Quantcast
subscriber help

artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Knowing’ versus ‘Left Behind,’ Part II

Lotsa spoilers about the premise and ending of Knowing after the jump. Don’t read on if you don’t want to have the movie ruined for… or if you don’t care if it is.
So I promised, in my review of Knowing, to eventually reveal the phrase I came up with to describe the preposterous grand revelation at the end of the film. If I coulda dropped it into my review, I would have, but I don’t want to spoil even a crappy film on the off chance that someone reading would have enjoyed it anyway. And the phrase definitely would have spoiled it.

The phrase is this: aliens ex machina.

I also goofed around with ET ex machina, but I wasn’t quite as pleased with that.

I can’t think of another movie that pulled aliens out its cinematic ass the way this one does. And the way Knowing goes about pulling aliens out of its cinematic ass is both ridiculous and unfair in a storytelling way and deeply obnoxious in a pseudoscientific way. No filmmaker would dare resolve his story with “here, a miracle happens,” or “here, the hand of God appears out of bloody nowhere and makes everything right,” but dress up the exact same thing in science fiction garb, and somehow it’s suddenly all right? Nah-uhn.

Lots of movies, of course, are about aliens invading Earth or human first contact with aliens. Knowing, as it transpires, is about aliens secretly watching over Earth for who knows how long and then suddenly appearing out of the deep blue of deep space at the very last minute to salvage what would otherwise be a total catastrophe for the human race (instead of merely a 99 44/100ths percent catastrophe). They could have appeared at an earlier point, when the catastrophe might have been averted or at least more greatly minimized, but they didn’t, because… well, that would mean the ending of the movie couldn’t be a “surprise” that’s supposed to make everyone moan orgasmically in pseudoreligious awe.

It doesn’t do that, of course, though the big laugh it provides is also good for relieving stress.

See, this is the story (as opposed to the plot, which is how the story unfolds in the film): 50 years ago, extraterrestrial beings far more advanced than us from we don’t know where somehow injected into the head of a little girl a series of numbers detailing the next half-century of disaster on planet Earth: X many people would die on date Y at GPS coordinates Z is how to interpret the strings of numbers. She scribbled those strings of numbers on a piece of paper — apparently because she was driven to do so, ie, she couldn’t keep them locked up in her head — that was then buried in a time capsule and subsequently dug up mere days before the final entry on that list, which states that everyone on the whole damn planet will die in a big disaster, which — Nicolas Cage, astrophysicist, discovers — is a giant solar flare that will bathe the Earth in scouring fire and radiation. There’s no cave or ocean deep enough to save anyone, so the human race is doomed. Except that the aliens also built into the numerological predictions a final set of GPS coordinates, and when Cage’s young son (maybe eight or ten years old) and a female friend around the same age end up at that location just before the flare is about to hit, the aliens land in a spaceship and whisk the two kids away. (Cage is emphatically not invited.) The ship blasts off, and we see other similar ships taking off from Earth, presumably also holding breeding pairs of humans. Maybe a few kittens, too.

(By the way, the “aliens create an ark of Earth ahead of the planet’s destruction” theme was pulled off much better and far more poignantly in Greg Bear’s novel The Forge of God [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.]. That would make a truly awesome end-of-the-world movie.)

All along, as Cage is attempting to figure out what the numbers mean and how to stop the few disasters yet to unfold, mysterious tall pale blond men-in-black observe Cage and his son from a distance: they seem menacing, and clearly have an interest in what Cage is doing, and in Cage’s son. The blond MIBs are, of course, later revealed to be the aliens. Oh, and all along, after the time capsule is dug up and the predictions are out in the open, the kid is receiving weird garbled electronic signals in his hearing aid (he’s not deaf, just has some problems distinguishing some sounds).

Now, all sorts of questions should be raised by the behavior of the aliens that the movie ignores… because it’s aping the very same situation we find in evangelical Christian beliefs about the end of the world (which they believe is rapidly approaching) that raise very similar questions yet are also always ignored. (Hence the reference, in my review, to the apocalyptic evangelical fantasy pseudofiction series Left Behind.) Because you have to ignore them lest the audience be clued in to how appallingly immoral the supposedly beneficient overseers are. Questions such as:

1) Why do the aliens arrange things so that their predictions are buried for 50 years? The clear implication of the film is that they did want the numbers hidden: the girl who was compelled to do the number scribbles also was responsible for the time capsule idea in the first place, so either the aliens also placed that idea in her head, or they chose her because she had the time capsule idea (though they could have chosen any child in the class that put stuff in the capsule, so I think the obvious conclusion is that the time capsule idea was the aliens’ too). If the idea is to prove that they know whereof they speak when they predict the destruction of the Earth in 2009, so that the earthlings will take them seriously, the numbers could have been public all along, a mystery to be solved over the long term, instead of in a big rush in the last few days. Either risks the chance that the code of the numbers is never solved — and they clearly do want the code to be solved, because that’s how Nic Cage’s son ends up in the right place to be saved from the destruction of Earth — but there’s a better chance that it’ll be solved in 50 years with lots of people looking at them than in only a few days, with only one person trying the decryption.

2) But hey: If the aliens can see into the future and know for a certainty that humanity will go extinct shortly, yet also feel some compulsion to try to save at least some humans, why keep the secret of the impending doom at all? Why didn’t they just land at the UN in 1958 and say, “Look, human dudes, you’re totally doomed, and that sucks, but we can help you with our superadvanced technology. Let’s try to build a shield to protect your lovely planet from this huge-ass solar flare. Or maybe our allies, the Fluggleknogs of the Xssldjks Galactic Sector, will lend us their solar-engineering talents. Or as a last resort, we’ve got, like, half a century to organize an exodus. You’re all gonna be fine.” If the humans were skeptical, as seems entirely justified, the aliens could have revealed their predictions about all the upcoming disasters then, and not in code form, and eventually we would have had to admit that they know what they’re talking about. The film clearly wants us to see these aliens as benevolent and loving and superduper nice for saving Nic Cage’s adorable little boy and his cute future girlfriend, yet even the barest scratch at the surface of the aliens’ motives makes me want to run screaming into the street. The only interpretation is that the aliens want almost everyone to die, and want to restart the human race with a couple of little kids and, presumably, mold a new human civilization in ways the aliens see fit.

3) Speaking of the kids: The last image of the film is the two kids frolicking in an alien meadow, all alone and apparently delirious with joy. They’ve been sucked away from everything and everyone they know (and even the kids only just met a few days before), and they barely seem traumatized. The clear implication is that they’re a new Adam and Eve (whoever might have been on those other alien ships we saw blasted off from Earth are never seen), and that they’re totally fine with that. The aliens aren’t experimenting on the kids or doing anything apparently unpleasant to them: not at all. This is a glorious new beginning for the human race, and we’re meant to be happy and excited by that prospect.

Maybe Knowing is just poorly written. But it apes too much religious attitude to be dismissed entirely that way. I’m not the only one who sees a religious angle in the aliens. Commenter “thatguy” said this in response to my review of the film:

the religious factors in the movie or not what christians believe. Or at least not me. They confused angels with aliens. what a dumb movie.

I don’t think the filmmakers “confused” anything at all: I think everything is the way they intended it to be, and if Knowing doesn’t reflect the general philosophy of what a lot of Christians believe, you’d never know it from how many of them talk. God work in mysterious ways, see, and we’re not advanced enough/smart enough/sophisticated enough to appreciate why God does what he does, but we should be assured that God has our best interests at heart. Substitute “aliens” for “God” and that’s exactly what Knowing is saying.

That might fill some people with awe, but not me. It fills me with terror… or it would, if I believed it were true.



Warning: Invalid argument supplied for foreach() in /home/flick/public_html/wptest/wp-content/themes/FlickFilosopher/loop-single.php on line 106
posted in:
movie buzz
  • Joey

    Question:

    How is that any different than the ending of Battlestar Galactica, which I was sure you were going to hate, but which you actually enjoyed a great deal? I mean in principle, as the details are obviously very different.

  • Ryan

    No filmmaker would dare resolve his story with “here, a miracle happens,” or “here, the hand of God appears out of bloody nowhere and makes everything right,” but dress up the exact same thing in science fiction garb, and somehow it’s suddenly all right? Nah-uhn.

    I agree with your take on ‘Knowing’ but that is EXACTLY how they ended Battlestar Galactica…and you seemed to enjoy that finale?

  • Hank Graham

    I haven’t seen “Knowing,” although I think it’s interesting how people are coming down solidly for and against it (always something that interests me), but I have to jump in here about miracles.

    Ever seen “Magnolia”? It’s all in how it’s done. Some times, you just need a miracle in a story. And if the writer or filmmaker has done their job, you DON’T go, “Wait a minute!”

    “Knowing,” from the little I’ve read, is somewhere on the edge of that chasm.

  • Marshall

    How is that any different than the ending of Battlestar Galactica, which I was sure you were going to hate, but which you actually enjoyed a great deal? I mean in principle, as the details are obviously very different.

    BSG did not have God or Aliens step in and stop the war, nor wisk them away to safety. S/He may have manipulated a few people to some degree, but in the end the free will of humans & cyclons ultimatly led them to our earth, and to their decisions to start over in ‘paradise’. They took leaps of faith, sure, but again it was their choice to do so, not forced by the hand of another being or diety. The differences between BSG & Knowing are so drastic that I’m surprised anyone can even compare the two.

  • Mark

    I agree with your take on ‘Knowing’ but that is EXACTLY how they ended Battlestar Galactica…and you seemed to enjoy that finale?

    I haven’t, and won’t, see Knowing, and I agree that MAJ’s assessment of it sounds a lot like the bullshit Ron Moore handed us for the BSG finale. But the BSG finale had lots of good stuff in it; it just blew total chunks as a resolution to the series. And it was well shot and acted.

    Knowing, if the trailer and reviews are any guide, is just a train wreck of stupid.

  • Mark

    BSG did not have God or Aliens step in and stop the war, nor wisk them away to safety.

    Starbuck was resurrected by God and mystically given knowledge which did, in fact, whisk them away to safety. And Baltar was able to convince Cavil to stop fighting because he was being visited by Head Six which turned out to be a vision sent by God. Doesn’t sound that much different to me.

    The differences between BSG & Knowing are so drastic that I’m surprised anyone can even compare the two.

    We’re talking in particular about the use of deus ex machina as a literary device. What MAJ describes as the shortcomings of Knowing from a story construction standpoint are very true of BSG, too.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –“The only interpretation is that the aliens want almost everyone to die, and want to restart the human race with a couple of little kids and, presumably, mold a new human civilization in ways the aliens see fit.”

    Is that a bad thing, from the standpoint of the aliens? What’s wrong with that interpretation, that seems so obvious to you but that you subsequently discard? Occam’s principle…

    I haven’t yet seen the movie, so I must ask, is it anywhere revealed that the aliens have the best interests of humanity – or humanity as a whole – at heart? Is the viewer actually asked to believe that the aliens are supposedly entirely benevolent and altruistic, or are you projecting that into the story in order to stretch the analogy to evangelical Christianity?

    (It does look and sound like a crappy movie, from the trailers and reviews.)

  • Spoilerfied

    Hooray! Spoilers for the finale of a TV series in an article about two movies completely unrelated to the series! Thanks, guys!

  • Ryan

    MaryAnn can put spoiler tags on if she wants, but I don’t see any specifics about the BSG finale above except for the one post by Mark where he talks about Cavil…and you would have had to read through four posts about BSG to get to that.

  • Muzz

    The more I hear about this movie, the more I think that the writer’s, inspired by the funny-to-serious shift of Dark Star to Alien perhaps, came up with it while watching Dude, Where’s my car?

  • RogerBW

    No filmmaker would dare resolve his story with “here, a miracle happens,” or “here, the hand of God appears out of bloody nowhere and makes everything right,”

    You haven’t seen The Omega Code 2, have you? (Michael York doesn’t just chew the scenery, he rips off raw bleeding chunks and swallows them.)

    Certainly I see this and BSG as data points in the antirationalist trend that’s been growing since the turn of the century (and in some ways before that). But similarly the UK’s current “if you don’t like your neighbour, report him as a terrorist” campaign…

  • Accounting Ninja

    I haven’t yet seen the movie, so I must ask, is it anywhere revealed that the aliens have the best interests of humanity – or humanity as a whole – at heart? Is the viewer actually asked to believe that the aliens are supposedly entirely benevolent and altruistic, or are you projecting that into the story in order to stretch the analogy to evangelical Christianity?

    What if the aliens’ true purpose was to create livestock for slaughter, and they need breeding stock to get an ample supply of delicious human meat?? And said pairs were chosen for their superior genes so as to breed only the tastiest, most docile human?! O_o

    That certainly makes the happy-kids-frolicking-in-field ending very disturbing. Oh, the Clonus Horror!!

  • derek

    A different interpretation (which I believe ‘Knowing’ clearly leaves as a possibility) solves the questions posed by this reviewer. This interpretation is based on the fact that the ‘aliens’ were in fact ‘angels’ in the Biblical sense (not flesh and blood advanced aliens.)

    1) Why 50 years? Nicolas Cage’s character answers this in the movie…at the plane crash. He’s like ‘Why me? Why here? It’s meant for ME.’ It’s personal. That time capsule predication paper was meant for Cage to decipher and start his journey from unbelief to faith.
    2) The angels can’t see into the future…only God being outside of our four dimensions could (and create our big bang universe into being.) So God knows the future…and knows Judgement Day Oct 19th 2009 (solar flare.) The movie shows the definity of an afterlife and importance of faith/belief (“everyone has to die” one of the characters speaks; the pastor’s family; Cage’s acceptance of a heaven beyond death.) Humanity isn’t doomed (well for some Hell will be)…it’s just time to face Judgement (and hey if you gotta go being fried to a crisp in milliseconds isn’t too bad.)
    3) The kids as new Adam/Eve is where the movie I feel muddies traditional Christian views of the end times. The earth will be destroyed in fire (after judgement) but this is for the creation of a ‘new heavens and a new earth.’ The idea of repeating Genesis 1 with a young Caleb and Abbey on a real planet doesn’t have Scriptural backing. There could be some interpretation as the planet being ‘Heaven’ or such. But there is also the concept of ‘alien’ panspermia which leaves open an interpretation of aliens being god and jumping on the Von Daniken bandwagon (but this contradicts theology presented elsewhere in the movie.) Basically the movie tries to take a middle ground with belief/faith but tends to offend both sides (God vs. aliens.)

  • MaryAnn

    Saying that “it ain’t aliens, it’s God” only underscores my point, which is that if you think about this stuff at all, it’s horrifying. It’s no better if it’s God’s mysterious ways we don’t understand but are supposed to trust in.

    is it anywhere revealed that the aliens have the best interests of humanity – or humanity as a whole – at heart? Is the viewer actually asked to believe that the aliens are supposedly entirely benevolent and altruistic, or are you projecting that into the story in order to stretch the analogy to evangelical Christianity?

    I think it’s clear that the movie is implying — though it does not actually state — the the aliens have the best interest of humans in mind, but only via a clear aping of evangelical Christian symbolism and attitude.

    Does that make sense? I mean that the movie assumes that you buy evangelical Christianity, and so that you’ll buy its appropriation of it.

    If that was NOT the assumption of the fillmmakers, then I would LOVE to know what they were thinking.

    As for the similarities with *BSG* — *BSG* was about gods all along, and featured the (apparent) intervention of a god or gods all along. I can buy that — if it’s done right — within the context of a well-told story (though I think there were *some* problems with how *BSG* used these ideas). But such ideas are NOT woven through the entirety of *Knowing,* which presupposes your assumptions of certain beliefs, which it should not do.

  • Saladinho

    Uh, MaryAnn, pretty much the first conversation Cage’s character has with his son is about the fact that he doesn’t believe in a god, but that the son does, and if the son wants to, that was fine with the Cage character. And the talk about life on other planets being possible was the first conversation the two had. They even make a point of telling you that the Cage character never listens to his son whenever they talked about the subject…

    Aliens and gods seemed to be right there at the beginning…

  • MaryAnn

    They talked about hot dogs, too. So it would have been okay for giant alien hot dogs to save the humans? :->

  • Ryan

    No, but it would have been a hell of a lot more entertaining.

  • Saladinho

    Heh. I was just saying how it didn’t come out of nowhere…

  • Gee

    Well, as someone who hasn’t seen the movie and hence is fully qualified to speak about it ;-), the aliens clearly are carrying out some sociological experiments, placing humanity and various members of it under stress conditions and observing the reactions. We seem to rate somewhere between ants and amoeba on the scale of test subjects.

    These experiments may be for the alien equivalent of a PhD thesis. Or possibly a high school project, given the rather juvenile pranks with the numbers.

    “The aliens aren’t experimenting on the kids or doing anything apparently unpleasant to them: not at all.”… Not yet, they aren’t…

  • Mina Rhodes

    Oh, for alien-Christ’s sake.

    Alex Proyas doesn’t believe in God. He’s stated so publicly. MANY TIMES.

    Shock! Awe! Who’d have thought, what with his atheistic masterpiece DARK CITY (which MaryAnne also hated–she’s my fave film critic after Roger Ebert, but that is probably her hugest critical misstep, umm, ever).

    I went into this film, hearing that it was promoting some kind of Christian agenda, with a lot of dread and apprehension–had my dear one-hit-wonder Alex gone over to the dark side? I sat through the whole film whispering to my bored boyfriend, “I REALLY hope this doesn’t go where I fear it will!” It didnt. I expected angels, I got aliens that humanity had all along mistaken for angels. How ambitious for a Hollywood film in this retrogressive political/artistic climate! Too bad it was so badly done.

    The premise of DARK CITY is very similar to this one–aliens watching over humanity and guiding them for a purpose, whereas in Dark City its sinister, and here its… ambivalent. They’re like scientists preserving life, allowing it to run its natural course on the planet, then moving it to a new one to, I dunno, preserve galactic biodiversity. The aliens aren’t “loving” “protective” beings in this film–just because the film imbues them with awe doesn’t mean they are a substitute for God and meant to be worshiped by the protagonists. If anything, the film’s climax comes across as simply “ALIENS! OMG! AMAZING!”, which is so overblown and their ship so ridiculously over-designed that the whole finale just falls apart due to its own ludicrous misconception. The ideas are “interesting”, in the sense that a film about “aliens inspiring Biblical myth, eventually preserving the human species on a planet they evidently prepared the entire race for via said Biblical myth” SHOULD BE. But the film shoehorns this neat-o silliness into a “ticking-clock-race-against-disaster-figure-out-the-clues-with-Nic-Cage-and-his-receding-hair-line” storyline that cripples the whole film before its even out of the gate. Oh, and there’s the bad dialogue and iffy special effects.

    What IS surprisingly well done about the film is its mean streak. There are some brilliant moments tucked away in the film and some great remnants of Proyas’s seemingly-dead style–the menacing zoomdown shot of Earth in the main titles, with satellites moving over lit-up streets far below; the plane crash; the cruel/brilliant shot from inside the train car as it mows down commuters.

    KNOWING is not an auteur movie, however. Its a film made so that Alex Proyas can make a modest effort at directing for cash, while being self-indulgent by ripping off John Keel and then segueing into preposterous Erik von Daniken silliness. It’s not a BAD film, its just a disappointingly mediocre one.

    And, as an atheist, I have to say that all this “controversy” over the film’s supposed religious content is one of the biggest loads of bullshit I’ve seen in ages–what’s more, its from people who should know better. The film is not trying to put across some “creationist” message. If anything, it says that Christianity is a huge misunderstanding on the part of our species.

    But ah, this supposed “optimist” ending, which is [i]clearly[/i] the work of Proyas trying to shove his “We’re being watched over and everything’s fiiiinnneee!” spiel… or maybe it is, as a HOLLYWOOD FILM, the work of a studio trying to make the apocalyptic ending “uplifting”, so that the audience will go out feeling like they haven’t seen something that challenged their beliefs or gave them a case of the bummers. Everyone wins!

    There is NO religious pandering in this film, no creationist gobbledygook. In the end, its failures and poor execution of both ideas and tone are not due to any religious zealot’s alterior motive, but due to lazy filmmaking and studio-imposed compromises.

  • Kate

    Nina Rhodes’ take on this film exactly mirrors my own — and she has expressed her argument brilliantly. In fact, she has expressed it SO BRILLIANTLY that there has been a deafening silence from Ms MaryAnn, who wants to believe this is all some sort of Christianity-in-disguise plot to seduce all the sci-fi athiests out there to become “believers.” Nonsense! The film suggests that aliens have been among us from the start, that our mythology has been inspired not by gods and prophets, but by alien races. This isn’t a new theory, of course, and it hasn’t been done particularly well in this particular film. But all this fretting over religious propaganda is absurd. It’s not a good film but it’s interesting. And it’s not one bit dangerous to any of us athiests!

  • Nathan

    I watched about two thirds of this movie thinking it was ridiculous but watchable, but by the time it ended I thought it was very interesting, balls-out filmmaking — for a big budget, studio film, anyway.

    The allusions to religious myth seem make people jump to conclusions, both Christians and strident atheists thinking that the movie advocates some kind of belief system. For me it captures my own view that there is no such thing as the supernatural; that, if there were such a thing as an angel, it would be a completely natural phenomenon.

    Having said that, the disaster porn was a bit much. It was too F/X heavy to create a real atmosphere of dread and I think it hurt the tone of the movie.

    p.s. Knowing is a prime example of logic and reason compared to the tripe and artistic betrayal that was the BSG finale.

Pin It on Pinterest