Strangers as "Creatures," not as Angels.