I’m leery of the word “masterpiece,” though I’m guilty of using it on rare occasions. That description implies, what, that a flim is flawless? That it is the quintessence of a great director’s career? That it will stand outside of time? “Knowing” is none of those things. It is a movie for this time, for right now, when the human project will either wake up and change direction or will begin its final winding down. It’s a film that swings for the fences, taking too many chances to be flawless. And as for the director’s career, Alex Proyas has made one good film, one god-awful film, one (yes) masterpiece (“Dark City”), and now this – this HOWL.
Here is the plot. In the 1950s, a new elementary school celebrates its founding by burying a time capsule. Placed inside are drawings by the children – pictures of what they think the future will be like. Crayon rockets and robots, that kind of thing. But one dark little girl, with haunted eyes, Lucinda (Lara Robinson), has filled her page with neat, tightly-packed numbers. Or rather, her hand has done this, seemingly unbidden.
In 2009, the capsule’s seal is broken, and the envelopes are distributed to a new clutch of kids. Lucinda’s numbers go to the child of an astrophysicist, John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), who notices the pages in his son’s backpack. Over one long and fevered night, he makes a terrifying discovery.
Beginning with 9/11/2001, the numbers list the date of every great disaster in the last fifty years, followed by the body count, with perfect accuracy. These sequences are spaced by a group of numbers that seems random and insignificant. As John’s fellow scientist friend says, we tend to see what we want to see. Is John imposing order on data that is, in fact, meaningless?
And beginning here, I must be vague about the plot. Though the advertisements have spoiled a revelation at the film’s mid-point, I will not. Instead, I will say that three disasters have not yet happened. They will; John will be at ground zero for each of them. So will you.
Only one other time have I seen a film – “Casualties of War” – where I felt so in touch with a protagonist’s utter helplessness and despair as he finds himself in the middle of a situation so senseless, so out of control, that he and I can only observe, paralyzed. In “Knowing,” we see, three times, different forms of a wall of energy, swiping inexorably over human beings and the structures we make and in which we put our faith, mopping them all up like a gigantic cosmic eraser. This is the image we have needed to repress since 9/11: a wall of dust, or whatever, wiping out our defiant Towers of Babel.
Considered as a piece of pure entertainment, “Knowing” is exemplary. I don’t see how you could predict, in any given ten minutes, what will happen in the next ten minutes. But the film is so much more than that. It all comes down to how you read to the ending.
If the conclusion is to be taken literally, we have a straight-up science fiction film. If that works for you, run with it. But a lot of people are going to recoil from – or even laugh at – penultimate images they may consider hopelessly shopworn. Two other visionary directors, Stephen Spielberg and Brian DePalma, ended recent films with the same images, and those films tanked. But what do we really know about consciousness? Or, if you prefer, of the holy? How would YOU depict it pictorially? I see nothing wrong with the choices director Proyas has made.
Moreover, if ever a film begged to be read metaphysically, this is one. It’s won’t bow to a literal Christian read; events do not occur exactly as they do in the book of Revelations, for example. But a more metaphorical Christian read is a surprisingly good fit. Perhaps if your understanding of the Universe is more mythological, your interpretation will be the most productive of all. The final image, still in my mind’s eye, of a massive, silvery object in fields where may walk a barefoot deity, is an image so primary, it appears in some form in most of the world’s religious systems.
The question the film poses is this: is everything that happens determined, and for a purpose? Or is it all just a jumble of chaotic happenings, with no ultimate meaning? That the film uses a scientist (with a religious background) as a foil, and brings him to a revelation, suggests that it does not reject science as a way of knowing, but merely the possible limitations of what Huston Smith has called “scientism”: the belief that only science has the answers. It’s a film that (especially because I am a father) left me shaken, filled with profound pity, but hopeful, and with no answers – but an armload of productive questions. A masterpiece? Perhaps not. But seminal.