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By Scott Mendelson | March 23, 2009

“Knowing” is an awfully odd duck of a movie. It is also unexpectedly brave, going in directions that the trailers barely hint at and that audiences surely will not expect. I was lucky enough to see this relatively blind. If you have any intention of seeing this film, I heartily recommend you do the same. This is a severely flawed, but also a fascinating and engrossing science fiction film, a picture that offers far more than surface thrills.

John Koestler (Nicolas Cage, in a mostly low-key, service of the story performance) is a college science teacher who is still mourning the death of his wife. Left to raise his partially deaf son alone, he is obviously on edge and perhaps all too susceptible to mathematical coincidence. When his son is given a letter from a fifty-year old time capsule, a letter which is nothing but numbers from head to toe, John inexplicably realizes that the numbers seem to be pointing out the dates and body counts of every major disaster of the last fifty years. Is this just bizarre coincidence? If not, then what about the several would-be disasters that have yet to happen?

Yes, the film starts out as a moodier, low-key variation on the superior first act of Jim Carrey’s “The Number 23” (the rest of the movie… not so much). But it eventually progresses into something far different, something that deals with predestination, free will, and the terrible burden of foreknowledge in a fashion that will be familiar to fans of director Alex Proyas’s previous genre films (“The Crow,” “Dark City,” “I Robot”). In a manner similar to “Dark City” (although this film isn’t nearly as good as that genre-defining masterpiece), “Knowing” asks just what is the point of our lives and our actions if everything is mapped out for us by forces beyond our control? On the other hand, if there is no fate, no great plan, then why bother to excel, to build lives for ourselves, if it can all be rendered moot by random chance? Do both ideologies negate the consequences of our choices and actions and negate the concept of personal responsibility?

Nicolas Cage’s journey eventually brings him in contact with the grown daughter (Rose Byrne of TV’s “Damages”) of the young girl who wrote the original time capsule number sheet, as well as pale-skinned, dark-suited strangers who seem to be in tune with what is really going on (sorry, couldn’t resist). While the third act falters with too many repetitious scenes of meaningless action and incident (avoiding spoilers here), the film eventually builds up a Stephen King-type dread, the fear of inevitability. Like many of King’s stories, the theoretical end-game of Knowing is revealed just soon enough for us to wonder if the tragedies can actually be prevented. But like “Dark City” (and “Hancock” for that matter), this film still has a story to tell right up until the final scenes. And the finale goes for emotional impact rather than pure technical merits, which makes the climax surprisingly potent all around (like “Dark City,” there is at least one image that is completely unexpected and will take your breath away).

This is not a perfect film. The characters occasionally do dumb things (the leads leave their cars with the engine turned on and the keys in the ignition at least three times) and the third act drags between some major reveals and the climax of the picture. But this is a much darker, far more somber, and far more meaningful picture than I was expecting. The supporting characters bring a refreshing intelligence to the proceedings, and the relationships between friends and family feels worn in and genuine. Nicolas Cage is certainly put to better use here than in “Bangkok Dangerous,” although those who yearn for the return of “wild and crazy Cage” will be disappointed.

“Knowing” is a movie with much on its mind. By daring to not explicitly answer its many questions regarding predestination and free will, it allows for genuine debate and discussion. “Knowing” may not be a great film, but it is a genuinely good science fiction thriller that is genuinely haunting.

NOTE – for a spoiler-filled, but intellectually stimulating discussion of “Knowing,” try Roger Ebert’s essay “A Roll Of Whose Dice?” at Ebert’s journal/blog.

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