The Strangest Story Ever Told
The chatter in the theater while I was waiting for Knowing to start suggested a consensus: this was a crap shoot. With Nicolas Cage, many agreed, you never know what you are going to get. Some viewers were hopeful, based on the decent trailer, that this movie would be okay, maybe even good, while others were bracing themselves for the worst, namely, Cage in overblown weirdness mode. I was wishing for at least a National Treasure level of average. And I almost got it.
Knowing’s premise is intriguing, even if it’s a familiar race-against-time-disaster-movie. In 1959, the students of William Dawes Elementary school in Lexington, Massachusetts bury a time capsule in their schoolyard containing student drawings of the world as they imagine it in 50 years. Lucinda (Lara Robinson), a pale, nervous little girl and clearly the class outcast, submits a page covered with numbers. Cut to 2009, when another set of students open the time capsule as part of the school’s 50th anniversary celebration: each is given one of the drawings inside. Lucinda’s goes to Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), whose father John (Nicholas Cage) is an astrophysicist at MIT. Thinking the numbers might be some kind of math puzzle, Caleb takes the page home, where John unlocks the puzzle in about 15 seconds: each number indicates the date and the number of casualties of every major disaster worldwide for the last half-century. Ominously, three dates remain. As John futilely tries to stave off the impending disasters, the question becomes, “What happens when the numbers end?”
If only the film left it at that.
Unfortunately, it insists on examining the deeper implications of “knowing.” In the opening moments, we see Caleb questioning his father about the possibilities of life on other planets. When John replies, “Looks like it’s just us,” we’re duly set up to learn that John is a widower and doesn’t believe in heaven. “I don’t know,” he tells Caleb, “But if you want to believe, you go ahead.” The boy hardly looks comforted. Or again, when John is lecturing on the theory of randomness versus determinism, a student asks which he believes in. “I think shit just happens,” he asserts. So now we know what John needs to find out through the course of the film: is there a reason for his personal suffering? Perhaps more importantly, with the numbers and the determinism they seem to confirm, is knowing what’s coming better or worse than not knowing?
Even one of these questions would be a lot for any film to manage, let alone all of them at once. It’s not surprising that the result is messy and full of contradictions. Oversimplifying and overdoing everything from character development to plot points, Knowing has John drowning his sorrows every night as a response to his wife’s death. Then there’s his estrangement from his pastor father: do we really need to see the conflict between science and religion fleshed out? Caleb’s “hearing problem” also functions at both extremes. He’s not deaf, the words just get jumbled, but he and John also sign, which they mostly use to repeat their family mantra to each other: “You and me, together forever.” If this can be read as a means for John and Caleb to communicate emotionally, it is exploited in the final scenes in a wholly sappy way. Yet, all this just seems to be an elaborate ploy prolonging John’s and Caleb’s ignorance about the Whisper People, pale strangers stalking and whispering warnings to Caleb, since they can shrug the voices off as feedback from the hearing aid.
Knowing continues to pile it on long past the point where it reasonably should end (prompting one movie-goer near me to ask, “Really? Another scene?”). Unwilling to leave anything to imagination, the film spells out every last possibility in excruciating detail. Societal and technological breakdowns, familial and philosophical resolutions, and of course, an epic final montage of disaster and demise. But once we finally know what Knowing wants us to know, we wish we didn’t. In some bizarre gesture towards cosmic inclusivity, the film finally offers a preposterous marriage between faith and science suggesting there is no either/or, no side to choose. An interesting theory, but when the progeny of such a union includes something like the four aliens of the apocalypse and spacecraft dropping off a second Adam in an otherworldly Garden of Eden, well, maybe we are better off not knowing.