A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, PG-13, 122 mins.
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
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
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?
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
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
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.