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Knowing (2009): A Haphazardly Religious Mess

Knowing poster

Sometimes I wonder if I am crazy. Especially when a film fails so much critically and yet gets a four star rating from Roger Ebert. That is so bad and yet has a surprising amount of defenders. The film that caused me to feel this is the 2009 Alex Proyas film Knowing starring Nicolas Cage himself. I remember when this film came out and how I wanted to see it because I liked the trailers but was unprepared with what awaited me. Over a decade later, let’s see how it holds up.

John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is a MIT astrophysics professor and widowed father to Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), who is given a letter from a time capsule that his school buried 50 years prior, with pictures of what the students thought the future would be like. Caleb instead gets a list of numbers. When John looks at the paper, he discovers that it predicts disasters over the past 50 years in order with their body count as well. And there are still disasters that have yet to occur. So John must investigate the paper and its origins while trying to prevent the remaining disasters. Meanwhile, his son starts seeing some strange men who seem to be stalking him as well as hearing whispers similar to the girl who wrote the paper.

Nicolas Cage in Knowing
He is using numbers to predict his next Oscar film. This is why he has only 1.

So far the film doesn’t seem too bad at first glance. The premise and the mystery around it is interesting. This film is well shot and the effects are on point, with the disaster scenes appearing brutal and effective. There are also many little details and symbolism that was definitely thought through. For example, the character’s names have religious symbolism that fits with the film’s themes. It’s evident that much thought and passion went into this movie, as the production value is polished and the attention to detail is on point.

However, the film suffers from atrocious writing, with the dialogue being incredibly on the nose and lacking any subtlety. For example, the first disaster on the paper to catch our leads’ attention is 9/11. While it doesn’t kill the film, it shows how surface-level Knowing actually is. The characters act very dumb throughout the film, and our protagonist seems to be inept and awkward without the film realizing how inept and awkward he is. Nicolas Cage is far from delivering an entertaining performance, with his acting feeling more like a parody rather than a serious performance. Meanwhile the rest of the cast are very wooden, not really putting much effort in.

Rose Byrne in Knowing
So I didn’t mention this earlier but Rose Byrne is in this movie. She is dumb here

Knowing even goes into the territory of unintentional comedy at times. The most notable moment comes in the same scene in an early encounter with the strange men, when one shows Caleb a vision of doom that contains a flaming moose, which is, needless to say, not scary. It isn’t helped by Cage’s performance when he yells at them to stay away in his most restrained onscreen freakout. Additionally, the disasters themselves at times fall into this as well, especially the plane crash whether it be because no one could have conceivably survived the initial crash to the screaming women with no visible injuries running up to Cage, screaming for help for five seconds, then just running away. This is made even worse by the fact the scene is done in a genuinely impressive and very challenging to make long take.

Early in the movie, Cage talks with his son about the possibility of life on other worlds but shortly after clarifies that the conversation had nothing to do with the existence of the afterlife. The conversation was up to this point about alien life and all potential religious significance in this conversation lay with him saying that ‘for now, we are alone’, which in context has a pretty clear meaning. So why is this conversation haphazardly forced into a religious context? Because this film actually has religious themes. Very heavy-handed religious themes. A simple way to sum up the religious arc of the film is that it is basically Signs only much darker. Both films follow a man with connections to the clergy (in Signs the lead is a former priest, here Cage is the son of a Priest) who loses their faith after their wife dies in a tragic accident, causing friction in their family, and is ultimately restored though the supernatural events of the film. However, Knowing just isn’t done as well as Signs. While the film tries some interesting themes with its ending, by showing the idea of faith in the face of complete and utter hopelessness, it is too little to make up for how blatant the film is with its religious themes and how shallow it ultimately feels.

Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne in Knowing

Okay, let’s talk about the part everyone harped on when this film came out: the ending. It is certainly memorable to say the least. So it turns out those strange men are actually aliens that are implied to be angels who want to put Caleb on an interstellar arc to save him from the incoming apocalypse. However, Cage has to stay and die with everyone else. So first, congrats to the filmmakers on sticking to their guns and ending the world, along with making the actions of the hero ultimately pointless while insisting that there was a point. Which there kinda was a point in there but it ultimately fell apart as the film just didn’t stick the landing with its plot and characters. Themes can only do so much when your script isn’t strong enough to support them. Additionally, the ending is just plainly absurd and raises even more questions. This is especially if you insist on reading the film as non-religious, the film changes into an unintentional cosmic horror story. Hence why the film isn’t really that deep, because unless you follow the religious interpretation, the film just doesn’t make much sense and becomes something that clashes with the hopeful tone of the ending.

Knowing had the ingredients to be a good film. But while I can understand why some people like it, I don’t think the film stuck the landing. It is poorly acted, lazily written with extremely shallow symbolism that constantly beats the viewer over the head with it. The film is memorably bad and at times is funny, but it might not be the best for a bad movie night. It does have some positives, mostly on the production value and its thematic elements being strong but it doesn’t save the film from its flaws and silliness.

Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury and Lara Robinson in Knowing
Don’t worry Nic, while you will die, the bunnies will live.

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