“Now, I want you to think about the perfect set of circumstances that put this celestial ball of fire at just the correct distance from our little blue planet for life to evolve, making it possible for you to be sitting here in this riveting lecture. But that’s a nice thought, right? Everything has a purpose, an order to it, is determined. But then there’s the other side of the argument, the theory of randomness, which says it’s all simply coincidence. The very fact we exist is nothing but the result of a complex yet inevitable string of chemical accidents and biological mutations. There is no grand meaning. There’s no purpose.”
―”What about you, Professor Koestler? What do you believe?”
“I think shit just happens.”
This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but a bang. For that cute little inversion, all credit goes to Richard Kelly, director of Southland Tales and Donnie Darko. Alex Proyas‘ Knowing has more in common with the latter, because of its tone, period aesthetic, generally comprehensible story, and earnest desire to taunt the protagonist with the unfeeling inevitability of his doom. By the time this review posts, I’ll have a new baby to take care of, and I promise, that’ll be the end of comparisons of that happy event to the end of the world. She’ll be our second, and while I find that I’m daunted in different ways this time, my excitement generally dwarfs my fears this time around. But it is fair to say that I’ll be a bit busy at that time, which is why I’m trying something new with this 10YA selection. First, I’m writing the first draft of this review a month early, as opposed to mostly the night before it’s due. Second, I’m writing it before I actually rewatch the film. Kinda violates the spirit of the thing, doesn’t it? I’m meant to write on the subject of how my thoughts on this film have evolved over the years. But if I’m being honest, they really haven’t. I rewatch this one at least every year or two, and on top of being a slick sci-fi fantasy that does a better job than a lot of harder sci-fi at making me ponder humanity’s minuscule place in the universe, the message of this film has remained more or less unchanged for me: Some things are bigger than you, and disasters—especially global-scale ones—are terrifying in a distinctly impersonal sort of way. Roland Emmerich, while a master of disaster in his own right, pointedly omits this feeling from his disasters. As I said in my review of 2012 (a film nearly as old as this one),
“The film could easily have focused on one of the many barely seen individuals whose unceremonious slaughter makes up the beautifully rendered CG backdrop through which our heroes must cavort, or one of the additional billions who die off-screen, not fortunate enough to meet their end in front of a famous landmark or city skyline… But let’s be honest, who really wants to see that movie?”
To be fair, this film does contain a bit of that carnival-ride stuff. There’s no good reason why Professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) should happen to be present for a plane crash that happens on the highway right in front of him, and as he runs through an unbroken shot dodging explosions and debris and generally just trying to participate, there’s very little feeling that he’s in any real danger. The airplane scene is going for something Final Destination-like, but it’s also patently ridiculous. There just wouldn’t be this many people alive after the crash we saw, which ended with an explosion on the ground. John encounters another person on fire and puts them out with a blanket, then performs about seven seconds of CPR on someone else before the emergency responders send him off. The TV news blames the plane crash on solar activity messing with the plane’s navigation, which ties it in causally with the rest of the film, but still makes it a complete coincidence that Cage was there.
In any case, John has now resolved to seek out the two remaining disasters, so the next ones won’t be coincidence. These roller-coaster scenes are fleeting (and don’t make up the entire film, as they do in 2012). Knowing is unique among disaster films in that it lingers far more on the victims than usual. The most frightening scene is not the worldwide destruction of the film’s ending, but rather a second-act scene in a subway station, in which a train crashes and derails, rolling and sliding and grinding over dozens and hundreds of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can practically feel the severed limbs—people contorted sickeningly into impossible positions. It all happens very quickly, but most importantly, it all happens in a way that is completely unavoidable. Pure, dumb luck dictates who survives that scene. And John is Cassandra, doomed to see each disaster coming, but be powerless to warn anyone or stop it.
The warnings, it must be said, are fairly hokey. A time capsule opens up, a stack of retrofuturistic children’s drawings are handed out, and John’s son Caleb receives a vast, unbroken page of handwritten numbers. “What’d you get?” asks a lad of 11, “Bo-ring! Everyone else got a picture!“. Like I said. Hokey. Preteen children do not get this stoked for old crayon scrawls of rocketships, but John’s kid, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury)—who does that same eerily calm thing that every horror kid did for about a decade after The Sixth Sense—seems to have the same sort of shining as Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), the girl from 1959 who drew his page’o’numbers. For reasons that are unclear and unimportant as the film goes on, Caleb gets a vision of the woods on fire, talks to weird tall people who hand him polished black rocks, and he has what sounds like a diagnosed auditory processing disorder, but is wearing a hearing aid for some reason? This allows the aliens (also called “Whisper People”) to talk to him through the static. Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter—they talk to the other child character without any technical assistance, and this all feels like a bit of Proyas rehashing the Strangers from Dark City, who serve a much more specific purpose in that film. John may not be able to stop the end of the world, but when it comes to predicting it, he’s the star of this show. John is living his best life, and amid a torrent of scotch—to round out his evening of barbecued hot dogs, wine, astronomy, and dour irreligious discussion with Caleb about his dead mother—he quickly deduces that the mysterious numbers on the 50-year-old drawing spell out dates and casualty figures (and eventually, he deduces, map coordinates). They are, in short, a prediction of every major disaster since the time capsule was buried, 9/11 included. This sort of hokey prediction scheme has been done before, of course—the film has a great deal in common structurally with a Richard Gere vehicle from 2002, The Mothman Prophecies (which ends with a much more modest bridge collapse), but the particular handling of this film’s doomsaying marks it as less of a spooky and paranormal thing, and more of an frighteningly plausible post-9/11 thing. The terror forecast is high, the clock is ticking, Jack Bauer is running, and we just have to get to one more doomed place just in time to watch a cool piece of destruction unfold without getting caught in it ourselves. Until we do.
The only unforgivable disaster in this film is its wasting of Rose Byrne. She is…present, and plays two different parts, both the grownup version of Lucinda in photos (who spent most of her life institutionalized, and is now dead), as well as her adult daughter Diana. Lara Robinson, who played young Lucinda, also plays Diana’s daughter Abby, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Byrne both as a child in 2009 and as an adult now. Still with me? Double-casting, and a whole ‘nother single parent/kid situation, but there’s really not much else to note here. Diana makes two contributions to the plot—the first is to help find the meaning of the last two numbers on the page—it’s not “33,” but rather the letters “EE.” Second, she panics and kidnaps Caleb at the end, for reasons that make little sense even in the moment. But it hardly matters. She dies, John finds the kids, and he’s about to die along with EE: Everyone Else.
Like Moses, Diana doesn’t survive long enough to enter the promised land, but in this case, the promised land is an apocalyptic firestorm. The sun will experience a “super-flare”—a coronal mass ejection (CME), which will scour the surface of the Earth, burning away its atmosphere, boiling away its oceans, and obliterating all life. Marco Beltrami‘s score is screaming when this reveal occurs, and I must say, despite it literally being revealed on the film’s poster, this moment was pretty mindblowing for me when it occurred. How do you top all previous disaster films, including 2012? End the world. The protagonists’ actions were meaningless. After verifying the doomsday prediction at an MIT observatory, John literally questions this anti-climax aloud.
2012‘s answer to this question was for Chiwetel Ejiofor to insistently save a small group of people to prove to no one in particular that humanity is worthy of some level of survival. Knowing makes no bones about the idea that humanity’s worth is any factor whatsoever when it comes to survival of the species. For a film that’s ostensibly about numerology—a meaningless pseudoscience—Knowing takes great pleasure in pulling the rug out from under both the characters and the audience with the greatest numbers game of all: the Fermi paradox. Despite any probabilistic arguments about the likely and commonplace existence of intelligent life in our vast universe (Caleb and John literally discuss the Drake Equation at one point), the silence and lack of observable evidence for extraterrestrials is an open question: If intelligent life is so common, where is everyone? One proposed explanation, strongly implied in this film, is global catastrophe, or existential risk. The idea is that even if intelligent life is commonplace throughout the universe, global natural disasters occur on a frequent enough timescale to tend to destroy every intelligent civilization before it has a chance to make an escape beyond the stars. And there will be no survivors, except those plucked away at the last second by aliens. Or angels. Or whatever else flies a ridiculously cool shape-shifting spaceship. What you see is what you get here, and they’re mysterious celestial beings who’ve come down to rescue a chosen few to begin again on another world. Or be sequestered in a zoo with a compatible atmosphere to draw out humanity’s extinction for a bit. Whatever works. John is the perfect protagonist in the face of this, because even as Cage is making his usual bizarre coterie of over-the-top acting choices, John is going on a mundane journey of his own of discovery, acceptance, and finally rapprochement with his estranged (and extremely religious) family. A simple tale of a man finding—or feigning— peace at the end of all things. Because what else can he do? Give everyone he loves one last squeeze, and that’s the ballgame.
After the kids depart, John drives his truck slowly through the apocalyptic horde (which screams, but also parts in an orderly fashion him to pass) as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 plays. He arrives at the fanciest Brooklyn townhouse a clergyman ever lived in, and his sister greets him with a hug at the door.
“Where’s Caleb?” asks Grace.
“Caleb’s safe,” says John, sounding 1000% like he murdered his child.
“This isn’t the end, son,” says Reverend Koestler.
“I know,” says John.
I remember Knowing fondly, but truth be told, I may finally be ready to let it go for a while. I’ve voraciously consumed sci-fi books over the past decade, and my mind is currently enraptured by Cixin Liu‘s Remembrance of Earth’s Past book trilogy, which starts with humanity grappling with its own impending destruction that will likely occur in a few hundred years, then becomes something much grander, more profound, and—it must be said—grounded in science, than this film. But for a film about big ideas (which the late, great Roger Ebert explored in far more detail in his spoiler-filled blogpost here), this one is largely still relevant to me, even if I have a harder time explaining the exact purpose of the aliens, who seemingly just show up on the occasion of our annihilation to make sure that we’re not alone. My best narrative explanation for them is that they feel less like a religious metaphor and more like an avatar for our expectations of the universe. Perhaps that’s our true fascination with alien life. Carl Sagan once referred to humanity as a means for the Cosmos to know itself, but perhaps we like to imagine the Cosmos can know us as well, to relieve our loneliness, or perhaps just to take some of the pressure off as a species. Even if natural law is a cold, unfeeling thing that is quite capable of erasing all life from our planet at any time, we like to think that our existence is noticed by someone, even if that someone will stand idly by and watch us vanish from our fleeting lease of spacetime.
FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10
— Glenn Bristol