If you go by what American critics are saying you'd think Alex Proyas' Knowing (2009) was a cheesy, preposterous, overwrought, overserious movie about the end of the world, and you'd be right. Consider the story: young Lucinda (Lara Robinson) fills a sheet of paper with numbers; fifty years said paper is discovered by astrophysicist John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) who realizes that some of the numbers represent the date of every natural calamity of the past fifty years--and that three of the dates occur some time in the future.
Who gave Lucinda the numbers? If they're the dates of foreseen disasters, why bury them--why not publicize them, make use of them somehow, save a few lives? If burying them is meant to give the numbers credibility, what's the point if they convince only a few people, Koestler and whoever he manages to persuade (not many since he hasn't much time)? Why go through all the fuss, when the objective of whoever gave Lucinda those numbers seems (after all is said and done) ridiculously simple, compared to the elaborate means involved (couldn't, say, some kind of specially tuned alert have worked as well?)?
The movie styles itself as some kind of apocalyptic mystery where the sinister scribblings have the significance of a Da Vinci Code, plus the urgency of a thermonuclear device on final countdown. Then there are the scores of silent, blond-haired figures wearing cool black jackets who dog Koestler as he runs about, trying to prevent the last three disasters.
Most of the critics' complaints revolve round the movie's climax, which they've seen before in other, better movies (if I actually mention the titles I'd give the whole thing away). That's the basic problem with mysteries, their revelations ultimately disappoint; that's why Alfred Hitchcock put so little faith in them--he preferred to give the audience as much information as possible early on, then left them to squirm while his characters wandered helplessly into danger.
Not every critic has given a thumbs-down; Roger 'all thumbs' Ebert gave the picture his glowing seal of approval, calling it "among the best science-fiction films I've seen," and granted it four stars. More interesting is his blog post on the film (warning: plot discussed in extremely close and explicit detail)), which is nothing more and nothing less than a religious/metaphysical meditation on the nature of the universe. Is fate random (which is what Koestler--who lost his wife in a hotel fire--believes) or predestined (which is what the film, with its apparently omniscient numbers-cruncher, implies)? The piece contains a few factual howlers (his statement "free will is a necessary component of all spiritual belief systems," for example, handily ignores the existence of Calvinists and Jansenists, among other belief systems) but does have one perceptive observation--this is basically an End of Days movie in science-fiction trappings, a religious fantasy made palatable by cool special effects, a major Hollywood star, and an almost complete absence of gratuitous Bible-thumping (well, maybe a little towards the end, where I'd say it's largely justified).
Actually, Ebert's elaborate essay on free will versus determinism is largely beside the point; the movie's appeal doesn't lie in metaphysics or philosophy, but fantasy. The film's ominous tone, shading darker and darker as it progresses towards utter hopelessness, perfectly matches the mood of today's audiences (I know, I know; movies start development years beforehand, and often do not intentionally reflect the times in which they were released…but nothing is written in stone against a coincidental reflection, one that helps explain the picture's strong boxoffice showing). The apocalypse we face in real life is less literal than economical, but that doesn't make our emotions any less ugly, our hopes any less unlikely. To watch this picture is to actually escape into a comforting fantasy, where money troubles and the threat of unemployment and all the stress of modern life are reduced to a set of numbers, and it's all a matter of interpreting them correctly (there isn't even a lot of math involved, which is slightly disappointing--in episodes of the latest Doctor Who they would at least throw in a happy prime or two). The picture indulges the death wish in all of us--cleanse the world and start all over again.
That's the general audience; personally speaking, if one must watch a dark mystery with some kind of apocalyptic scenario, it helps to have Proyas at the helm. He knows how to evoke shadows--some of the darkness in this picture feels almost palpable, like an endless supply of black felt. He knows how to wring menace out of a beam of light, or a vague figure standing alone in the forest. He knows the value of a tautly stretched moment--your nerves thrum, like guitar strings at the point of snapping. Little of this makes much sense, but Proyas pulls you along in an effortless glide, over every inconsistency and loophole, till you find yourself standing at the brink, surrounded by endless flame. Yes, Proyas knows how to do flame, plenty of it; barbecue enthusiasts may never feel the same way about their coal fires ever again after watching this.
Given how the picture plays so expertly on our anxieties (and boy, do we have major anxieties nowadays) it's a bit disappointing to report that Proyas' vision of human transcendence (here and in most of his previous films) lacks the complexity and scale, the sheer looniness of the classics of the genre. From The Crow (1994) where the hero flees death on the wings of a black fowl to Dark City (1998--his masterpiece, I think), where a city escapes alien captivity to bask in sunlight to I, Robot (2004) where a robot sheds programming to exercise free will to this picture, human (or at least intelligent) life has always sought to burst its mortal or imaginative bonds--but does it always have to be about the next step forward, onwards, upwards? John Boorman's Zardoz (1974) suggests what Darwin always knew, that death is half the engine of evolution (the other half is represented by Sean Connery physically responding to the sight of Charlotte Rampling in skimpy costume--against which reaction I totally understand and sympathize with). Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) suggests that man will do better to fall back on what hearth and home he can find for himself, wherever it may be. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) presents a visual enigma (an astronaut in a room/cage, aging rapidly) followed by a man's simultaneous physical regression and spiritual progression. Of Knowing, one wants to say--all that sound and fury, ending with not much to talk about? I don't know, I don't know--it was a nice trip but that finale, I don't know.
First published in Businessworld, 3.27.09