Knowing is one of the most exciting movies I've seen in a long time, and I mean that not just in terms of how much action it has, but also in terms of its willingness to explore some weighty themes. This is one of those pictures that you will either get or you won't. Looked at one way, you could see an increasingly preposterous end-of-days thriller. Go with the flow, however, and you might be surprised by how all that preposterousness is used to create something ambitious, provocative, and maybe even profound. Director Alex Proyas made another thoughtful science-fiction film over a decade ago. It was called Dark City, and it was a flop in its time, although a few critics (myself included) thought it was nothing short of a masterpiece. Time has caught up with that picture, and it is now generally recognized as one of the best modern entries in the genre. I suspect that the reputation for Knowing will similarly increase over time. There is little way to talk about the film's greatness without dropping in a few spoilers. If you don't want to know (some of) what happens, just skip to the last paragraph of this review. It tells you why Knowing is special without giving specifics.
The story begins in 1959. A small elementary school class draws pictures of what they think the future will look like. The drawings are placed into a time capsule, to be opened 50 years later. One student, a troubled little girl named Lucinda Embry, doesn't quite follow the assignment, though. Instead of a picture, she scrawls a series of numbers on the paper. As soon as the capsule is buried, she goes berserk, locking herself in a closet and scratching the door with her fingernails.
In the current day, the time capsule is opened and every student in the new class gets one picture from it. A little boy named Caleb Koestler ends up with Lucinda's paper. Against the rules, he takes it home and shows it to his widower father, John (Nicolas Cage), an MIT professor whose lapse of faith has caused him to believe (and to teach his students) that life is random and meaningless. That idea is challenged when John becomes fascinated by the numbers and seeks to find meaning in them. Using Google, he discovers that the numbers correspond to dates of disasters and the number of people who died in them. John maps them all, only to find that they are listed sequentially - which can't be a coincidence. There are also three dates in the near future, which means that, if the paper is correct, horrible things are about to happen.
The concept of someone anticipating a catastrophe is not new. Other sci-fi movies have played with it. This one uses the idea not as a gimmick for easy thrills but rather as an entry point to examine issues of faith. If John really thinks that the universe is random, the page of numbers would seem to contradict everything he believes. On the other hand, if the numbers do indicate some kind of larger plan guided by an unseen force, what does it mean that they call attention to deadly tragedies? Knowing is not a Christian film in the way that, say, Fireproof was; however, you'd have to be blind not to notice the religious themes that run throughout. John is the son of a pastor. They have been estranged ever since his wife died and he gave up on religion. A picture of Ezekiel's wheel figures prominently, and the movie weaves the Biblical story into its narrative. And while I won't give away the ending, it's clear that the story is also drawing a parallel to a second tale of the Bible.
Maybe this will appeal to you, or maybe you prefer your science-fiction without the spiritual overtones. Personally, I've always thought that the best movies in the genre were the ones that reflected back to us something about ourselves. The truth is that our world has been rocked by some pretty heavy-duty catastrophes in recent years - from Oklahoma City to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina - and for many there is a deep fear some kind of environmental crisis looming in our future. These things create a sense of helplessness among a large number of us - the same kind of helplessness John Koestler feels as he tries to fend off the numbers' predictions. I found this rather chilling because, at some level, most of us can relate to the fear of the proverbial other shoe dropping.
Knowing delivers in the intellectual department while also delivering in the action department. Some of the scenes in this movie are among the most tense and frightening of any I've seen in recent memory. In the most riveting of them, John finds himself witnessing a plane crash, then rushing through the wreckage to look for survivors. Later, he sees a New York subway car careen out of control, mowing down dozens of people standing on a platform. While staged with almost nauseating realism, these sequences are not empty or exploitative. Instead, they are designed by Alex Proyas to convey the random, incomprehensible nature of unexpected catastrophes. Because they are done with such authenticity, they naturally wrap around the story's theme of mankind trying to find meaning in a chaotic world. In other words, you see some pretty horrible stuff in this picture, yet it all leads to a place of transcendence in the end.
Nicolas Cage sometimes gets a lot of heat as an actor, probably because he makes the most unusual and inexplicable career choices of anyone in Hollywood. Sometimes he picks bold works of art that show his range (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation), and other times he picks generic crap that reeks of paycheck-cashing (Bangkok Dangerous, The Wicker Man). I think Cage is perfect for Knowing. His hangdog expressiveness and monotone voice are perfect for the part of a wounded man grappling with dire things he cannot explain. There's a scene in which John tracks down the now-grown daughter (Rose Byrne) of Lucinda Embry and tries to convince her of her mother's predictions. Is there another actor who could so effectively make you believe that the literal weight of the world is on his shoulders? The movie works, in part, because Nicolas Cage is so perfectly cast.
I can't remember the last time a movie frayed my nerves the way Knowing did. It's a cliché to say that a film leaves you on the edge of your seat; nonetheless, the general sentiment behind that cliché is true. I found myself completely absorbed by the plot as it twists from one suspenseful moment to the next, and completely in anticipation of how one moment would lead to another. Best of all is the ending, which is so audacious that, for a moment, I wondered if they were really going to get away with it. They did. Some may misinterpret it, but there is no other possible ending for this story. It ends as it must. That any filmmaker would have the courage to explore the topic in this manner is something to be celebrated. The majority of science-fiction stories are about...well, science-fiction. They are about robots and spaceships and aliens. Knowing, on the other hand, is about (to borrow from Douglas Adams) life, the universe, and everything. The movie has all the thematic depth of a really great arthouse film wrapped in the action and excitement of a first-rate Hollywood action picture.
( out of four)
Knowing is rated PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
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