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maryann johanson | watching movies at home

‘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.

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