I don’t go to mainstream movies wanting to dislike them—I swear I don’t. Sometimes even I just want some good old-fashion entertainment and am quite willing to suspend a lot of disbelief. This weekend I joined the crowd and went to the local multiplex to check out the latest Hollywood blockbuster, “Knowing,” starring Nicholas Cage. I tried really, really hard to enjoy this movie—I swear I did—but it just proved impossible as the movie kept getting more and more ridiculous and eventually my suspension of disbelief broke down.
Years ago, when critiquing college student papers, I was taught to always start off with something positive to say. No matter how horrible the worst paper may be, you can always find at least one little thing that is good to begin with, before tearing the paper to shreds. Fair enough.
So let me start with something positive about “Knowing.” It had good effects. The sequence during the opening credits, as the camera zooms down on the dark side of Earth to reveal human landscape all lit up, was impressive. Also a sequence in which an airplane crashes onto an interstate was heart-stopping.
But I’m afraid that’s it. There were plenty of other effects in the film, but I found them either gratuitous or too unlikely. They were well-rendered, certainly, but being in the service of such an idiotic plot tends to take something away from them.
So what is this idiotic plot, you ask? Well, it all starts off in 1959 when an elementary school in Massachusetts is about to bury a time capsule. A little girl named Lucinda (Lara Robinson) hears voices and scribbles a series of numbers onto a piece of paper instead of drawing a pretty picture. It gets put into the capsule and 50 years later, when it is opened, it is given to a boy named Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). Caleb’s father John (Nicholas Cage) happens to be an MIT professor of astrophysics; when John looks at the paper with seemingly-random numbers and notices that it contains the sequence 9 11 01, he suddenly realizes that this series predicts every major catastrophe in the world over the last 50 years, with exact dates, body counts, and locations via latitude and longitude.
At the bottom of the paper, there are three more disasters that have not yet happened; luckily—or unluckily, depending on how you look at it—they are all within the next few days. That means he doesn’t have to wait too long to find out if the prediction is accurate; but it also means that he doesn’t have much time to figure out how to stop them, or even if he can.
With Caleb in tow, John tracks down Lucinda’s daughter, a woman named Diana (Rose Byrne). And with her daughter Abby (also played by Lara Robinson), the four attempt to solve the mystery of the prophetic numbers. As pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, it turns out the final catastrophe is the end of the world. But eerie, blond-haired aliens who keep showing up in the creepiest of places, just might hold the key to survival—at least for some.
I guess the first clue that I should have picked up on that this was going to be a bad movie occurs in an early scene in which John teaches a graduate seminar at MIT. It’s obviously designed to set the theme of the film—asking the big question of whether life in the universe is predetermined or exists randomly—but it’s conducted more like a high school, or possibly even middle school, class in which a ball is tossed from student to student and they recite simple facts about the sun that were learned in Sixth Grade science class.
But determined to enjoy the movie, I dismissed the idiocy and kept holding on. Through a mounting series of incredible coincidences, through John’s desire to be in the center of a disaster rather than run away from it, through a scientist who fears rather than is curious about the mystery of the numbers, through a highly unrealistic subway accident. I was trying very hard not to be too critical.
When John attacks a tree with a baseball bat, I desperately tried to convince myself that that was his character’s way of expressing anger and fear, rather than Nicholas Cage’s overacting during a poorly written episode in the script. The snickering of the couple in the row behind me didn’t help.
Somehow I managed to hold on through two-thirds of the film. But then I got to the scene where John was driving his truck with his pistol in his hand to protect himself from super solar flares; that was when I broke down and lost it. I just gave up suspending my disbelief. I really tried hard, but the remaining third of the film, with its increasing religious imagery, became just too inane.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, “Knowing” is a secularized version of Christian fundamentalists’ view of “end times.” Mixing concepts from both Old and New Testaments, the film places a strong emphasis on prophecy. But it doesn’t explain how prophets (or aliens) can know the future, nor why it should be hidden for 50 years, nor what good can come of knowing the future if that knowledge does not help one prevent the catastrophes. Neither humans nor aliens have that power.
This seems to come back to the original question of Determinism, but again it doesn’t really answer it; it just makes the universe seem even weirder. The uncreative ending, which had been foretold, is too obvious, and too gratuitous. And completely unsatisfactory. “Knowing” doesn’t answer any of the big questions it poses.
The only question that really seems worth debating is, given the money pumped into this semi-disguised religious film, what is the changing nature of religion in pop culture? The “Left Behind” series appeals to the devoutly faithful while this film is meant to appeal to a mainstream audience. The size of the large crowd that saw it with me indicates that “Knowing” is drawing people into the theatres. However the reaction of most of the people around me indicates that they were not impressed. I guess even the basest of audiences have their limit.
And so do critics. Both thumbs down.