Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2009

Seeing, believing and in between

The scientific and the supernatural collide in Proyas' intelligent thriller, 'Knowing'

Summit Entertainment
Director: Alex Proyas
Screenplay: Ryne Douglas Pearson, Stuart Hazeldine and Juliet Snowden
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, Lara Robinson, Ben Mendelsohn and D.G. Maloney
Opened March 20, 2009
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 10 minutes
(out of four)

Rare is the movie that can see its own subject from two different directions. Those that try almost always fail - and most would argue that Alex Proyas' Knowing has done just that. Not only failed, but failed catastrophically.

What they miss is, or write off as silliness, is a fascinating convergence of scientific reasoning and religious allegory. It is one of the few movies I've seen that earnestly attempts to reconcile faith and reason. Naturally, science fiction is the best fit, as it opens the door both for the supernatural and the naturally cataclysmic. TV's Lost is another - and, I might add, the best - recent example of this kind of dramatic fusion.

But those aren't the only things Proyas is balancing. He's saddled with a gimmicky plot that opens itself up to incessant logical nitpicking, but he overcomes it (particularly after the first half-hour or so) by confronting us with scientific and metaphysical conundrums that seem to have the fate of the world at stake.

More accurately, he confronts his protagonist, John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) with these conundrums. He's not used to this kind of uncertainty. He's an astrophysicist; he deals in science and fact, shunning the faith of his pastor father. That his wife died in a hotel fire was a mere product of chance, and perhaps further confirmation that the world doesn't operate on order and purpose.

As a professor at MIT, he posits the conflict to his students - determinism vs. randomness. Is there a predestined order to the ways of the world, or is it all based on coincidence and free will? If it's the latter, as John believes, then he soon discovers that coincidence has a wicked sense of irony.

First of all, his son, of all schoolchildren, gets stuck with a paper made up of a seemingly random (and seemingly endless) list of numbers from his elementary school's recently-unearthed time capsule. All the other kids got drawings of spaceships and flying cars and time machines - visions of the future from the class of 1959.

But in Caleb's envelope? Just the numbers. Is it coincidence that Koestler, in a half-drunken, curious stupor, discovers that the numbers on the page correspond with every global disaster of the last 50 years - dates, death tolls, coordinates. (To be frank, it's a rather perfunctory sequence - pure plot mechanics that beg for more exploration than we're given.)

If that weren't enough, it so happens that Koestler finds himself - of all people, of all places - at the exact coordinate of the next predicted disaster, and on the right day.

The way the film's secrets unfold - from the little girl who compulsively wrote all those numbers 50 years ago to the ominous figures known as the "whisper people" lurking in the darkness - allows Proyas to slowly build up both the sense of intellectual conflict within Koestler and the sense of danger for the world at large.

As he did in his great sci-fi thriller Dark City (the recently-released director's cut is even better), Proyas envelops us in the experience of the protagonist, with the white-knuckle elements slowly bubbling to the surface before finally boiling over in an incredibly well-constructed climactic half-hour.

He creates an eerie atmosphere with a visual style that once again - as Proyas has in the past - calls to mind gothic elements, not to mention clear nods to Steven Spielberg. The whisper people reminded me of the Strangers in Dark City, with their icy, ghostlike appearance and menacing presence.

As Koestler discovers more and more of what's going on, the scope of the material continues to expand and the film quietly gains a palpable sense of doom that so many other apocalyptic thrillers are strangely lacking. The answers that Knowing holds are not the product of plot conveniences, but an extremely thoughtful and intelligent approach on the part of Proyas and his writers.

Science is the way we discover how our universe works. Religion is often people's avenue for questions that cannot be - or have not been - answered. Knowing is able to effectively utilize both, in ways both deliberately contradictory and oddly congruous. The film toys with the concepts of determinism and randomness and uncovers a sequence of events stunning in their breadth and detail, their consequences and their cosmic implications. Few apocalyptic thrillers make it half that far.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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