DVD Showcase: The Thinning Hairline Between ‘Knowing’ and Believing

7 Jul

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Knowing (PG-13) 121 min. Directed by:Alex Proyas. Written by:Ryne Douglas Pearson & Juliet Snowden. Starring:Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, D.G. Maloney, Lara Robinson.

cinemagrade A-

Is the universe governed by determinism or by random event? Do we as human beings exist in it all alone, or is there a greater omniscient force which rules over all of our lives? Are the worlds of science and religion exclusive to themselves, cancelling one another out, or are they simply different lenses through which we view the same events? And the greatest conundrum of all; is Nicolas Cage still capable of making a good movie?  Alex Proyas’ new thriller Knowing, which opened in theaters last March and hits Dvd and Bluray today, raises all of those questions and answers concretely only one. Yes, Virginia, Nicolas Cage managed to not ruin a movie. You will believe a man can stare vacantly and have just cause for doing so. 

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 When I saw Knowing during its theatrical run I was shocked by how much I liked it. Loved it, even. After sitting through tedious sci-fi exercises like The Day the Earth Stood Still remake and Jumper, I was relieved to find a movie that actually raised thoughtful questions, created a realistic environment for its out-of-this-world premise, and delivered some of the most exciting and suspenseful action sequences I’ve seen this year. Knowing is not a perfect film, but it does make a great science fiction movie because Proyas remembers what that title actually means; it addresses human fears and asks big questions about the universe, and it engages us on a level that sparks our curiosity about the unknown and the nature of our existence. Instead of being heavy or tedious, the movie functions as a fast paced suspense thriller with Nic Cage racing against the clock to save his son, and potentially, the entire world. Everything else it does, happens during that journey.

  We often think of sci-fi in terms of mechanics, technology and green slimy creatures, but at the very heart of the genre are the concerns and cares of the human experience. All of the great entries are aware of this; Blade Runner, Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twelve Monkeys and Alex Proyas’ own Dark City. In particularly, Dark City happens to be a terrific example of the modern-day science fiction film. For its visual style it drew on the film noirs of old, the panels of visionary graphic novels, and the relentless pace of action movies. While the audience was distracted by a compelling fantasy, the film knocked on the door of existentialism and human spirituality; Are we more than the sum of our experiences?  If we have a soul, does it possess a natural value in our evolution as a species?

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After making the by the numbers popcorn flick I, Robot (which I actually happen to enjoy), Proyas returns to the same kind of pulp inspired big idea that kickstarted Dark City.  In Knowing, John Koestler, a widowed MIT professor, uncovers a hidden code his son found on a piece of paper that was previously sealed in a 50 year-old time capsule. This code manifests itself as a kind of prophetic compass, indicating the location and details of the world’s disasters. John becomes aware of it when he recognizes the date of his wife’s death in the midst of the numbers  and then sees more events, spiraling out to include famines, floods and plane crashes that haven’t even happened yet. Koestler follows the clues towards a dawning revelation; the numbers all lead towards a rapidly advancing event that will eclipse all the others.

John meets with Diana Wayland, a single mother and the daughter of the woman who wrote the numbers down originally. They pursue the clues together, and John finds himself trying to thwart the disasters before they happen. One sequence inside a subway tunnel is frightening; there are multiple avenues for danger and John can only process one at a time. Then, John’s son, Caleb, and Diana’s daughter start hearing strange whispers in their mind and seeing visions of an all consuming fire. There are dark strangers lurking about in the woods and sometimes they show up in Caleb’s bedroom. At one point, completely confounded by the information he now possesses, John calls his estranged father, a Christian minister, and shares with him what he considers a prophetic warning. The man is nonplussed by the promise of eschatological destruction. He believes, whatever happens, that God will be there for him.  John does not share his faith, or his optimisim. He continues to struggle for the answer even when he fears what it may be.

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I won’t burden you with further plot details, but I will clarify one point. If it sounds like Knowing is a hokey spiritual thriller or a half-baked science-trumps-religion screed, it isn’t. The piece of paper with the unbelievable numbers, the method by which those numbers have been related, and their ultimate reason for appearing are the basis of the film’s unexplainable events. All of the conversations that occur  happen in order to offer explanations for those events. Like the best of the original The Outer Limits, Knowing does not treat science and religion like enemies, but suggests between them an intertwined, and compelling tension. They both seek to answer the same questions, and sometimes they intersect more often than they step on each others toes. 

The film sets up its philosophical debate in a discussion John has with his class, about determinism vs. randomness. In reality, the opposing forces at the heart of Knowing can be summed up as ‘Fatalism vs. free will’. This is how it matters to John and the others who know of the prophesized numbers. If the supernatural events and visitors can be explained by something scientific or by the presence of God, what does it ultimately matter if there is no choice in the face of the oncoming apocalypse? John’s kn0wledge of the numbers is a curse if he can do nothing about them. Perhaps, they are not even meant for him. He longs to interpret them but the tools of science alone seem incapable of giving him the answer.

Proyas doesn’t bother to answer the questions he raises, because they cannot be sufficiently answered by a film of this nature. It could choose to embrace one side over the other, but that would get in the way of its story. It is structured like a mystery, and at the end of the day, all the pieces fit. Everything comes together, and we are given the whole picture. What is left to our discretion is the exact meaning of the picture. Proyas gives us all the materials necessary on both sides. There are numerous fragments of scientific theory dropped throughout the film, and Koestler, as a man of science, pursues his answers with an analytical mind. At the same time, there is some fascinating religious imagery brought to bear. Caleb is found drawing on an illustration of Ezekiel’s vision from the Bible, involving wheels within wheels and four creatures for each of the wheels. Below is a copy of the engraving in the film, and a scene in Knowing where the characters come upon a similar manifestation. The way the two relate in the movie is mind-bending.

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The thing that usually capsizes movie’s like this are their own self importance, or need to force their perspective down the audience’s throat. Knowing has no such pretensions or desires. For most, it will work as a good old-fashioned thriller. It has a brilliantly designed structure, with Proyas being very careful and selective about each shot and placement of objects, characters and buildings within the frame. He suggests the pristine order of a determined universe, but then he introduces some of the most chaotic, harrowing disaster sequences ever put to film and the experience is like driving a dumptruck through a plate glass factory. There is a hint of Hitchcock in the way the mystery is unfolded, and a car chase towards the end of the film builds tension in ways that the Master of Suspense would be proud of. The ghost of 80s Spielberg shows up too, towards the film’s finale, when Proyas starts dropping the curtain on the true nature of the plot. The bottom line is that Knowing is a superb entertainment that will require none of the extra pontificating in order to enjoy it. However, for those interested, there are other, extra layers.

And finally, what of Cage? Well, he’s still Nicolas Cage. Once a truly gifted artist, he has since fallen into the pit of his own mannered personality. His poor choice of scripts and projects have gone hand in hand with that lazy acting shorthand to render him almost a parody of himself. Proyas is a canny stylist though, and like every other carefully placed piece of the film he sees where Cage fits and puts him there. Suddenly, the beleagured expressions, wearied brow, and frantic hand movements make sense. Here is a man whose very sense of the world is coming apart, and ontop of all that maybe the actual world too. He charges through the film seeking answers, and Cage’s manic rythyms become illuminating. He is also the right choice for a man poised in the middle of an existential/spiritual quandry. He always seems distant, as if he is considering mankind’s extinction and if it will matter much when the time comes.

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So, if you are in the mood for an intelligent science fiction pic, check out Knowing. If you could care less about science fiction but want to be thrilled, the film is still a stellar choice. Recently, I had the misfortune of seeing Transformers 2 and all 1500 minutes of its completely incomprehensible plot. No sense, style or personality. No room for enticing contradictions or probing dialogue. Here comes Knowing, the kind of odd film where a prophecy is given to a scientist and he calls up a pastor and informs him of its arrival in terms that the man can understand. He has used mathematical equations to arrive at his conclusion, but in relaying it he talks of Pentacost and the gifts of the Spirit. Him, a scientist. Go figure.

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2 Responses to “DVD Showcase: The Thinning Hairline Between ‘Knowing’ and Believing”

  1. fandangogroovers July 9, 2009 at 4:38 am #

    I read another review of this film on cinemascream. As I said there I really disliked this film. I found the plot and its holes really annoying. Take a look at my review.

  2. fandangogroovers July 9, 2009 at 4:39 am #

    I read another review of this film on cinemascream. As I said there I really disliked this film. I found the plot and its holes really annoying. Take a look at my review.
    Sorry the links didn’t work, they are:

    http://cinemascream.wordpress.com/2009/07/07/knowing/

    http://fandangogroovers.wordpress.com/2009/04/14/not-knowing-why-this-film-was-made/

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