I saw the movie Knowing earlier this year when it was in theaters. Since it has recently been released to the home market, I wanted to share my thoughts on it. At the time, I knew nothing of it except for the advertising that promised an action-oriented disaster film with a sci-fi twist. While it did deliver in those respects, I had mixed feelings about where it all ended up.
The remainder of this article contains details of the movie that you may not want to know until after you’ve seen the movie.
Shit just happens
I have a problem with the use of the angry atheist archetype. The line of thinking is that atheists and skeptics don’t really believe what they say–they’re either angry because of something that has happened to them or they just haven’t seen the right evidence. As such, their skepticism arises from a kind of rebellion rather than logic. This type of character will eventually be proven wrong with varying consequences over the course of the story.
The main character is John (Nicolas Cage), an astrophysics professor. He uses reason to tell his son that although we don’t know of any other life in the universe, space is too vast to rule it out. He explains to his students that he doesn’t believe in fate. He has denied religion despite being the son of a pastor, thus straining his familial relationships. He appears to choose reason over emotion in these situations.
However, we learn that John lost his religion no later than when his wife died. He thinks he should have felt something extra-sensory when she was killed in a fire hundreds of miles away. In the classroom discussion about fate, he bluntly states that “shit just happens”. He lives an isolated life and drinks heavily, both signs of depression. These are clues that this character is not a true skeptic, but rather one who is angry about his circumstances.
Not all atheists fit this stereotype of having abandoned faith because they are mad at God. In my personal life, there are some who think this about me because my mom died when I was 15. I was decidedly not religious prior nor am I angry at any imaginary being since. However, it is the automatic assumption of many to think that atheists are disingenuous to their true feelings.
Over the course of the film, John discovers evidence of an incredible nature that he cannot ignore. A 50-year old paper full of numbers predicts future catastrophes leading up to the end of the world. A colleague dismisses it by saying one could find all sorts of patterns in numbers. Because of the limited time until the next predicted event, John abandons caution and tries to personally save those that he believes will die. He winds up running around scaring people in a failed attempt to save others. The skeptic has become a kind of doomsday prophet–frightening others while effecting no actual change to prevent it.
In the final act, John joins his family with the knowledge that a solar flare is about to destroy the planet. It is their fate and nothing can be done. In the moments before Earth is incinerated, he and his father agree that “this is not the end.” Though it’s debatable whether that means the same to both men, John now believes something that he didn’t before.
With the arrival of compelling contradictory evidence, the skeptic must accept that his original conclusions are wrong. In the story, this evidence exists. In the real world, there is no evidence for God or the supernatural. When supernatural events occur in a story, the faithful can absorb them as part of the plan of their God without compromising the overall belief. On the other hand, the skeptic is simply wrong and everything else they doubt is thrown into question. Even the colleague who dismisses the numbers is proven wrong.
Deus Ex Machina
A religious suckerpunch
The supernatural aspect of the revelations becomes clear with an invocation of deus ex machina in which John’s son Caleb and Abby are taken by mysterious aliens into outer space. With not much in the way of explanation, the audience is left to decide the motive of these beings. They physically resemble angels and can perform supernatural feats. They have apparently collected pairs of boys and girls from around Earth and each is relocated to their own private place very much resembling the lush Garden of Eden, complete with a huge Tree of Life. The kids’ interest in extinct animals and their rabbit companions (yes, they brought two bunnies with them–like a very small version of Noah’s Ark) will seem to play a role in their new Adam-and-Eve lives here. They’re also a step ahead by having Biblical names.
What’s disappointing is how this is dropped in the audience’s lap at the end of the movie. There is a build-up to this point where anything could have happened with these characters, but instead we’re presented with imagery straight from the Bible, and it just sits there without justification. It seemed the filmmakers were saying, “See? The Bible could be based on truth!” The movie strung me along with the hope that there could be a reasonable answer for everything, and then–BAM!–a religious suckerpunch. I realized I was given the ol’ bait-and-switch routine as my stomach turned.
Ultimately, one of the messages of the film is that you can’t change fate. I find this extremely annoying. Despite all of our knowledge and running about trying to save people, you can’t change things, so why bother? What good is knowing if you can’t do anything about it? The father who said he’s ready whenever God want to take him did just as well as the characters who risked everything to try to do something to prevent catastrophe. The message isn’t very useful for us in the real world.
Also, you shouldn’t be so quick to judge people who hear voices in their heads, people claiming the existence of aliens on Earth, and people who hold all kinds of supernatural beliefs. They may be the chosen ones. They could have actual answers despite all evidence to the contrary. Reason and logic just slows us down on our path to knowledge.
After much internal debate, I can see where the director was making an attempt at having different interpretations from the same material by keeping certain dialogue and actions ambiguous in their meaning. I respect the dangerous line he walked by trying to make compatible two different viewpoints while potentially upsetting all. Is there a scientific explanation for the Genesis story? If so, it would seem that both sides of the religious divide would want to know just as well as they may be offended by the idea.
One final note, the movie places the end of our planet on a future date, October 19, 2009. So keep an eye out, because I would hate to think we’ll never see another Halloween.