Movie Review – Knowing (2009)
by HELEN GEIB
Knowing really creeped me out. This is not the reaction the film intends. The script, direction by Alex Proyas, and performances practically drown in sincerity; the film aims at various times to inspire feelings of tender sympathy for the characters, fright, dread, and spiritual uplift. I felt instead a mounting distaste. My review is an attempt to parse out why, and necessarily discusses the plot in detail. Anyone looking for a spoiler-free review should stop reading here.
The film offers a pan-religious, non-political vision of the end of days. It is not a universal vision; Buddhists and pagans, among others, will not find their beliefs represented. Nor will it please “Left Behind” acolytes and others who hold a specific, detailed vision of a coming apocalypse. It is crafted to speak to monotheists who believe in the existence of an after-life and keep an open mind about when and how the world will end. Humanity does not bring that end upon itself in Knowing; neither sin nor climate change has anything to do with it. The medium of destruction is an impersonal solar flare that turns the earth into an orbiting cinder.
Nicolas Cage plays John Koestler, a recent widower with a young son named Caleb. John finds out the world is about to end shortly before the rest of the planet by decoding a numerological prediction of 50 years worth of natural and man-made tragedies culminating in the end of everything. Having just witnessed the preceding two tragedies on the list, and having been unable to do anything to either prevent them or ameliorate their severity, he understandably greets the discovery of the solar flare by asking why he received this prediction when there’s nothing he can do about it.
That question is of course the heart of the matter. That the film does not offer a satisfactory answer is its greatest failing.
John proposes himself as a prophet, a claim the film treats with misplaced seriousness. John is not a prophet in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic meaning of the term; he is not divinely inspired, carries no message of repentance or salvation to his community, has gained no mystical insights. Nor does he meet the non-religious definition of a soothsayer: he only deciphered the prediction, he didn’t make it. The woman who made the prediction is an unhappy amalgam of the two definitions. God’s messengers whisper in her ear, but she acts on it by foretelling the date of her daughter’s death– thereby inflicting permanent psychological scars on Diana (Rose Byrne), the daughter– and going into seclusion, finally overdosing in her mobile home in the middle of nowhere, Massachusetts.
The film offers another answer in a third-act dialogue exchange to the effect that the purpose of the prophecy was to prepare the way for Caleb’s removal, along with the soothsayer’s young granddaughter, two rabbits, and presumably two of every other fauna, to a new Edenic planet by frightful aliens-resembling angels. The value of this answer is significantly undermined by the fact that John is not an actor in events, but merely a passive observer; he learns of the end mere hours before it becomes public knowledge; Diana early on collapses into hysterical irrelevance; and the handful of other people who are told of the prophecy play no part in the unfolding drama.
So why did John receive the prediction?
To set the plot in motion. To supply a reason for him to witness a plane crash and subway train derailment, horrifying events simulated at length and in great detail using state-of-the-art special effects, stuntmen set on fire, and numerous screaming extras. So he could be made to repeatedly vocalize the film’s message that we will be joined in eternal reunion with our loved ones after death. Because if he hadn’t there would have been no movie.
1 1/2 stars