Knowing (2009): A Closer Look at Learning The Numbers
Knowing is a science fiction thriller film about the end of times. It was critically divisive and met with modest success at the box office, though performed well internationally. A special-effects laden story, is has an intriguing story but falls short of its potential.
In 1959, when school children gather items for a time capsule, one peculiar child (who hears voices in her head), writes a string of numbers on a paper as her contribution. Fifty years later, after a ceremony for it’s unearthing, the paper lands in the hands of M.I.T. professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), a follower of determinism. Carefully examining the document, he learns that it reveals the dates and death tolls of major disasters in the last fifty years, including three that have yet to happen. This “knowing” sends him into a tailspin as, not longer after, his son (who actually pulled the paper from the capsule) begins to hear voices, summoning angelic-looking silent strangers from the dark who give Koestler horrifying visions of an apocalyptic carnage.
Directed by veteran sci-fi purveyor Alex Proyas, Knowing is a good-looking film with an excellent premise that is just as well-conceived as the director’s earlier masterpiece, Dark City. It is loaded with tension, believable if not over-the-top visual effects, and a commitment to the plot at all costs of logic and reasoning. Yet Cage, whose manic acting style is simply not right in the role, begins well but can’t find a believable tone. Unlike Dark City, Knowing doesn’t compel nearly as strongly and becomes frustratingly heavy-handed with its seemingly cop-out ending that turns a clever and mystery-laden disaster flick into a religious morality parable about the end of times, which feels like an easy way out of the plot. That said, Knowing, like every movie, has one great moment.
Learning The Numbers
It’s all about discovery, and begins in a schoolyard 50 years earlier when little Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) quickly and frantically scribbles what appears to be a meaningless string of numbers on a paper when asked to contribute to the class time capsule, seemingly possessed by something beyond her own powers. She is found later, hiding in a closet, scratching with her bloody fingers a continuation of what she started into the walls. Five decades later, Caleb, Koestler’s son, and a student at the same school as Lucinda, is assigned homework where he must write about some of the capsule contents. Then, after his father sees the list, it becomes ever more curious.
The thing to know about Koestler is his belief in determinism, in rudimentary terms, meaning that he believes things occur because of something that happened prior. All events are inevitable. We have no control. So when the professor of astrophysics starts to see a pattern in the numbers as they connect to deadly events from around the world his beliefs are shaken. When he digs a little deeper, it becomes even more shocking. There are events on the list that haven’t yet happened. Koeslter believes he now knows when disaster will strike.
Like Jim Carrey‘s slightly similarly-themed numerology film The Number 23, the real issue is getting a firmly-established credible character to become convincingly overtaken by the thing that at first seems implausible. Seeing patterns in things is an inherent trait of being a human, but to believe they, particularly in a series of numbers, hold some mystic power over the future is cause for skepticism in the least. Especially so for Koestler.
In this moment, Koestler sits at his desktop, almost reluctant to put theory to the test, comparing the lines of numbers with a pattern of dates followed by what he learns is the number of causalities. When he gets to 09112996, he suspects 09/11 and the official death toll from that day’s terrorist attacks. When the numbers match, he verbally voices his frustration with the obvious. “Come on,” he says.
The scene builds with terrific suspense as he strips a large whiteboard clean and writes the entire pattern on it, circling dates and disasters he researches on his computer to those on the board. When he narrows it down to future dates, the realization is terrifying. He knows the future.
The short sequence really demonstrates how well Proyas can create tension allowing small meaningful action and no dialogue to carry the moment. Following Cage as he pieces it all together, pulling back and forth on the dry erase board with Koestler’s handwritten duplication of the page and the computer screen that matches the dates and deaths with each entry he researches, keeps it visually intense, but it’s Cage’s reserved performance in this shot that makes it work. Focused on the mystery, he doesn’t make it melodramatic, instead remaining convincing as his belief structure crumbles. All the while, he takes great gulps of his whiskey, attempting to soothe the truth these numbers reveal.
But if we take anything from this moment, it must be the imagery. Just look at this remarkable shot:
The juxtaposition of advanced technology on the left to the basics of a writing on a board on the right speaks volumes at what we are meant to discern from Koestler. Notice the heavy shadowing around the desk and the lighting around Koestler. Yes, he uses the computer to discover events but it is his own mind, his human deductive reasoning, that allows the meaning of the numbers to emerge. The tatters walls, the scattered books, the closed blinds and the random chairs suggest a private man enclosed in his own thoughts, shutting out the distractions of the world outside. His deterministic views, strengthened by the death of his wife earlier, have left him accepting of, even clinging to, that philosophy. To inherit the burden of knowing a cataclysmic future weighs heavy.
This entire sequence is but a small moment, though a crucial one. Proyas trusts the viewer, offering all the right imagery and reaction to such that add impact to the scene without spelling it out directly, even it if climaxes with a bit of a cliché as he drops his drink. As divisive as the film is with audiences, the film’s spectacular effects and creative direction are never the issue. The discovery of the number’s meaning and Koestler’s knowing make for a great moment.
Knowing (2009): A Closer Look at Learning The Numbers
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Ryne Douglas Pearson (screenplay), Juliet Snowden (screenplay)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne