In 1959, a young girl named Lucinda Embry heard whispers from an unidentified being while staring at the sun. She convinced her school to make a time capsule, and each of the students drew a picture of what they believed the future would look like. However, Lucinda began writing down random numbers to put into the capsule. She went missing after the capsule was buried. When she was found, she had been scratching numbers into the door of a utility closet. Fifty years have passed since that day and the time capsule is about to be opened.
A young elementary school student named Caleb Koestler discovers the page of numbers Lucinda had written fifty years ago. Confused to its meaning, he gives the page to his father, John, who is an astrophysics professor at MIT. After analyzing the numbers, John notices a set of sequences. In the fifty years since the page was written, there have been countless disasters that claimed the lives of a large number of people at once. This set of numbers perfectly predicts the date of these tragedies along with the death toll. For example, one set of numbers is 911012996, referring to the September 11 attacks in 2001 along with the 2,996 people who lost their lives. Over the next few days, strangers driving a car give Caleb a black stone.
I have to say that Knowing operates on an intriguing premise. It presents the classic argument between free will and fate. John is convinced of the numbers’ authenticity when he witnesses a deadly plane crash on a freeway on the day the page foretold. His attempts at saving the victims are completely unsuccessful. However, he learns the unexplained digits are geographic coordinates of each disaster and is determined to do what he can to prevent these tragic disasters from happening.
This makes it all the more shameful that the film proceeds to completely throw away all of its goodwill throughout the duration of its runtime. John eventually meets up with Lucinda’s daughter, Diana, and every single one of their attempts to save the people from their horrific deaths fails. The film is called Knowing and not Doing Something About It, but it still makes everything John and Diana learn completely pointless. They could have done nothing and the end result would be the same.
The biggest revelation this film has to offer is when John and Diana search Lucinda’s mobile home. There, they find pictures of the disasters she predicted, a copy of Matthäus Merian’s engraving of Ezekiel’s “chariot vision”, and several smooth, black stones similar to the one Caleb received. Given that the numbers on the document end abruptly at “33”, the driving question is what happens when they run out. Given the sheer scale of its predecessors, it would seem a little strange for the final disaster to wipe out only thirty-three people. However, the “33” is really “EE” written backwards. Shortly after they determine this, they learn what this acronym stands for.
In the end, Lucinda’s page is alluding to an Extinction Level Event. Sure enough, after John does research at MIT, he learns a massive solar flare is due to hit Earth, rendering it uninhabitable.
Although the film certainly had made several missteps, the ending is where it goes completely off the rails in the worst way possible. The final act begins when strangers take Caleb and Abby – the latter of whom is Diana’s daughter. Diana speeds after them, but runs a red light and is struck by a truck. John arrives just in time to watch Diana breathe her last. In her hand is yet another black stone. Returning to Lucinda’s mobile home, John, to his surprise, finds both kids and the strangers who abducted them. Caleb assures them that they will be alright; the strangers intend to rescue enough children so humanity can survive on another planet. A spaceship then descends from the sky, and the strangers beckon the children to enter. Forbidding John from entering, the professor embraces his son one last time as he heads off for parts unknown. The next morning, the sky is set ablaze as the world erupts in anarchy. John chooses to visit his estranged father and the flare wave ignites the planet, killing off all life as he embraces his family.
Setting aside the reality that even the most powerful solar flares lack the strength to penetrate the magnetosphere, the biggest problem is how it continues to hammer home the sheer futility of the protagonists’ actions. There are a few quality films in which the leads accomplish nothing, but Knowing goes a step further in that the final revelations freely admit the narrative wasted the audience’s time. If John knew of the apocalypse from the beginning, it would have made for a far more compelling narrative. It would allow the writers to explore what a man of science does knowing the end is nigh. Knowing, however, is merely content with making him run all over the place like a headless chicken. Indeed, the time between when John learns of the deadly solar flare and the world’s end is rather short.
What is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Knowing is that, in spite of its name, the narrative seldom feels the need to explain itself. What is the purpose of the black stones? What was the point in imparting all of this information to Lucinda when nobody benefits from it? What interest do the strangers have in preserving this small handful of children? Does their advanced technology not work on adults? If they were so invested in saving humanity, why didn’t they bother rescuing even a few artists, musicians, scientists, idealistic philosophers, or anyone else who would greatly benefit this new civilization? Did they not consider the sheer amount of trauma these children would feel over losing their loved ones? Are they raising them as cattle? Absolutely none of these questions have answers. While I can appreciate a narrative that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions, this proposition only works if you provide a solid base upon which theories can be formed. Attempting to formulate any theories about Knowing would be tantamount to building a house on quicksand. What few theories you could form only accent how creepy the strangers manage to be despite their ostensible benevolence.
Knowing is a classic case of a film squandering its potential in the most foolish ways imaginable. The idea of a protagonist being able to predict disasters based on a series of numbers had the potential to be a particularly intelligent piece of science fiction. As it stands, the film ultimately buries its intriguing premise, using it as a Trojan horse for a half-formed “Adam and Eve” plot. The way this film is structured would be like if a narrative focused entirely on a diversionary B-plot and only revealed the real conflict in the final ten minutes. Although it could have made for an interesting twist, it just wastes the audience’s time with developments that amount to nothing and directionless character arcs.
What I find especially offensive about this film is how it doesn’t give Nicolas Cage a chance to shine at all. This is an actor whose hammy performances made otherwise terrible films fun to watch. If you’re going into this film looking for that kind of performance, you will not find it in Knowing. He is completely subdued, reacting to everything with a sense of mildly annoyed confusion. Everyone has their own opinions of Nicolas Cage, but I personally feel that making someone with such a distinct presence boring and forgettable is a cardinal sin in filmmaking. Knowing may not be the worst film ever made, but even considering how bad of a year 2009 was for the medium, it still stood out as especially terrible.
Final Score: 2/10