Knowing is Half the Battle: Knowing (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, January 10, 2010 09:42am | Post a Comment

Having a blu-ray player finds me watching some stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise, because there's a limited amount of quality features available to the format (about 20 titles at last count). Alex ProyasKnowing is one such example of techno-fetishism overwhelming my aesthetic expectation. Roger Ebert really liked it, but he was about the only one. As The Crow and Dark City showed, Proyas has something of a singular vision -- although I'm not quite sure what it is, but it probably appeals to James O'Barr's decaying Goth fiefdom back in Detroit. Lots of confusion and brooding, this time with Nicholas Cage. He's an astrophysicist who discovers a code in a string of numbers that his son brings home from school. It was written by a little girl 50 years ago and buried in the elementary school's time capsule. As it turns out, the numbers predicted the time and place of every major and not so major catastrophe over the intervening years since its burial with only a few dates still pending.

Cage lost his wife in an accident and now believes there's no meaningful order to the world (scientists are never allowed to come to a viewpoint through reason, only by emotion in this type of film). As he explains during a lecture, everything's either deterministic or chaotic (ignoring the deterministic equations of Chaos Theory). That's not a very sophisticated metaphysics, but makes it easy to follow the intended message of the movie. According to Cage's physicist, a meaningful existence can only come from a preordained order, in which all events were determined at the outset of creation. He surmised after his wife's death that since it was for no purpose, everything must be random. Thus, discovering a code which predicts all these tragedies helps to restore his faith in the great plan and that there's a meaningful narrative to his life and her death.

spoilers ahead!

With the new agey, self help Christianity that tends to get promoted these days, I give the film credit for being unabashedly Calvinist and for making angels coldblooded enforcers of Divine Providence, but it's a screwy way to restore a man's faith in existential purpose. Knowing comes down to three doctrines of Calvinism: (1) total depravity -- the final prediction is that the whole world will burn, with everyone, both those we mortals might call good and evil, going up with it; (2) unconditional election -- a few children, including Cage's boy, are selected by the angels to be taken away in their spaceship, but not based on anything anyone's done; and (3) predestination -- as already mentioned, all of this had to happen, like the total of adding numbers on a calculator. What could make for a more arbitrary life than that? He's a variable in someone else's equation. Irrespective of what Cage might do or has done, he's going to be punished for simply being born into original sin. His son, but not him, is selected for salvation for no apparent reason, certainly not based on agency or some purpose -- all just because Divine Will has decided it so. This is order without any personal meaning. It's all been arbitrarily chosen by something else, which is exactly where Cage's despondency began. Only at the end, he's supposed to be feeling some sort of redemption. The "randomness" or "chaos" is still with him, but it's been displaced to the Divine Agency that's calling all the shots. Good thing the Earth is incinerated before he realizes it. 

Relevant Tags

Christianity (9), Blu-ray Criticism (4), Alex Proyas (1), Knowing (1), Free Will (1), Determinism (2), Calvinism (1)