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Finding hope and life in 'Knowing'

My husband and I saw the Alex Proyas thriller Knowing last weekend, and to be quite honest, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it when I walked out of the theater. It is definitely not what I expected, and much more disturbing and sobering than I anticipated. It was either one of the more nihilistic films I’d ever seen or it was a film that affirms faith and life in the midst of disaster. The more I mull it over, however, the more I believe Knowing is a story of hope and the rediscovery of faith in the face of suffering and loss—and a story that brings more than its share of God-talk into open spaces.

(Warning: Relatively minor spoilers ahead, most of which could be gleaned from the film’s trailers.)

Knowing opens in the 1959 with an elementary school class drawing pictures of what they think the future will look like in 50 years, which will be put in a time capsule and opened that many years later. One little girl, however, doesn’t draw a picture but instead urgently writes out two pages of numbers, which is snatched away by the teacher before she’s finished—though that doesn’t stop Lucinda from finishing the number string in another (and much more disturbing) way. The film then skips ahead to present day, with the capsule being opened and the pictures passed out to present day elementary school students—one of which is Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury), whose father John (Nicolas Cage) is an astrophysicist haunted by the death of his wife a year or so earlier. For John, her death has settled him firmly on the side that life is basically random and without purpose (“Sh-- happens,” he explains to his college class at one point)—that is, until he realizes that Lucinda’s numbers are actually a list of dates and fatalities for every major disaster in past 50 years, with three dates left to go. All of this challenges John’s conviction of randomness and forces him to confront the possibility that there may be something larger involved in the events of the world. How John deals with that information and its effect on him and the rest of the world is the subject of the rest of the film.

And this is a film that has pretty much polarized critics, with the majority of them panning the film (some in ways I find surprisingly hostile). However, movie-goers seem to like the film—and fav-critics of this blog gave it excellent reviews: Chicago Sun’s Roger Ebert gave it four complete stars and Peter Chattaway gave it three out of four at Christianity Today. And, as you’ve most likely already figured out, I think Ebert and Chattaway get it mostly right.

For example, both of them note the special effects are a remarkable aspect to this film. Some have criticized those effects—which often depict the violence of death in disasters like plane and train crashes—as gratuitous, but I think they are integral to the film. For example, a plane crash (which unfolds in one long, amazing, extended shot) uses the effect of a handheld camera that captures the plane’s dizzying fall from the sky and its crash in a field but then continues through the horror that occurs in the aftermath. Scenes like these not only bring us closer to the disturbing and sobering aspects of such disasters in reality but also make the final disaster (from which we could have easily disconnected because of its enormity) all the more sobering. I’m a fan of disaster films, but I don’t think I’ll ever look at the genre quite the same again. In fact, I think I’ll have to wait awhile before I see another one.

But the aspect of both critics’ reviews with which I resonate most is their observation that the film asks deep questions and explores meaningful issues in a manner that’s surprising, effective and unexpected. That’s bolstered by the God-talk and biblical allusions and images sprawled throughout the film—more than I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. And in some ways, Knowing reminds me of Pan’s Labyrinth. While I don’t think Knowing is as good a film as Pan’s Labyrinth, both seem to share the same hard and uncomfortable confrontation of something central and core deep. And there is something similar in how these two films ask that same question of whether there is something more or "Other" to our existence. And there’s something similar in how these two films answer that question.

Much of that, however, is difficult to discuss without revealing crucial plot twists and reveals in the film. There are some excellent relatively-spoiler-free reviews out there, but the rest of this post won’t be one of those. So, go see the film before you read the rest—or, if you don’t mind spoilers, read on.

(Warning: Major spoilers ahead. Last chance to turn back!)

There’s some debate as to where Pan’s Labyrinth comes down on the question of whether there is something more or Other to the universe, and so there has been with this film as well (this is one of the points where Ebert and Chattaway differ in their reviews). However, whereas Ofelia’s journey in Pan’s Labyrinth had little if any affirmation from others, there are folks and events along John’s journey that seem to offer an the affirmation of the existence of something more.

First, there is all that overt God-talk and biblical allusion. John’s father is a pastor and at one point his sister casually offers to pray for him (to which John replies, “Don’t”). In the trailer of a grown Lucinda (who killed herself before the film began) a sketch of Ezekiel’s “Wheel in the Sky” hangs over newspaper clippings of all the disasters (and the alien ship at the end has a similar shape), a dusty Bible rests beside her bed, and a clay angel is among her effects. In a conversation with his father, John mentions Pentecost, gifts of the Spirit and prophecy—and that’s all in one sentence. Later, just before the final disaster strikes, John’s father reminds him “this is not the end.” And in one of the final scenes, the Whisperers reveal themselves as shimmering angel-like beings complete with whispy wings (how did Ebert miss that?)—and the language they use to explain why John can’t go with Caleb could be taken verbatim from any number of the end-times movies I saw as a kid and teenager (or the modern versions as well). And then there’s the scene at the end (complete with a “tree of life”). In fact, the entire film could be seen as a loose rewrite of or (very) loosely based on Revelation.

But, perhaps more significantly, there are the events that lead us to affirm with John that something else is involved in his life—one of the most pivotal occurring when John witnesses the first of the three disasters yet to occur on Lucinda’s list. John is stuck in traffic when he glances at his GPS device and suddenly realizes that Lucinda’s numbers not only list dates and fatalities but also location for each disaster. Not only that, but he’s at the exact location for the disaster to occur that very day. As John watches the plane fall from the sky and tries to help the people out of burning wreckage, John is stunned and overwhelmed—not only by the destruction, death and reality of Lucinda’s predictions, but also with the challenge to his own beliefs about the way the world works. Lucinda’s numbers really do predict disasters. How can that be? And why was he at the right place and time to witness it? Maybe it’s to stop the next two disasters on the list. But even as John unsuccessfully tries to stop the next disaster, he’s beginning to seriously consider that there may indeed be something larger involved in the events unfolding in the world.

The question in the rest of the film becomes what or who is that something larger. And that’s where it gets a little more complicated.

You see, as the film unfolds John and Caleb become aware of a strange looking group of men who appear to be following them. It turns out those men—who also are following Lucinda’s now-grown daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and young granddaughter Abby (Laura Robinson, who also portrays Lucinda in the film)—are “the Whisperers,” who apparently “whisper” in the heads of and reveal visions and knowledge of a dark future to certain people (including the deceased Lucinda and now young Caleb and Abby). As the film nears its conclusion, the Whisperers reveal themselves as ethereal and shimmering angel-like beings who have chosen a segment of earth’s population to be saved from the planet’s impending destruction in order to ensure human life will continue elsewhere—and the last location on Lucinda’s list is not a place of destruction but the spot where they take Caleb and Abby to safety.

It could be easy to conclude at this point that these shimmering beings are the something more in the universe that is orchestrating events, but other aspects of the film suggest another option.

First, there’s John’s witness of the plane crash, a crucial moment because John figures out that the other numbers on the list are locations. But it wasn’t the Whisperers who orchestrated John’s being at the right place and the right time, and (as John and a colleague later ruminate) the two events are simply too coincidental to be two random events occurring at the same time. So, why was he there—and what could be the reason for John to discover that information? It doesn’t help him prevent the next disaster or impending end of the world (as he laments later). And later, when he realizes the last location is a place of safety rather than destruction, it doesn’t even help him get his son and Abby there (the aliens actually end up doing that themselves).

The only reason for or “function” of this event, it seems, is that it does something personal for John himself. This event not only begins John’s journey towards faith (that there is something more to human existence), but it’s also a foundation of sorts for his acceptance of it.

Near the end of the film, John and Diana are separated from Caleb and Abby when the Whisperers take the children because they are headed in the wrong direction. Diana dies in a car crash, and John is left with no leads as to where his son is—except the last location on Lucinda's list, something he couldn’t have figured out except for his being in the right place at the right time the day of the plane crash. There he finds Caleb and Abby with the Whisperers. John hedges about the Diana’s death, telling Abby that her mother wanted to be there but couldn’t. But Abby calmly tells him that the Whisperers have already told her that her mother is “safe now”—an assertion silently affirmed by the Whisperers when John looks to them for explanation. Why would the Whisperers see death as “safe”? The implication is that they believe or know of an existence after death—an “afterlife,” if you will.

For John, this is pivotal, because not long after that the Whisperers tell Caleb that John is not among those chosen to leave earth. John is devastated, but he assures Caleb that he knows they will be together again with Caleb’s mother—a radical change from the beginning of the film. (For what it’s worth, as a mother I found this the most gut-wrenching scene in the film; kudos to Cage.)

Is John telling his son what he thinks he needs to hear in order to get him on the alien’s ship or does he really believe what he is saying? I think the film itself argues in favor of a real change. All of this really is enough for John to believe that there is something Other in the universe (even something that takes a direct and personal interest in him), that it really isn’t the end—not only for mankind in the universe (which is how his final comment to his father could be interpreted) but that there was some kind of existence after death, where he would be together with his wife and son again.

If not, this is a nihilistic film. If aliens are the other in the universe, then there is no real hope for John or everyone else in the film because life is indeed random, there is no existence afterwards. Life is ultimately without purpose or meaning. And that makes the staggering loss of life in this film overwhelmingly depressing.

But if I’m right, this film not only affirms John’s faith that there is something more to the universe and our existence but it also affirms that life here-and-now is sacred. While the Whisperers seem to advocate that death leads to a “safe” existence, they still go to extreme risks and measures to continue humanity’s life here-and-now. There is something about it that is valuable enough to continue it here-and-now even though it continues in some form afterwards. And for those that follow Jesus, this is a good challenge to us to consider how much God values the life he created here-and-now.

Indeed, this film invites us to consider all kinds of things like that. Is there a purpose or meaning in life or is it simply random? Is everything predetermined or do we have free-will? Does God pay personal attention to and take personal interest in people? Can good come out of death and destruction? How are we to face death? Is life sacred here-and-now—and if so, why? And how does that affect how we look at and interact with the people around us? What do we really believe when it comes down to it—and how does that affect the way we live our lives?

As Chattaway aptly notes at the end of his review, however, this is not a “Christian film” per se:
[I]ndeed, to the extent that we take the movie literally—to the extent that we experience the world within the story on its own terms, as any of the characters would experience it—we can safely say that the movie deviates in some ways from a biblical understanding of the concepts that it invokes. But like some of the more interesting parables, the film takes our expectations and rattles them around a bit, confirming some and disturbing others, and for some viewers it may be just the sort of thing that can tease us into active thought about what we believe and why.
This film probably won’t make it to my wall, but it’s definitely in that cannon of films that bring God-talk into open spaces.

(Images: Summit Entertainment, via Rotten Tomatoes and the IGN trailer)