KNOWING (2005)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Alex Proyas

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn (plus an early sighting of a young Liam Hemsworth in his first movie role)
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 33%

PLOT: M.I.T. professor John Koestler links a mysterious list of numbers from a 50-year-old time capsule to past and future disasters and starts to wonder…what happens when the numbers run out?

[SPOILER ALERTS…not that anyone is going to rush out and stream this, but whatever, still … SPOILER ALERTS]

Knowing is a polarizing film from Alex Proyas, the visionary director of The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998).  It tells the story of an M.I.T. professor whose son is given an envelope that has been sealed inside a time capsule for 50 years.  Inside the envelope is a list of seemingly random numbers that appear to be meaningless, until he notices a pattern emerging.

I remember when this movie came out very well.  I was stoked to go see it because Alex Proyas is one of my favorite directors. But it got PANNED right out of the gate.  And most of the negativity stemmed from the movie’s ending, which turned off the vast majority of moviegoers who thought was the equivalent of someone saying, “It was all a dream!”

Knowing does NOT have one of your typical Shyamalan-esque endings.  The ending follows the strict logic of everything that has come before and arrives at an astonishing, awe-inspiring conclusion that left me gobsmacked.  But more on that later.

Let’s talk about how Knowing works.  First, everything about the movie sets us up for what appears to be a standard horror movie with Nicolas Cage’s son apparently in danger from mysterious pale figures in dark coats who show up at their house in the middle of the night and just stand there…watching the house.  Creepy.  At one point, one of them somehow gets INSIDE the house, a sequence that ends with the boy having a nightmarish vision of a raging forest fire.

These are, so far, basic horror tropes.  But director Proyas uses skillful styling and editing to create something that feels as creepy and suspenseful as any horror movie I’ve seen.  In fact, every time I watch Knowing, I find myself still on edge during certain scenes, particularly the ones involving the pale strangers.

Another feature of the movie that I feel elevates it is the visceral nature of the key scenes involving various accidents.  See, that 50-year-old list of numbers is actually a list of dates on which various catastrophes occurred over the last 50 years, along with the number of casualties…and Nicolas Cage’s character, John Koestler, can plainly see that three of them are coming up in the next few days.

So it’s a foregone conclusion that we, the audience, are going to see some sort of major accidents.  And, man…I have never seen, before or since, such astonishing, nerve-racking sequences of horrible accidents in films.  I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I CAN say that I guarantee this is one movie that will never be an option for in-flight movie channels on commercial airliners.  I mean…when it happens, it’s out of the blue, and it feels as real as these things can get with CGI.  It literally takes my breath away every time I watch, and I’ve seen it like ten times.  Easily.

So now that Koestler has proof the list is real, the question that keeps nagging at him is…what happens when the numbers run out?

And that’s where Knowing leapfrogs over other genre thrillers and actually becomes ABOUT something.  Before finding that fateful list, Koestler asks his students at M.I.T. to write a paper on determinism versus coincidence in the natural world.  That is, do you believe that everything up to this point has happened for a reason, or is literally everything we do completely random, with no purpose or design?  Koestler believes in the latter, even though he’s the son of a minister, a man with whom he’s had no contact for years.

Koestler has his reasons.  Years ago, his wife was killed in a hotel fire, an event which he perceives as a random accident.  But then he gets this list, and it seems as if someone has been able to accurately predict seemingly random events.  This list flies in the face of everything he’s believed for years.  If these accidents are predictable, is everything ELSE predictable?  Is there a REASON for the accidents?  Is life more than just the result of millions of years of evolution and genetic mutations?

Koestler cannot square this list with his personal beliefs, and it’s that conflict that’s at the heart of the movie.  Knowing forces its main character (and, by extension, the audience) to make a decision one way or the other.  Is there a plan for existence, or is it random?  How long can he ignore the evidence of his own eyes before he makes his choice?

And over all of that, there’s still the issue of the list running out of numbers.  What happens then?  The end of the world?  Is he destined to SAVE the world?  Or stand by helplessly as pre-determined events spin forward out of his control?

This is why the movie stands above other genre sci-fi thrillers.  It poses tough questions and forces us to confront our own beliefs.  And the movie does not take the easy way out by trying to have it both ways.  The finale of Knowing is as implacably logical as it is visually stunning.

Detractors of the movie decry this finale as a “deus ex machina” that cheapens everything that came before.  I even remember some mild laughter in the audience when I first saw it.  But seriously…given everything that happened before, what ELSE would have been a good ending?  Have Koestler wake up from a dream?  Have him discover that it was all really a government experiment?  A drug-fueled hallucination?

None of those would have worked NEARLY as good as the ending the movie DOES provide.  As I said before, it follows the logic of its own story to the bitter end, and gives us some spectacular visuals into the bargain.  It doesn’t cheat, it doesn’t pander or cop out.  We have gone from point A to point B, and the only way out is through point C.  When you think about it, isn’t that kind of audacious?  How many movies have had the nerve to follow the courage of its own convictions?  (I’m reminded of The Bridge on the River Kwai with its own fatalistic finale, combining spectacular visuals with an ending that was not a “happy” one by any stretch of the imagination.)

I stand behind this movie as one of the great sci-fi mystery thrillers.  Love the ending or hate it…I challenge you to come up with an ending that would have been better than the one presented in the film.

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