Knowing, opening today, is a compelling film that walks the line between horror and science fiction – a genre blend right up the alley of director Alex Proyas, who probably gained the biggest notoriety from the cult fave Dark City. Unlike Dark City Knowing takes place in the very real world – Melbourne, Australia doubling amazingly as Massachusetts and NYC – and its story drums up a question that’s come to all our minds at some point: does Earthly life have a purpose, or does “sh*t just happen?”
Nic Cage’s character, MIT astrophysics professor John Koestler, is in the latter camp. Koestler lost his wife and he’s left to be a single parent to his son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). It has shades of Mel Gibson’s own preacher character in Signs: man loses wife; man loses faith. (John is also the estranged son of a preacher.) It sounds like I’m setting this up to be some kind of Kirk Cameron religious flick, but rest assured, aside from the odd biblical character name and some vaguely angelic iconography, the filmmakers keep things pretty secular.
At Caleb’s school, the students open a time capsule that contains drawings done by students fifty years prior (a purposely off-kilter sequence seen in the film’s chilling opener). The drawings are all supposed to represent what the kids in 1959 thought 2009 would be like. But the “drawing” Caleb gets is actually a bunch of seemingly nonsensical numbers, written in tiny rows by disturbed student Lucinda (Lara Robinson) back in the day. Apparently there are whispering voices telling her what to write.
Caleb’s curiosity about the numbers’ significance piques John’s curiosity, and in a drunken all-nighter, he formulates his theory that you’ve probably seen in the trailer and TV ads – that the numbers predict the dates of mass deaths, as well as the death count. Koestler becomes obsessed with this numerological lark (numerology is apparently one of Cage and Proyas’s hobbies, according to producer Jason Blumenthal, who did a Q&A along with Cage’s co-star Rose Byrne, at my screening.) He tries to drag his scientist buddy, Phil (the wryly funny Ben Mendelsohn), along for the ride, but he’s naturally skeptical, until things start adding up.
This all leads to a major shift of Koestler’s fact-based perspective. It also leads him to Diana (Rose Byrne), who is the daughter of Lucinda, and the mother of Lucinda’s grandchild, Abby (also Lara Robinson). After connecting with these two, some things start to fall together – and a lot apart – for Koestler, as the voices that Lucinda heard so long ago, start to manifest themselves once more in the ears of Caleb and Abby. And not only that they start to take the form of darkly cloaked humans lurking in the woods and on occasion, Caleb’s bedside.
I won’t give anything else away, other than the numbers have a much greater significance than the trailer lets on. There are certainly a couple of questionable holes in logic, but I found myself overlooking them because I was so wrapped up in how the story was going to be resolved. Alex Proyas does an admirable job of always driving the story forward, building it to a fever pitch toward the end. Warning – and take this from someone who’s exposed his eardrums to Spïnal Tap levels – the film’s score and SFX get louder as the film proceeds, and had people in the audience plugging their ears toward the end. (According to producer Blumenthal, this rise in volume was a conscious decision on Proyas and composer Marco Beltrami’s part.)
Technically speaking, the film is top notch. Shot on the Oakley Red digital camera, the details were rich and the colors increasingly saturated as the story proceeded without ever looking false. There are a few excusable CG artifacts here and there, but for the most part, the disaster and dread always look wholly credible. (The best being a long single-take of an airline crash’s aftermath, and the climax of the film, which I won’t ruin.)
The only problem I had with the film was its ending. It’s a bit of a downer, although it may not be to some, depending on your spiritual views. The film’s title has multiple layers, but mostly I think it refers to “knowing” what lies beyond this life on Earth. However, this is Koestler’s story, and in the end, what he comes to know, wasn’t fully formed enough for me. (Without giving too much away, there were traces of Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in there.)
At the end of the day, Knowing tells us there’s someone watching over us. I’m just not sure that Knowing wants to let you know exactly who that someone really is. If you don’t mind a little mystery and an ending that’s less than idyllic, then Knowing is sure to have your number.
– PATRICK SCHUMACKER