A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank:  #16


2009, PG-13, 122 mins.

John Koestler: Nicolas Cage / Caleb: Chandler Canterbury / Diana: Rose Byrne / Lucinda/Abby: Lara Robinson / Ben: Phil Beckman / Grace: Nadia Townsend

Directed by Alex Proyas / Written by Juliet Snowden & Stiles White.

Alex Proyas’ KNOWING is an unrelentingly smart, fiercely compelling and utterly engrossing entertainment: it has individual moments of calculating, frightening, and awesome power that are fused with an underlining story that conveys an even deeper, more miraculously thought-provoking message.  

Very few science fiction films – let alone recent films in general – have maintained (from beginning to end) such a vise-like grip on me:  Its ability to hold one’s attention throughout its running time is one of its most triumphant accomplishments.  Proyas does such a bravura job of amalgamating elements of such divergent principles, like science, the paranormal, real-world paranoia, and religious ideologies about the afterlife.  By the time the film concludes, you are left feeling like you’ve experienced a thrilling, stunning, and frequently haunting work  charged with eerie symbolism, absolutely heart-stopping and epic scaled special effects and action sequences, and an evocative and touching personal story. 

This is the best type of science fiction, which is such a welcome relief considering the age we live in where the genre has taken a back seat with entries that place an annoying preponderance on lavish CGI effects and spectacle first and absorbing themes and characters second.  The greatest examples of the genre are the introspective and stimulating ones: films that daringly evoke endless debate and conversations about their themes and storylines.  Yes, KNOWING certainly has the same awe-inspiring visual moments that have dominated less intellectually stimulating sci-fi films, but the heart of Proyas’ film is that he does not patronize viewers with his flashy and bombastic set pieces (which are here in abundance): Instead, he injects them into a much richer and textured story that has deeper philosophical rumination buried within it.  This is a film that scares and thrills as much as it makes you debate its message.  And, just when you have a moment to ponder KNOWING’s stimulating and polarizing issues, it provides absolutely riveting moments of unspeakable dread, terror, and suspense that have real life implications.  There has never been a film like this that has used state of the art computer effects to create such an unspeakable level of unease in its viewers. 

Beyond its mammoth production artifice, KNOWING poses endlessly intriguing ideas, much like Proyas’ previous – and terribly undervalued - sci-fi film, DARK CITY.  His 1998 masterpiece cogitated on the nature of reality versus artificiality: if the world as we know it is just a construct devised as a omnipotently powerful beings beyond our understanding, then what kind of free will or freedom do people really have?  KNOWING is a film that is whole-heartedly different than DARK CITY, but it serves as an effective and equally stimulating companion film.  At its core the film asks viewers seemingly simple, but intellectually thorny, questions: How much control do people have over their own fates?  Is the universe stridently deterministic or is it just coincidentally random?  Do things happen because of some sort of preordained chance, whether it be in the form of a “higher power” or via some sort of scientific explanation beyond our realm of thought?  

Or, does “shit just happen” without any rhyme or reason? 

These are usually not queries that science fiction films lament upon...but KNOWING does.  The film’s main character, a secular – or is he just agnostic? – MIT professor of astrophysics named John Koestler (played in sublimely edgy and wounded performance by Nicolas Cage; more on him later) certainly prescribes to the theory that "shit" does, in fact, just happen.  In one of the film’s quieter and more involving moments, he dives into a penetrating philosophical discussion with his class about determinism.  He uses a small model of the solar system to hone his students in on the discussion.  He asks, for example, how can one logically explain the systematic specificity of the way the planets are aligned with the sun?  What force preordained that the earth was to be placed in just the right order within the rest of the universe in order to be able to foster and later sustain life?  It would only take a little bit of solar shifting to make our planet a barren and sun boiled wasteland.  Now, a deterministic spirit would argue that everything that happens is casually determined by an unbroken chain of previous occurrences.  In short, something made the universe what it is today.  But, what about randomness?  Couldn’t the universe have just happened without some sort of indescribable force influencing it?  

With a bit of hesitation, Koestler answers one student’s question by saying that, yes, shit happens. 

Before the film jumped into that absorbing scene it opens in the past.  It's 1959 and William Dawes Elementary School students are putting together some pictures in a time capsule that will be opened 50 years in the future in 2009.  The pictures in question are what the kids think the future will look like.  We get some of them  illustrating obligatory things, like flying cars, ray guns, etc., but one strange and mentally disturbed student named Lucinda does something radically different.  Perhaps by random chance – or by some other “power” exerting influence on her – she furiously scribbles what appears to be arbitrary numbers all over her page.  Much to her teacher’s chagrin, the page is put within the time capsule and sealed up. 

The film then fast-forwards 50 years and Koestler’s young son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) is attending the same high school where students from the past buried the time capsule.  When it is unearthed every student gets sometime out of it, but Caleb is somewhat perplexed when he receives that peculiar piece of paper with all of the numbers on it.  Caleb secretly takes the page home (it’s supposed to remain at school) without his father knowing.  The child’s home life with Jack is not the most ideal: Jack’s wife has recently died, he is a somewhat reclusive alcoholic, and struggles with having the right tact with raising his inquisitive and independent young son as a single parent.  Even worse is the fact that Jack is a non-believing scientist that has semi-estranged himself from his clergyman father. 

On one fateful day Jack discovers that pesky page with all of the numbers on it and looks at it with deep interest.  During one all-night/half-drunken bender he begins to dissect the page for meaning and makes some startling discoveries.  He begins to notice that all of the numbers represent an overall pattern – in historical order – of the specific times of every single major disaster that has occurred on earth over the last fifty years.  At first, the numbers are absolutely meaningless, but the first sequence he notices is 91120013239, or 9/11/2001, the date of the infamous terrorist attacks in New York.  As for the 3239?  That’s the number of casualties that initially occurred that day.  Becoming obsessed, he begins to see patterns all over the sheet, which seems to spell out, with unwavering order, the dates and death tolls of all of the past calamities. 

Now, is Jack just a nut job with a penchant for occult numerology?  He deals with this by discussing the page with his MIT colleague, a cosmologist named Beckman (Ben Mendlesohn).  His friend tells him that people often look for meaning in the most random of numbered sequences (see the very silly THE NUMBER 23).  Yet, the evidence is so striking on the page, but Jack puts it to the test when he notices, to his horror, that the sheet also has pinpointed the date, casualty numbers, and ever the location of three future disasters (he stumbles on to the fact that some of the numbers represent longitude and latitude coordinates).  Without fail, the future disasters, predicted by the page, shockingly come true, which makes it impossible for Jack to discard the numbers as mere superstition.   

To really drive home his beliefs, Jack manages to track down the daughter of the disturbed 1959 girl that created – or, was forced to create – the numbered page, Diana (Rose Byrne) and her daughter, Abbey (Lara Robison).  One common thread both parents share is that their respective children seem to be both visited by mysterious and chilling strangers that appear and disappear at will and are able to, in one shocking and pulse-pounding moment, make the children see images of the future.  The strangers don’t talk, per se, but they mentally whisper thoughts into Caleb and Abby’s head.  The more Jack investigates this beguiling phenomenon the more the predicted future disasters come true, but there is a final one in particular that could spell doom for the entire planet. 

Proyas’ film works astonishingly well on three fronts: performances, spine-tingling special effects and scary intrigue, and, most importantly, its themes.  As stated, the film is a real tantalizing philosophical puzzle in its differing ideologies.  At first, its empirically minded scientist believes somewhat in the randomness of events, but the page acts as a radical, life-altering change for the man.  Since the numbers on the page are anything but random and are a systematic blueprint for death and destruction (and maybe, the end of times), Jack grows increasingly fixated with the determinism of the page.  However, as I watched the film I contemplated the nature of the page more and more.  More specifically, are the numbers a product of a larger entity working through the young child that wrote them?  If so, was it chance that Jack’s son got the paper out of the time capsule?  And what of those incomparably sinister "strangers" that coincidentally visit Caleb?  They are clearly not human, despite their outward appearances, but have they orchestrated everything, or are they puppets to a larger power also?  Is God, if out there, toying with everyone?   

The film’s intellectually denseness is its true masterstroke.  The debate about determinism versus chance boils over into another absorbing debate about Jack’s own increasing disillusionment.  Since Jack knows the future, then what possible control does he have over it?  Moreover, if you knew that there was a deterministic entity spelling out future disasters, how far would you go to stop them?  Perhaps even more interesting is the spiritual journey of the main character: if you knew all was coming to an end, would your beliefs radically change?  The film’s ending, which avoids any semblance of an artificially content Hollywood conclusion offering swift closure, is brutally uncompromising with how it begs viewers to not just passively watch the film; it instead asks us to actively challenge and discuss it.  At the film’s end I struggled with deciphering what the film’s ultimate end game was: Is the paper with the numbers on it irrefutable proof of determinism…or... proof of an otherworldly presence meddling in human affairs…or...proof – or disproof – of the existence of God?  Is there intelligent design that has order over us all? 

The fact that these issues don’t have immediate answers is to the film’s credit.  While KNOWING is certainly one of the more fascinating and thoughtful sci-fi films in years, it is also a masterpiece of film craft.  The look of the film captures both the ethereal and haunting intrigue of individual scenes, but it also evokes a gritty and realistic veneer to some of the film’s most horrifying sequences.  Proyas, no stranger to visual effects (as he used in DARK CITY and i, ROBOT), is a rare breed of filmmaker that never lets the glossy sheen and wow factor of make-believe get in the way of the emotion of scenes.  He uses lavish and painstaking CGI effects discretely at times, so much so that they disappear into the background to the point where you feel your not looking at them.  Proyas hybrids his stylistic choices with a brilliantly haunting and forcefully vigorous music score by Marco Baltrami, which feels like the best chords of any Bernard Herrmann composition that only heightens the film’s frightening atmosphere and sense of unease. 

One sequence in particular is an unequivocal standout: it is one of the most elaborately orchestrated and horrifyingly scary action scenes I have ever seen.  It involves an ingenious and continuous two-minute take that shows Cage’s character witnessing a plane crashing in a field on a long stretch of highway and his subsequent attempts to rescue the passengers.  The shot is a tour de force of visual effects trickery and ingenuity, to be sure, but it represents one of the first times that I witnessed CGI images that completely immersed me in the horrifying consequences of a real world tragedy.  I have never seen an action/disaster sequence that has felt so devastatingly real that packs such a terrifying emotional punch to the gut.  Lesser directors use visual effects to give their film’s an eye-popping level of spectacle, but in KNOWING the effects have the opposite effect: they capture the scene’s appalling unease and calamitous visceral shock.  It’s one of the great sequences of the movies. 

It’s easy to overlook the performances in a film like this, but KNOWING is a triumphant return to form for Nicolas Cage, who, after sleep walking through regrettably comatose performances in BANGKOK DANGEROUS, GHOST RIDER, and the NATIONAL TREASURE pictures, once again shows how commanding of an actor he can be (see MATCHSTICK MEN, ADAPTATION, LORD OF WAR, and the very underrated THE WEATHER MAN for recent examples).  His performance as the troubled and disturbed professor is a high wire act of balancing between unhinged and histrionic pathos and paranoia alongside quiet apprehension and vulnerability.  He’s not an apocalypse action hero on display, but instead is a wounded figure, previously giving up on life, that feels the need to propel himself into action for the better of his child.  His scenes with young Chandler Canterbury have an unappreciated brevity to them, and Rose Byrne as well is very good in a difficult role where she plays an intrinsically disturbed woman that has great difficulty dealing both with her mother’s past and with the awful future to come. 

KNOWING is like an indescribable marriage of the best of Hitchcock and Kubrick; a science fiction drama that is equal parts intelligent and transfixing alongside being intensely thrilling and alarming (it's the kind of film that I expected M. Night Shyamalan to make years ago before he hit cinematic rock bottom).  The plot dives into some of the most fundamental questions of human existence within the universe (not the easiest subject matter for any movie) while methodically immersing viewers in virtuoso sequences of jarring, gut wrenching special effects, amazing set design, and a dark and foreboding atmosphere.  After its 122 minutes I found myself entirely drained, but that is not an overt criticism.  Proyas shows himself here as a mastermind of combining endless tension and trepidation with sobering performances and distressing action sequences that have not left my mind days after seeing it (nor are they likely to ever leave).  KNOWING is a film that is almost impossible to dissect upon just one solo viewing, but I think that it is one of those transformative sci-fi entries that will only gain more prominence with endlessly analyzing it after repeated viewings.  Instead of dryly regurgitated and adhering to a typical Hollywood blueprint for sci-fi films as of late, Proyas has done something altogether more brave and rewarding: KNOWING never lets its artifice get in the way of making you think long and hard about its multiple meanings.  That’s the key to the most unforgettable and engrossing sci-fi films, which, alas, too many lackluster entries as of late fail to embrace.  This is one of 2009’s grand film achievements.

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