Galaxy as seen by the Hubble telescope

Ignorance is bliss: why ‘Knowing’ can’t save you

Sci-fi/horror film Knowing was slated for Nic Cage, old-time religion and that ending – but why so detestable? Heads-up: contains major spoilers (and then some).

Soundtrack: Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 in A maj. Allegretto

2009’s Knowing was touted as a sci-fi disaster movie with plenty of intrigue. The trailer features a time capsule, a code, predictions of disaster, lots of doom, and a title screen which features what looks like a dark planet – what’s not to like?

The sci-fi vibe must have been strong, because I went to see it on release back in 2009 (admittedly the trailer also features a plane crash, which is Pavlov’s bell for anyone with a fear of flying). Afterwards, it was a job to find anyone with something good to say about the film, while I was so creeped out it’s taken eight years to bear watching it again.

The main issue I take with this film is that you don’t know what you think you know. It’s a classic case of misdirection – and sometimes, that’s just not fair.

Read a summary of the film below if you’d like a refresher, or jump to the logic.

Pre-cap (spoilers)

Rocket doodle

1959: a school teacher asks her class to draw pictures of what the future will look like, to put into a time capsule which will be buried for 50 years. While most of the kids oblige with robots and rockets, one child – Lucinda Emery – becomes obsessed with writing a stream of numbers. This, along with the drawings, is locked away into the time capsule. The day the capsule is buried, Lucinda goes missing. She’s found hours later hiding in a cupboard: her fingernails bloodied where she’s been trying to scratch out even more numbers. She’s terrified.

1999: Cage plays MIT professor of astrophysics and widower John Koestler (cf. Arthur Koestler and The Roots of Coincidence). His young son, Caleb happens to go to Lucinda’s school. On the 50th anniversary, when the time capsule is dug up, Caleb receives Lucinda’s coded message. As soon as that happens, Caleb starts to hear unearthly whispers, and sees strange men lurking around.

Koestler (Cage) gets drawn into the coded message. Being a man of science and all, it’s literally about 3 minutes before he discovers the numbers relate to disasters: the code gives a date, and the number of people who are killed. He also quickly realises that some them relate to future disasters.

Koestler tries to stop the predictions, but can’t seem to do anything other than bear witness to an awful lot of death and destruction. He tries to track down Lucinda Emery. Caleb, meanwhile, continues writing numbers and hearing whispers. The strange figures show him awful predictions of things burning.

The end game: the big prediction is that an imminent solar flare is about to wipe everything and everyone off the face of the planet. The strange figures turn out to be aliens who have come to carry a handful of people away to other planets so that the species can start again. Caleb is one of the chosen ones. Koestler is not, and is left behind. The film ends with the total annihilation of Earth and, for the saved ones, the vision of a new, unspoilt world.

Side note: the film’s title screen/logo contains the ending/twist (a planet eclipsed by a sun) – see the last few seconds of the trailer embedded above.

It’s sci-fi, Jim, but not as we know it

Creepy doll's head

Knowing wears its sci-fi credentials firmly on its sleeve. There’s a man of science (Koestler). There are numbers. There are, eventually, aliens and a massive space ship. There are other worlds, and a kind of of time travel (in the 50-year jump and predictions of future events). All of this, according to James Berardinelli, is a big con:

Science fiction fans will feel gypped, disaster movie fans will appreciate about 10 minutes of screen time and be bored by the rest, and no one else will care.

So, while there’s the science, it comes with a side of not-so-subliminal religion. There’s a man of God (Koestler’s father is a pastor) and, while they’ve been estranged for some time, the film ends with Koestler going back to his roots – no pun intended. There are numbers, but some of them relate to biblical prophesy (Ezekiel) and end-times narratives.

The aliens, too, may in fact be angels: when they take the chosen ones up into the space ship they transform into glowing, heavenly bodies with wings. Hmm. And, like any religious dogma worth its salt, not everyone can be saved; there just isn’t room in heaven for all of us, apparently! So a few kids are saved – because suffer little children etc. – while Nic Cage is left to burn in a very literal hell on Earth.

If there’s a con for sci-fi fans, this is it in a nutshell. Sci-fi is often dystopian – it shows us our dark potential – but it’s also redemptive in a positive, not religious, sense: we can overcome the machine or ecological disaster. The Earth is a finite resource but, by ingenuity and perseverance and kindness, we can survive as a species. In Knowing, however, we just die. All of us. Koestler’s dad does say “this isn’t the end”, just before they’re all obliterated, but that’s the kind of comfort I imagine terrorists take before they blow themselves up.

This is the same con for those expecting a disaster movie, a genre known for triumphant endings. It’s very similar to sci-fi in that respect – it takes us down into a hellish world of impossible odds, but then Gene Hackman pops up to lead you through to the other side (the Poseidon Adventure – in which Hackman plays … a pastor. Perhaps there’s no escaping religion in the end).

In both sci-fi and disaster genres, there may be death a-plenty, but there’s also hope. Characters may even knowingly sacrifice themselves, for the sake of loved ones, and even for their species (this is a common trope of Romance, in fact). Death, it turns out, can be redemptive. If there’s redemption in Knowing, it’s a very narrow sliver of hope for a select few – and that doesn’t sound like redemption to me; it sounds too smug for words.

IMDB classifies Knowing as Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi and Thriller, throwing everything at it except the obvious: horror. If Knowing isn’t entirely sci-fi or disaster, it’s bang on the money for horror. Characters with creepy eyes: check. Little girl with long hair and creepy face: check. Threatening figures who appear suddenly: yep. Classical music while people die: why not. Total and utter unremitting lack of hope: oh aye.

Some things are better left unsaid

Burning sun clock face

The apocalyptic ending is both the coup de grâce and the film’s fatal flaw. It’s not something they could have added to the trailer or genre categories, as it’s meant to be the big twist. But really, we’re talking a pretty grim Rick Roll here – and perhaps folk might have felt differently about the film if they’d known it was coming.

Is it a brave move? Yes. The film took everything that was expected about at least two genres, and subverted it in the closing scene, straight out of nowhere. They also went somewhere that very few movies do: total and utter annihilation of the hero, hope and everything we know and believe to be be beautiful about the world. Cinematically, it’s bold. Emotionally, it’s quite the kicker.

On a psychological level, the human race is pretty adept at denying death. We try not to think too much about mortality in any real sense, which is possibly why we’re so badly equipped to handle death and destruction when we do experience it. Being faced with the obliteration of our species, our loved ones and our home with zero warning? Not cool.

But then, perhaps like the people left behind to fry, hearing that you’ll probably be cinders in a few hours is too much to cope with – they go nuts and trash the place (and each other). As viewers, maybe it’s better we only find out after we’ve coughed up for popcorn and entrance fees.

50 shades of grey

Landscape in shades of grey

Knowing’s musical leitmotif is the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. It’s a striking piece of music, which swings repeatedly from dainty and playful to hellfire and foreboding. This isn’t lost on Koestler, who plays it at two noticeable points in the film. Firstly, when he thinks about his dead wife as the story begins. He plays it again while driving through the city of the damned (just before the solar flare strikes) – so both times, it functions as an elegy.

The Beethoven composition uses the highs to magnify the lows: it needs both contrasts to form a satisfying picture. Knowing, on the other hand, is hell-bent from the start – it has a single-track mind, and it’s one way down all the way.

Horror relies on contrast, often sex (the ultimate act of living) and death. Thrillers might include comedy to lighten the dread. Perhaps you could say that the greater the range of authentic emotions a film encompasses and evokes, the greater its depth: consider Jaws, with its psychological scarring and pithy one-liners. There’s no sex in Knowing, of course, and there sure aren’t any laughs. Knowing gives us one, fairly neurotic opening gambit, and gradually turns the screws – and for that reason too, it feels like a con.

Knowing, more than anything, is a death mask – a memento of the dead. What’s so disturbing is that the memento veers from Koestler’s wife, who features in much of the movie despite being dead, to the human race and all living things. It’s a movie about grieving which morphs into a death fetish, and offers no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no point moving through denial and anger and into acceptance, because we’re all toast tomorrow.

By the time Koestler gets his hands on the code, it’s been sitting in the ground for 50 years and – by coincidence – it comes to him with just days before the big bang. The aliens appear to only communicate with little kids, i.e., the one group of humanity least equipped to do anything about the predictions. But that doesn’t really matter because … they’re not supposed to do anything about it.

Funny ha-ha?

Dog wearing comedy glasses

There’s a scene towards the end of the film where a bunch of shoppers at a petrol station find out that the world is about to end (they’re literally told this on TV). They pretty much immediately turn into amoral looters and shop lifters, some hurling themselves at cops and off cars. Given there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do now, surely it would have been better to not know at all?

That’s the joke, you see. Koestler is cursed by ‘knowing’, because there’s nothing knowledge can do for him or anyone else. At best, all he can do is go home and hold the people he cares about. That religious hokey-cokey? It comes back with a bite at the end of the film: it’s only Koestler’s dad who has any comfort in the end scene, because his faith tells him that “this isn’t the end”. Cue the destruction, and then scenes reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Final score? Religion: 1, Science: 0.


Words: my own. All rights reserved: no copying, pasting or re-using without permission.

Hubble Discovery of Runaway Star: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC BY 2.0)

Burning sun clock face: NASA via Unsplash

Grey landscape: Mike Wilson via Unsplash

Dog wearing glasses: Braydon Anderson via Unsplash

Doll’s head & rocket doodle: my own