Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Knowing (2009, dir. Alex Proyas) has something of the initial mood and appeal of an M. Knight Shyamalan film—ominous portents and family values. In this case we have a troubled and recently widowed man, John Koestler, trying his best to raise a young son, Caleb, who is convinced his father is ignoring him. Koestler, played by Nicolas Cage, is an astrophysicist at MIT. When a time capsule is unearthed at the 50th anniversary celebration of Caleb’s elementary school, the boy comes into possession of a sheet of paper covered with random numerals. We already know from the film’s opening scene that the sheet was the work of a student from fifty years before—students were asked to draw pictures of the future for the time capsule. Most drew rocket ships, but one student—a haunted girl with a morose and depressive air--produced a double-sided sheet of numbers.

Studying the sheet late at night, after one too many bourbons, Koestler notices that a group of the random numbers actually indicates the date of the attack on the World Trade Center, along with the number of fatalities in that event. He soon determines that other number groups correspond, in chronological order, with other catastrophes, including his wife’s death, and eventually he recognizes that the numbers also tell, by longitude and latitude, where these calamities occurred.  Three final number groups represent disasters that have not yet occurred.

There came a moment in Knowing when it occurred to me that Proyas was going to give us a better story than Shyamalan has managed in his last few effort. Shyamalan’s recent films have stumbled too quickly into absurdity—mythical creatures living in caves beneath swimming pools, trees that take revenge on humanity. But I was soon disabused of this notion. Knowing makes Shyamalan seem like Sam Peckinpah in comparison.

The first such disabusing moment came when strange figures began to appear to Caleb. All these figures vaguely resembled the rock singer Sting.

Another disabusing moment occurred when the father just happened to run into the adult daughter of the woman (long since dead) who created the sheet of numbers. She has her own daughter, about the same age as Caleb, who also has also been seeing Sting-like figures. Moreover, both children claim they are receiving strange whispered messages from people they can’t see. The boy receives his messages through his hearing aid. He also has a nightmare involving a flaming moose.

Still another disabusing moment came when Koestler recovered crucial information about the prophetic numerals from an abandoned double-wide trailer deep in a forest. No black velvet paintings were in evidence.

Disabusing moments came fast and furious.

Knowing manages to allude to various films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact and The Fountain and invokes all sorts of religious symbolism, mainly Christian apocalyptic symbolism—we have angels and prophecies and Edenic gardens and redeemed skeptics. And, oh yes, portentous pebbles. The allusions do not reflect a film with religious meaning—they merely give Knowing the illusion of significance.

Cage, who solved puzzles in both National Treasure films, looks convincingly befuddled and obsessed in this one.

Knowing is like a Rubik’s Cube whose sides you never manage to line up. Just as you’re about to throw up your hands in frustration, aliens step in and provide a solution. But they also kill you.

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