Knowing (2009) explained: sci-fi, sin and damnation

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Sci-fi/horror film Knowing features Nic Cage, old-time religion and a boldly awful ending. Contains spoilers. And damnation.

Knowing (2009) is a bold blend of sci-fi, disaster movie, and intrigue. The trailer features plenty of goodies: a time capsule, a secret code and predictions of doom. And yet, when they finally got their hands on it, viewers and critics alike hated the film.

Read a summary of the film below, or jump to the logic.

What is Knowing about?

1959: a school teacher asks her class to draw pictures of the future to put into a time capsule. Most of the kids oblige with robots and rockets. One child – Lucinda Emery – becomes obsessed with writing a creepy number code.

1999: Nicolas Cage plays MIT professor of astrophysics and widower John Koestler (cf. Arthur Koestler and The Roots of Coincidence). His young son, Caleb goes to Lucinda’s school. When the time capsule is dug up, Caleb gets the coded messages. He starts to hear unearthly whispers, and sees strange men lurking around.

Being a man of science and all, it’s about 3 minutes before Koestler discovers the code relates to disasters. Then he realises some codes point to future disasters.

The end game: An imminent solar flare is about to wipe everything and everyone off the face of the planet. The strangers are aliens. They’ve come to transport humans to other planets so 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.

Is Knowing science fiction?

Knowing wears its sci-fi credentials firmly on its sleeve. There’s a man of science (John Koestler, played by Nic Cage). There are numbers. There are, eventually, aliens and a massive space ship. There are other worlds, and a hint of time travel.

Crucially, while there’s science, it comes with a side of not-so-subliminal religion. Koestler’s father is a pastor. They don’t get on, but the film ends with Koestler ‘returning to his father’. And while there’s maths, the numbers point to biblical prophesy 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 us all, 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.

Sci-fi is often dystopian. But it’s also redemptive in a positive, not religious, sense. 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 terrorists take before they blow themselves up.

This is the same con for those expecting a disaster movie, a genre known for triumphant endings. Like sci-fi, it takes us 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).

The film’s flaw

The apocalyptic ending is both the coup de grâce and the film’s big flaw. Is it a brave move? Yes. The film takes everything you expect from at least two genres, and subverts it in the closing scene. 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 beautiful about the world. Cinematically, it’s bold. Emotionally, it’s quite the kicker.

On a psychological level, we’re pretty adept at denying death. We try not to think too much about mortality in any real sense. This may be why we’re so wobbly around 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 in Knowing? Not cool.

There’s no sex in Knowing, of course, and there sure aren’t any laughs.

The music: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7

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

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

Horror often pairs sex and death. Thrillers might include comedy to lighten the dread. You could say that the greater the range 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, more than anything, is a death mask – a memento of the dead. At first that’s Koestler’s wife. Later it’s the entire human race. 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.

The end

Towards the end of the film, a bunch of shoppers at a petrol station find out the world is about to end. They turn into amoral looters and shop lifters, some hurling themselves at cops and off cars. Given there’s 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 knowledge can’t save him. At best, all he can do is go home and hold the people he cares about.

And that religious hokey-cokey? It comes back with a bite at the end of the film. Only Koestler’s dad 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.


Picture credit: The New York Public Library