With ‘Dark City’, ‘The Crow’ and (to a lesser degree) ‘I, Robot’, Alex Proyas demonstrated a noirish sensibility with a touch of the gothic. These films are dystopias, characterized by an appropriately brooding atmosphere. ‘Dark City’ and ‘The Crow’ demonstrate the kind of visuals that Fritz Lang, Bob Kane and Hieronymus Bosch would all be proud of. Even the toned-down mainstream approach of ‘I, Robot’ delivered more inherent threat and sense of dread at the (inevitable?) dangers of advanced technology than is the norm for a Will Smith vehicle.
Alex Proyas has a dark vision of the future. Which, theoretically at least, would make him the ideal director for a film about the end of the world.
The first problem is that it’s a contemporarily set film about the end of the world. For all that the desaturated palette of Simon Duggan’s cinematography throws an autumnal hue across every frame, like someone draping dustcovers over the furniture in a summer house at the end of the season, there are none of the darkly iconic images from elsewhere in Proyas’s filmography.
Nor does he coax the same quality of performance from star Nicolas Cage that he got from Rufus Sewell ‘Dark City’, Brandon Lee in ‘The Crow’ or Will Smith in ‘I, Robot’. This is the pre-‘Kick-Ass’, pre-‘Bad Lieutenant’ Cage, mercifully not as comatose as in the execrable ‘Next’ or as bug-eyed hammy as in ‘Ghost Rider’ or the (possibly even more) execrable ‘Wicker Man’ remake. But an autopilot, going-through-the-motions Nic Cage all the same.
The main problem, though, is … well, let’s do the synopsis thing and all should become clear.
1959: the pupils of a newly opened school bury a time capsule, the kids all contributing a picture of what they think the future will look like. All except Lucinda (Lara Robinson), who covers her sheet of paper with numbers. Her teacher collects the paper from her before she can write the last few digits. She disappears during the ceremony in which the capsule is buried in front of the school and is later found hidden in a janitor’s closet, driven almost to hysterics by the whispering “voices” who told her the pattern of numbers, her fingers bloody from scratching the final sequence into the wood of the closet door.
Fifty years later: MIT professor John Koestler (Cage) is immersing himself in his work and trying to comfort his young son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Caleb attends a ceremony at school where the time capsule is retrieved and opened. The kids are all given one of the drawings. Caleb gets Lucinda’s page of numbers. By chance, John recognises the date and number of casualties from the 9/11 attacks in the number string and obsessively starts analyzing the sequence. He comes up with the dates and death tolls for every major disaster, catastrophe or act of terrorism for the last fifty years. As well as three more dates just a few days into the future. A colleague points out that there are seemingly random strings of numbers between these date/death toll groupings and suggests, quite reasonably, that John has gone a tad loco as a result of his bereavement. Then John witnesses the next event and realizes that the unaccounted for numbers are co-ordinates. He can now predict where the last few events will take place. But will he be able to prevent them? And what’s the significance of the last few digits that Lucinda didn’t have time to add to the list?
Right then. So far we’ve got numerology, a code and a correlation to cataclysmic events. All good, dramatic stuff. And damn sight better than ‘The Da Vinci Crud’. However, ‘Knowing’ edges into uneasy territory with its choice of 9/11 as the key to John’s deciphering of the code. In a narratively effective but aesthetically questionable montage, John searches the net for archive news reports of various real-life tragedies, including the Oklahoma bombings and Lockerbie. With Lockerbie recently back in the news in the UK due to the continuing controversy over the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds (my opinion: the bastard should have died in jail – a Scottish jail – not be swanning around in a specially built villa back in Libya eighteen months after he supposedly only had three months to live), the inclusion of that reference in ‘Knowing’ threw me out of the film – much as I imagine the several 9/11 references did for American audiences – and it took me a while to reintegrate with it; to remind myself that I was watching a work of fiction.
But even this is surmountable. Proyas has already established a debate between determinism and randomness; the stage is set for an enquiry into whether John is genuinely on to something or channeling his grief into apophenia. Unfortunately, this isn’t where the filmmakers go with the material.
A subplot regarding John’s estrangement from his father – a pastor – underpins the proceedings with a theological element which gradually threatens to overwhelm the film. Once the enigma of the number sequence has solved (and its narrative potential therefore exhausted), things get a little less scientific, a little less logical – hell, a whole fuckload less! – and the three credited scripters start relying a little too desperately on shabby devices such as a kid colouring in the sun in a print of Matthaus Merian’s engraving of the chariot from ‘Ezekiel’ triggering John to a hitherto unseeded expository ejaculation along the lines of “Oh my God, yes, that paper I published recently about solar flares, I remember now, increased activity in the Kappa Beta Delta quadrant, let me immediately dash over to talk to my buddy who works at one of those fuck-off big telescopes in the middle of nowhere so that he can run a programme everyone in the astrological discipline has conveniently overlooked until I turned up to point it out … oh my God, yes, a massive solar flare is going to cause the end of the world!!!!!”
This alone would be enough to question whether or not the choo-choo train of a movie’s intellectual cachet hadn’t experience a wheels/rail detachment scenario, but ‘Knowing’ ain’t done yet. Oh no, we’ve now got Lucinda’s granddaughter, annoyingly played by the same actress. Not annoying in terms of the performance – Lara Robinson is one of those rare child actors who manages to be as cute as a button without being puke-inducingly cutesy – but because this casting decision inherently hints a reincarnation theme which is otherwise unexplored, and just causes confusion when we get to the quasi-religious, cod-philosophical, wannabe-‘Close Encounters’ finale.
Ah, the finale. This is the true sticking point of the film. Now, I’m not saying that filmmakers shouldn’t mix things up, prompt the audience to think for themselves by wrongfooting them occasionally, or strive for a different perspective on established tropes. But, if you’re going to do these things, you should at least be pretty secure in your own mind (a) what you want to achieve, (b) how you intend to achieve it, and (c) that you play fair by your own rules in doing so. Christopher Nolan is a grand master at this: as big a suspension of disbelief as ‘The Prestige’ or ‘Inception’ require, as tricksy as the structures of ‘Memento’ or ‘The Prestige’ are, Nolan is absolutely lucid about what he wants to achieve, utterly focused in the realization of it, and plays scrupulously fair.
‘Knowing’ starts out as an enigmatic puzzle based on numerology, develops into a race-against-time thriller once the message is decoded, takes a theological detour to get all Revelations on our ass … then throws aliens into the mix. Fucking aliens! It’s like watching ‘Pi’ only for it to morph into ‘Winter Light’ before going breaking out the Spielbergian god-lights and cloying sentimentality. Oh, and with Jerry Bruckheimer, Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay invited to the “let’s blow up a fuckton of stuff” end of the world party.
Not that any of those dudes would have the class to end the world to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, so kudos to Proyas for that at least.
But let’s get back to the aliens thing for a minute. And I’ll try to make it quick. I’ve exhausted almost 1,400 words so far on ‘Knowing’ – 1,400 words on an essentially flawed movie that I’ll probably never reapproach – and I have other things to do. Such as drink beer. Read the new Iain M. Banks. Watch other movies.
The alien thing starts with some emotionless types in anonymous black vehicles surveilling John’s house. They’re tall, blonde, chiselled faces, long black coats. In a war movie, these boys’d have the Gestapo audition in the bag. You spend a while wondering if they’re from some sinister government agency.
Late in the game, they’re revealed to be aliens. When they shuck off their human guises, they present as silvery, shiny humanoid types. When they turn away from John to lead his son and Lucinda’s granddaughter into the pod that will carry them up into a mothership that looks like an icicle on steroids, a translucence wavers around their shoulderblades; a transulence that shimmers and almost imperceptibly weaves itself into the suggestion of wings.
And there we have the essential flaw of ‘Knowing’. It morphs through its various stages/subgenres/narrative touchstones to reconcile finally with the deus ex machina of Aryan alien angels picking up two kids from the whole of humankind and dropping them off on an otherwise uninhabited planet to “start over”. And – astoundingly – it gets even worse in the very last shot (the coda to the Beethoven’s 7th/humanity-buys-the-farm set-piece). The planet these poor kids are dumped on (without a whisper of instruction or any supplies courtesy of their extraterrestrial alleged benefactors) is full of something that looks like cornfields made of polyps, with a fucking big hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-garden-of-Eden-allegory tree in the middle of it. They’re both clutching their pet rabbits as the aliens beam them down and unceremoniously depart.
As in breed like ~.
Subtle. Real subtle.
Ladies and gentleman: ‘Knowing’. A film that destroys our world but offers us the happy ending of two prepubescent kids being abandoned in the cosmos (with the expectation of sexual compatibility, self-sufficiency and the rebuilding of society by way of generations of inbreeding) by a bunch of Nazi alien angels.
Surely Erich von Daniken is owed some royalties.