Politics & Policy

The Sum of All Fears

Questions of fate and faith permeate the would-be blockbuster Knowing.

Things are bad out there, you know, really bad: The economy is in a shambles, Iran’s mullahs are monkeying around with nukes, Michael Jackson is planning a comeback, and the S&P recently bottomed out (for now) at the number of the beast. Nevertheless, as Knowing director Alex Proyas’s endearingly apocalyptic, thoroughly entertaining, and ultimately goofy new movie reminds us, matters could be a lot, lot worse.

As the successful director of I, Robot, The Crow, and Dark City (the thinking man’s The Matrix), Mr. Proyas knows how to make the most out of doom — and he doesn’t disappoint on this occasion. I enjoyed Knowing’s every portentous, preposterous moment — even an absurd passage toward the end of the film involving children, bunny rabbits, and a richly kitschy Kincadian landscape located somewhere between Gladiator’s ridiculously Elysian wheat fields and the trippier sequences in The Fountain.

Mind you, I may be biased. As far as I am concerned, Knowing is a movie that has almost everything going for it: a beautiful heroine; hints of the end times; sinister and silent watchful presences; an eerie abandoned dwelling with scraps of ominous paper stuck on its walls; a wildly careering and occasionally senseless storyline; some sort of vast conspiracy; moments of excruciating sentimentality; moments of cruel death; Beethoven; scientific gobbledygook; a bloody-fingered, spooky, whey-faced child; prophetic visions of a world in flames; disembodied, not-quite-audible whisperings of warning and menace and some of the most dramatic special effects that you have ever seen. After knowing Knowing you may well hesitate before taking the subway again. You won’t feel too good about flying, either. (Does Mr. Proyas have something against public transportation?)

#ad#To reveal more would be to spoil a film structured to move from surprise to surprise. For Knowing is a movie driven more by plot than performance, something almost inevitable in any film starring the reliably not-up-to-it Nicolas Cage. Presumably under the impression that he is still stuck in that disastrous remake of The Wicker Man, the tiresomely hyper-kinetic and relentlessly histrionic Mr. Cage stumbles nervy, wild-eyed, insistent, and more irritating than I can say throughout a movie in which the audience will end up thinking that Armageddon might be a small price to pay for never having to set eyes on his character again.

As for the character unfortunate enough to be played by Mr. Cage, he’s Prof. John Koestler, an MIT astrophysicist and tragically widowed single father. Koestler is a brilliant scientist and, no less importantly, a devoted dad to his young son Caleb (nicely played by Chandler Canterbury, most recently seen by moviegoers as a senescent, eight-year-old Benjamin Button), an impression reinforced by Hollywood’s notion of what good child-rearing in an upscale academic household is meant to look like. Words are stuck to the refrigerator for spelling-class purposes. Television is limited to an hour a day, and most of that — poor, poor Caleb — appears to be the Discovery channel. We can be sure that this is a family that recycles.

Caleb attends William Dawes elementary school, the locus for the film’s opening scenes. These are centered on the celebrations that marked the school’s founding back in 1958, the highpoint of which was the burial of a time capsule containing artwork created by the new school’s pupils. Most kids draw rocket ships and other images of the future in which my generation (I too was founded in 1958) used to believe — but one outsiderish child, an unsettling Wednesday Addams look-alike by the name of Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) obsessively covers a sheet of paper with a long (uncompleted) sequence of numbers. What they mean will take the rest of this film to decode.

Flash forward 50 years and the time capsule is opened. Lucinda’s numbers end up with Caleb and then with Caleb’s conveniently mathematical dad, astrophysicist John. John comes to recognize that many of the numbers are dates, all subsequent to 1958 and each linked to a tragedy. Unsurprisingly for a movie aimed at American audiences and made in our own jittery era, the first date Koestler notices is 9/11/2001. In fact, it’s easy to see how — as in, say, Cloverfield — memories of that terrible day have influenced some of this film’s most unnerving imagery, including its depiction of even worse destruction to come, making this movie the latest to bear witness to the way in which the destruction of those towers still haunts the popular imagination — and is likely to do so for a very long time.

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Not all the dates on Lucinda’s sheet have passed, however, and Koestler now sets off to do what he can to either stop or survive the future horrors they may foreshadow. This brings him into contact with Lucinda’s daughter Diana (the lovely Rose Byrne, even more depressed than in the current series of Damages) and her daughter Abby (Lara Robinson, again). Together they all embark on a desperate race against time that they quite possibly have no chance of winning.

#ad#That their destiny may already be fixed reflects an unexpectedly interesting philosophical subtext that bubbles throughout this film. When we first encounter Koestler, he’s an atheist, albeit of a distinctly non-Dawkinsian hue: He is content to let Caleb believe that the boy will one day reunite with his much-missed mother in the hereafter. That said, Koestler takes his convictions sufficiently seriously to be estranged from his pastor father. Perhaps inevitably, however, his belief in a random, purposeless universe comes to be shaken by the implications of Lucinda’s ominous, forbidding, and implacable numerals. To be sure, Koestler knows full well that numerology is nothing more than a junk science designed, like so many human beliefs, to create meaning where none exists, but in their seemingly genuine ability to predict the future, Lucinda’s numbers may, it is hinted, be driving this man of science to concede that there is more order and purpose to the universe than he had once thought possible.

By the conclusion of the film Koestler has reconciled with his father, and, maybe (the ending is much more ambiguous in this respect), the faith of his childhood. Are these issues carefully worked through? No, not really. Knowing is, thank heavens, a movie, not a seminar — an entertainment, not a sermon. Nevertheless, it’s a mark of its director’s impressive sensibility that he allows concepts such as these to make an appearance in the course (and conceivably even in the title) of a would-be blockbuster.

Strangely enough, despite this film’s cleverly fashioned portrayals of gathering disaster, the most poignant images of destruction are only by implication. Mr. Proyas’ affectionate, if somewhat rose-tinted, depiction of that orderly, dedicated, and kindly late-1950s elementary school ushers his audience into a long-obliterated world, just another victim of the continuous humdrum apocalypse that is the passing of irrecoverable time into an infinitely variable future at which we can only guess. In real life, there’s no knowing.

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