It’s 1959. A creepy little girl, having spent several minutes staring at the sun, listening to apparently non-existent voices, returns to her classroom and begins to scrawl a lengthy stream of numbers on a piece of paper. Sealed up in a time capsule for five decades, those numbers eventually fall into the hands of an astrophysics professor, who sees in them a terrible portent of doom.
It’s a sci-fi concept so 50s, and so reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode, you can almost imagine the distinctive voice of Rod Serling introducing it. Perhaps this is why, for me, Knowing is one of the most underrated sci-fi movies in recent years – it has the trappings of a great genre mystery, but with an apocalyptic tone that is strikingly modern.
Released in 2009, Knowing was directed by Alex Proyas, who was behind the marvellous Dark City and The Crow. In fact, Knowing fits in really well, thematically and visually, with those earlier movies in Proyas’ career – it’s more recognisably his film than the disappointingly commercial I, Robot, for example.
Interestingly, Proyas wasn’t the first director attached to Knowing. Rod Lurie (who directed this year’s Straw Dogs remake) and Richard Kelly were both involved at one time or another during its lengthy development. Given Kelly’s track record for apocalyptic sci-fi, he’d have been the perfect fit for Knowing, though he’d perhaps have added in more surrealism and song-and-dance routines than Proyas.
Knowing did respectable business at the box-office. Made for around $50 million, it made back almost four times as much in takings – not bad for a fairly gloomy apocalypse fable. In terms of critical assessment, though, Knowing fared less well; The New York Times sneeringly suggested that, “Knowing will make you long for the end of the world”, while the San Francisco Chronicle dismissed it as “disappointing”.
While it’s true that Knowing isn’t a perfect film, it does successfully establish a brilliantly resonant and dark atmosphere, and unusually, sticks to it – where most sci-fi movies have a tendency to avoid bleak endings, Knowing is unapologetically gloomy. The conclusion offers redemption of sorts, but not necessarily for the characters you’d expect.
Knowing also boasts one of Cage’s better performances. His more recent films have seen the actor apparently in the grip of either mania or apathy, but in Knowing, he’s a quite believably ordinary single parent, doing his best for his son while attempting to hang onto his teaching job in the midst of grief and creeping alcoholism.
A professor of astrophysics, Cage’s character, John Koestler, has come to believe that the universe is ruled by chaos; “Shit happens” is how he rather testily puts it to his class of students. Soon, however, that strange sheet of numbers will emerge from its time capsule and completely realign Koestler’s beliefs, while also providing a worrying prediction of the future. Knowing’s about faith, but of the scientific rather than religious variety.
There’s a vague religious subtext throughout Knowing, in fact, and there’s a late sequence that is clearly inspired by the extraordinary visions of angels and “Wheels within wheels” in the Book of Ezekiel. Had these allusions been heavy-handed, the result would have been embarrassing; instead, it’s used so subtly that the effect is quite disquieting.
‘Disquieting’ is an apt word for the whole film – as he did in Dark City, Proyas conjures up a chilling atmosphere, where mysterious figures lurk at the edge of the frame and strange objects appear at characters’ feet. Knowing’s events aren’t always unpredictable, and doesn’t alway feels like a film shot in Boston (it was actually shot in Australia), but then, none of this seems to matter while the lights are down and we’re sharing in its characters’ fear and paranoia.
Marco Beltrami’s music, which incorporates Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (previously used to memorable effect in another sci-fi film, Zardoz), is brilliant in this respect, reflecting both the mood of the characters and the retro flavour of the film’s events.
It’s hard to say whether Proyas was influenced by Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning cinematography in Children Of Men or another, less obvious source, but Knowing is punctuated by one or two striking scenes of destruction.
The stand out is an almost unbroken three-minute sequence in which a jumbo jet crashes mere feet away from Koestler’s car. It’s a dramatic, if not seamless, use of cinematography, special effects and sound design – though its attempts at horror are rather over-played, I’d argue, with screaming victims running around on fire. Really, it’s more likely that any survivors would still be strapped into their seats, I’d have thought – but then again, the whole film is shot through with its own nightmare logic.
The film’s at its most effective, both dramatically and visually, in its quieter moments. The bit where Koestler pores over the sheet of numbers is a superb piece of direction and editing, as he circles groups of numbers with coloured markers, finding both patterns and maddening gaps among the figures. Rose Byrne provides the film with a spectral presence, as the wide-eyed daughter of the spooky kid from the start of the film. Another great moment: where she and Koestler up-end a bed in her mother’s house to discover the words “Everyone Else” scrawled beneath it. Again, disquieting.
Like all great sci-fi movies, Knowing introduces a simple concept (“What if you suddenly found out that the word is about to end?”) and weaves it into a satisfyingly dark sci-fi thriller – one that keeps winding up the tension, all the way to its appropriately dark conclusion.