Monday, June 22, 2009

Knowing (2009)

Strictly By the Numbers.

"Knowing" achieves a level of greatness so few science fiction films ever achieve. It's not merely an engaging mystery--it's a deeply thought-provoking fable that's just as frightening as it is intelligent, and it ultimately makes a statement so profound that I was left completely awestruck. I don't often have an experience like that at the movies, and for that, I'm indebted to director Alex Proyas and writers Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, and Stewart Hazeldine. They've successfully crafted one of the year's most stimulating films, taking the audience on a suspenseful, emotional, and ultimately (albeit unconventionally) redemptive journey that poses interesting questions on the nature of things. A movie like this could have easily placed technical achievement over character development, and thankfully, that didn't happen; we care just as much about the people as we do about the spectacular special effects.

The story begins in 1959, when an elementary school class is asked to draw pictures of what the world will look like fifty years later. What they draw will be put into a time capsule, which will be reopened in the year 2009. Rather than draw a picture, the quiet, disturbed Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) writes out a series of numbers on both the front and the back of a piece of paper.

Flash forward to the present day. We meet an MIT astrophysics professor named John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), who teaches his students that two theories on the nature of the universe have been proposed. On the one side, we have the determinist view, which states that everything happens as the result of a predetermined--and more importantly, a predictable--sequence of events. How, for example, could the Earth be located at just the correct distance from the sun to sustain life? On the other side, we have the random view, which states that absolutely nothing can be predicted, that life, the universe, and everything happened as the result of cosmic coincidences. What exactly does Koestler believe? Here are some clues: His wife died some years earlier, and he's openly stated that the existence of Heaven can't be proven.

As it so happens, John's young son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), goes to the same school that Lucinda Embry attended fifty years earlier. The day comes when the time capsule is unearthed and opened, and lo and behold, Caleb gets the envelope containing the numbers Lucinda wrote. He then takes it home, thinking the numbers might mean something. John initially thinks nothing of it ... until he places his wet glass of hard liquor on it and leaves a ring. Was it a predetermined act or a random act that led to a ring being formed around very specific numbers (the significance of which I won't reveal)? More important, was it a predetermined act or a random act that landed Caleb with the page of numbers in the first place? While I won't say what the numbers refer to (and this is in spite of the many ads that give plenty of hints), I will say that what John discovers changes him forever, forcing to consider ideas he never thought he would be able to consider.

To describe more of the plot would do you and the film a great disservice. Much of the story thrives on an engrossing mystery that only gets more unsettling with every passing scene. Visual motifs, such as shiny black pebbles, burning landscapes, and silhouetted figures emerging from the forest add great psychological weight. The same can be said for a house so old and ramshackle that, under different circumstances, it would be mistaken as being haunted. It ties in wonderfully with the psychological states of the characters inhabiting it. John is a solemn, broken man, estranged from his father, often detached from his son, occasionally dependent on a bottle of alcohol to drown his sorrows. Caleb is expectedly precocious but surprisingly fragile, always yearning for that which has been lost somewhere along the way. For the first time in a great while, we have a story that can actually support such characters; were it not for the awesome nature of the final fifteen minutes, John and Caleb would be nothing more than melodramatic clichés.

There are two more characters of great importance. One is Lucinda Embry's daughter, Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), who enters John's life in a way that reaffirms the notion that nothing happens randomly. The other is Diana's daughter, Abby (also played by Lara Robinson), who, like Caleb, has been contacted by the creepy silhouetted figures, eventually called the Whispering People. Watch John and Diana as they search through Lucinda's abandoned home in the middle of the woods--the fear they express is disturbingly convincing.

Like last summer's "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," "Knowing" is one of the best cinematic surprises of recent memory, a meaningful and absorbing allegory made with intention of challenging the audience in matters of spirituality. It's difficult to say whether or not this film takes a religious stance; that would depend on your own view of the nature of the universe. There are, however, a number of religious implications, the least subtle of which is revealed in the final shot. This might account for some early reviews, where words like "overwrought" and "preposterous" came up. From my perspective, those who feel that way have failed to look any deeper than what was presented in the ads, which only scratched the surface. Contrary to what trailers and TV spots have been promising, this is not your average science fiction thriller. Serious time, effort, and thought went into "Knowing," one of the best films I've seen so far this year. By Chris Pandolfi

Knowing (2009) Movie Trailer

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