Sunday, May 17, 2009

Knowing (2009)

For me, the most intriguing thing about Knowing was the similarity between the film's poster featuring Nicholas Cage in profile, against a red background, reminded me so much of the poster for the first X-Files movie: Fight the Future.

The similarities between the tv series and the sci fi movie didn't end there, but my interest in them did. With its lack of character depth, Knowing would have made a very poor episode of X-Files. The main players were more type than real.

The movie started well with a 50 year old flashback, remarkable for the way it showcased a teacher's alternate concern for and frustration with an intense and intensely troubled student, Lucinda. The movie could have used more of such relationship cementing moments.

After the flashback, we switch to present day and meet John, your stock alcoholic widower. Actually, it's unfair to call him an alcoholic. He drinks too much, but is a loving father, if absent-minded father, and an unjaded professor who himself is still learning, questioning, even as he teaches.

When we first see John's son, Caleb, he seems smarter than his years, but his keen intelligence and curiousity is soon discarded and he goes through the rest of the film with wide, wondrous eyes, which are ultimately vacant. He watches, but doesn't ask, is pulled along, rather than engaged. There's nothing special about him, so one leaves the theater wondering why he was one of the chosen two.

Yes, we ultimately learn that Caleb is the second coming of Adam, destined to rebuild and repopulate the world after it is destroyed.

The apocalyptic turn the movie takes is far less appealing than its more mundane -- and more suspenseful -- second leg, during which John connects the clues left in a time capsule by a school girl (Lucinda) fifty years earlier. Once he realizes that the girl's nonsensical writings were actually disaster predictions, he frantically tries to prevent the tragedies that have not yet unfolded, but he fails. Life is predetermined. Knowing your fate does not give you the power to change it. John resigns himself to this fact.

Before doing so, he hunts down Diana, the daughter of the girl who made the predictions decades ago. Diana wrote off Lucinda, now dead, as crazy and has been living in denial about the events her mother foretold until John's interpretation renders them to specific to ignore. Within hours, Diana and John are racing against time to protect themselves and their children (Caleb and Diana's daughter Abby) against the coming Doomsday.

The plot would have been more compelling, if it had remained less adventurous. Watching the tension mount as John unraveled Lucinda's coded musings then tried to avert the manmade accidents (subway and plane wrecks) she predicted drew me in, but once his cipherings disclosed that EVERYONE was fated to die, then aliens landed on to claim the planet's pre-selected refugees (Caleb and Abby), well . . . the aliens were alienating. Once it broached the otherworldly, the movie soon lost any sense of import or realism.

That is not to say that every movie about aliens and the world's end is inherently artificial. Fantasies regularly teach every day lessons and if characters are true to life, their problems don't need to be (which is a lesson Knowing should have learned from the X-Files). Thus, it's entirely possible for a "realistic" plot to take an otherworldly turn, without distancing the viewer. But Knowing's heroes were never that solid to begin with, so when they take off in flight (literally and figuratively) it's hard for us to travel with them.

When first seen, the aliens are threatening, but we soon perceive the unspoken bond they share with Abby and Caleb and realize that they have come in peace to safeguard Destiny's Children. When the world ends in flames and the aliens return Caleb and Abby to the barren, reborn earth, to start civilization all over again, one is just left wondering: why them? They aren't especially innocent, sharp or singular. We saw them visiting a museum once and they were both entranced by various exhibits, but is that all it takes? Was Noah chosen to survive the flood because he was a good, moral leader or because he really, really liked animals? If that was the only qualification you needed to colonize earth, then we should all be calling Jane Goodall "mama." Besides, to be honest, there's no real evidence that these kids love animals, exactly. They aren't pet owners. They're just Discovery Channel enthusiasts who can sprout statistics.

Unfortunately for Abby and Caleb, their knowledge will largely go to waste. They aren't gifted with an ark full of friends. The stingy aliens only give them a measly pair of rabbits with which to kick things off. I know bunnies procreate constantly, so Abby and Caleb will always have fur skins for warmth, but they're going to get tired of rabbit stew pretty quickly. I suppose watching the rabbits will teach the kids how to mate, but if Blue Lagoon taught me anything, it's that puberty helps you figure that kind of thing out on your own.

The movie just left me thinking that Abby and Caleb's kids will pretty much have to date each other (at least Adam and Eve's brood had women from Nod to hook up with) and I began musing about the hazards of incest, rather than reflecting on any of the flick's real messages, such as they were.

Mainly, I felt that, except for their knowledge of and love for animals, there was nothing about Abby and Caleb that made me think they would make great world parents. They were not sensitive, strong-minded or independent. To the extent that they remembered the technology that existed before the world was regenerated, I think it would be in their nature to try to recreate what had been lost, rather than to chart a new, unspoiled beginning.

As for the film's most innovative character, John, we last saw him bid Caleb a tearful farewell, before huddling in a parlour with his parents and sister, awaiting imminent destruction. At one point, realizing what was coming, his plan was to hide underground, where there would be the most protection from the burning scourge. He was going to seek safety in an underground cave or -- at the very least, a basement. His religious father disdained such an idea, insisting that when your time comes, you should not avoid it, but accept your inevitable fate. John apparently adopted his father's way of thinking.

I believe in God's Will, but I also think that He gave us free will for a reason. Doris Day sang che sara sara, while making the bed, while making her own bed.

That is, perpahs "What will be, will be," but why were we given the good sense to come in out of the rain, if we weren't supposed to exercise it now and then? We may all have a destiny that was determined before our birth, but that doesn't mean we aren't supposed to contribute to its fulfillment. Maybe something is only pre-determined, if you don't make the choice to help shape the determination.

I'm not saying that as one man John could have stopped the destruction of all mankind, or even have averted his own death. I'm just saying, it wouldn't have hurt him to descend a flight of steps and take shelter in the basement, just in case that might have made a difference. If the movie's viewpoint was that man had destroyed the environment and deserved the ending that he helped create, then John's final resignation would be understandable, but that was not the truth imparted. Rather, we were told that life and death happen no matter what you do, so don't bother trying to change the moments in between. The conclusion tells us that knowing isn't enough, when you can't do anything about it, but doesn't explain why we should accept that the inevitable has to be.