"Now you remember that tomorrow is our official opening day."

These words, delivered by a Massachusetts school teacher to her class back in 1959, may sound innocuous enough, but there is something in their conflation of past ("remember") and future ("tomorrow") that prefigures the chronological paradoxes of the film to come.

Copy picture

Miss Taylor (Danielle Carter) asks her young pupils to draw pictures of what they imagine the future will be like, so that these can be sealed in a time capsule to be opened by schoolchildren in half a century's time. Yet while all her classmates doodle rocket ships, sad, withdrawn Lucinda (Lara Robinson), who had proposed the idea of the time capsule in the first place, begins instead furiously scrawling on her page a long sequence of numbers for inclusion.

Cut to 50 years later – the present. MIT astrophysicist (and pastor's son) John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) has lost his faith and his way since the fiery death of his wife in Phoenix (yes, this film abounds in symbolism and allegory), and is now committed both to his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) – and to the bottle. The time capsule is opened at Caleb's school, and the boy brings home Lucinda's contribution, telling his father that "maybe it means something". Though sceptical at first, John realises that the numbers list the precise dates, locations and death tolls of disasters from the last half century, and end in a further three sets of specifications (the last incomplete) for accidents that that have not yet taken place.

Confused, and worried about the strange trench-coated figures who keep approaching his son, John hooks up with the late Lucinda's daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and granddaughter Abby (also played Lara Robinson), and races to avert or at least avoid the global holocaust that he comes to believe is very nigh.

"How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?", asks John at one point in Knowing. If Cage were still playing the indestructible action hero of The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997) or Face/Off (1997), then the answer would inevitably lie in badass quips and some major ammunition.

Here, however, we see the star uncharacteristically pausing to read through the basic instruction manual for a handgun that he will in fact never use, and racing against the clock not so much to save the day, as to figure out what on earth is going on, and to work through his own conflicting notions of despair and hope, nihilism and knowledge, faith and fatherhood.

Not unlike Dennis Quaid's protagonist in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), John is surprisingly ineffectual before the grand apocalypse unfolding on screen. Armed only with Lucinda's numerical macguffin, he turns out (much to his own surprise, and ours) in the end not to be the film's hero at all. This is a boldly refreshing diversion from convention, even if Cage's long history of mercurial goofiness and Elvis impressions makes him strangely hard to accept in this more serious role. It is truly saying something that in a film featuring magical prophecies and celestial beings, Cage himself is the weakest link in the credibility chain.

The glue that holds Knowing together is a dash-to-the-finish investigative mystery, some spectacular disaster set-pieces, and a rather mawkish family drama (of the "I love you, dad" variety), all of which will no doubt draw in some viewers while repelling others – but look beneath the hackneyed generic frame and you will find an epistemological and eschatological allegory of considerable ambition (and some success).

Does determinism or randomness govern the universe? Can faith be reconciled with science? Is a heavenly intervention more likely to come from angels or aliens? Does human endeavour drive us ever forward, or are we doomed to eternal return? And is it ever enough simply to know? Knowing may not exactly answer any of this – it is, after all, a feature film, not a philosophical tract – but it does dramatise the questions in a narrative far more insidiously ambiguous than the kind normally found in a mainstream package, so that what at first seems a simple premise with a dumb-assed popcorn resolution might well unravel in your head into something altogether more resonant and perplexing (or not).

As with his debut feature Spirits of the Air, Gremlins Of The Clouds (1989), here Alex Proyas is adapting Biblical archetypes to the Age of Enlightenment, and seeing what contradictions emerge. And so the future looks remarkably like the past, and eating from the Tree of Knowledge entails, at least for those receptive enough to those heaven-sent signals, not just the primal Genesis of all humanity, but also its final Apocalypse.

In Proyas' film, knowing turns out, ironically enough, not to be everything – even if it is a start (and an end) to all things. It might not be much, but it is more than enough to make a blockbuster worthy of the viewer's attention and - perhaps - awe.

Reviewed on: 26 Mar 2009
Share this with others on...
Knowing packshot
A boy finds a time capsule containing deadly predictions, leaving his professor father in a race to avert disaster.
Amazon link

Director: Alex Proyas

Writer: Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, Stuart Hazeldine, Alex Proyas, Richard Kelly

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, DG Maloney, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Alan Hopgood, Adrienne Pickering, Joshua Long, Danielle Carter, Alethea McGrath, Ben Mendelsohn

Year: 2009

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia, US


Search database: