Monday, March 23, 2009

"Knowing" — movie review

Movie: Knowing
: 130 min
Rated: PG-13
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, D.G. Maloney, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Alan Hopgood
Director: Alex Proyas
Producers: over a dozen people, including Alex Proyas
Screenplay: seven people, including Alex Proyas


(released 3/20/09) stars Nicolas Cage, and no one else that I recognized. I think the casting director was told, "I don't care who they are, just make sure all the female actors have really sad faces — except the elderly teacher. She's going senile, so she can smile."

Happily, I like Cage as an actor, and have usually enjoyed his movies either passably (the National Treasure movies) or almost giddily (Raising Arizona, The Rock, World Trade Center, Con Air). So he was a draw to me, rather than a turn-off (i.e. starring Rufus Sewell and a cast of unknowns, or Bill Maher and a cast of unknowns).

In Knowing, however, Cage entertained me far less than usual. I think that is because his character, John Koestler, has withdrawn from life so completely that no point of connection is left. Koestler's wife died in a tragic accident, and it seems that most of Koestler died with her, leaving nothing but pain, anger and fear.

We share his pain as we watch him relate (or fail to relate) to his similarly somber, joyless son Caleb. Dad obviously loves his son, but all he shows him is pain and fear, and that from a distance. Neither father nor son smile much, nor laugh, joke, play — though they do both sign (Caleb has hearing problems) to each other that they will be together, forever.

This is a somber movie. It starts somberly in 1959, with sad-faced Lucinda Embry (played by Lara Robinson) portraying a girl who hears voices and is driven to write enigmatic numbers, as if by automatic writing. We feel that she will not have a happy life, and we're right. Then we join the unhappy Koestlers in 2009, and see how their unhappiness and little Lucinda's will join. We'll meet Lucinda's unhappy daughter, and her unhappy grandchild (same actress).

Sound like fun?

I wouldn't say "fun," but still I was glad to see it, and do recommend it — just know what you're going to see. This is a serious, thoughtful, complex piece of science fiction. It raises questions of determinism and the significance of choices we make. It doesn't hurry in unfolding its premise, and I think most of the negative critics simply grew impatient. But I'd very much enjoyed producer/director/cowriter Alex Proyas' earlier Dark City (1998; except for the unfortunate casting of Rufus Sewell in the lead), and was willing to stick with it. It was worth it.

What worked for me. The special effects were amazing. They weren't all over the place, but what was there was state of the art. There are three set-pieces in particular that were literally breath-taking to me. I want to re-see the movie (on DVD, probably) just to see if I saw what I really saw, to see whether some scenes were one-take continuous shots as I think they were.

Also, at a couple of places I had this dread that the movie was going to sink to boilerplate, kneejerk, de rigeur political correctness and Christianity-bashing. Wrong on both. It did neither.

In fact, arguably, the movie was remarkably Christianity-friendly. There is a bit of ambiguity here, which I'll address in the next section. But a passage from the Bible plays a significant part, a pastor plays a significant and sympathetic part, and a van with (I think - it's a brief view) John 14:6 is featured prominently and pointedly.

What didn't work for me. I had to analyze afterwards why I didn't come out happy and "Wow"-ing and wanting to see it again right away. There was so much to like about the movie, so why didn't it write itself on my favorite-movie list?

My conclusion is that it was Cage's character. Cage is a capable actor; I don't know whether a better actor (Ewan MacGregor?) could have done better with it. I think not. He was drawn very one-dimensionally. He should just have worn a T-shirt that said "I'm totally withdrawn from the world!!!" and gotten on with it. So, in a way, it worked — I felt no connection to him. I didn't care as I should have, and so the finale didn't have the emotional impact it could have. Particularly as a father, I found his distance off-putting. (Also, in one rant, Cage sounded exactly like his character in the National Treasure movies, and that yanked me out of the moment.)

Out of four stars, I'd award three.

Why is it PG-13? I recall one bad word, the tone is intense, and there are some catastrophes with individual impact shown.

Don't read the next part if you haven't seen the movie.


Here are some thoughts, themes, questions.

The movie really messes around with some Biblical themes, and does so in (as I take it) a respectful way. Prophetic warnings are imparted by alien (angelic?) beings. Elect are chosen. Only they hear and respond to the call. At the final moment, the angels go to the four corners of the earth and catch up the elect before final judgment falls.

So, there are overt or implied allusions to Ezekiel 1, Matthew 24:31, and John 14:6. The estranged son reconciles himself to his pastor-father, affirms a new faith in the afterlife....

Now, there is no preached Gospel, though the Gospel is present in the van with (if I read it right) John 14:6. There's no extended talk about God, no overt backdrop that the disaster is judgment for sin. But (unlike the vastly-inferior Day the Earth Stood Still) there's no preachy nonsense about global warming.

Are they aliens, or angels? Clearly the movie suggests that they are angels. The human guises are dropped, replaced by awesome, glowing beings with suggestions of wings. Are they in space-crafts, or angelic conveyances like the chariots we read of? Are the writers purveying "Chariots of the Gods" Bible-rewriting nonsense, or is this a Bible-affirming discussion piece?

In other words, are they saying "What the Bible calls 'angels' are really aliens," or "What people call 'aliens' are really angels"? The movie is light-handed and designedly enigmatic enough to leave this open.

UPDATE: read a BibChr interview with screenwriter Ryne Pearson here.


Fred Butler said...

The second, fuller trailer to the movie revealed there were entities involved somehow, which troubled me. My first reaction was about some tree people from another dimension looking to exterminate all the polluters to make the earth happy again. I am thankful such is not the case.

trogdor said...

I thought for sure they would be Vorlons.

DJP said...

You know... it could be!

Stefan Ewing said...

Huh. I wrote the movie off on the basis of its trailer. You just can't judge a book by its cover.

My verification word is "malti," and in green, which makes me think of "minty."

Michael said...

I became intrigued when Ebert rated it as one of the best SciFi movies he's seen...

Also, maybe I'm weird but I like Rufus Sewell and really liked him in Dark City. YMMV.

Though yes the trailer looked like your run of the mill disaster flick -- maybe people should try and make the trailer look like the movie? Nah... then those movies finally wouldn't get made (Scary Move, 1,2,3,4 and various $Genre Movie).

Even So... said...



Me and the Mrs. saw this last night...

In other words, are they saying "What the Bible calls 'angels' are really aliens," or "What people call aliens are really angels"?

The former, I believe...

I was thinkg, as "the end" was happening, of 2 Peter 3:11-13, etc., and wondering if some altered version of those verses might actually come up on screen...

Cage's affirmation of faith was not about Christianity or his father's beliefs, to my opinion, but about the fact that his son was taken off to start things over, in other words, when his father said, "this is not the end son" and Cage said "I know dad", they meant two very different things...

Margie said, "Yikes, I wonder if we are going to see the Tree of Life or Knowledge of Good and Evil?" and then, of course...

I thought back to the Star Trek episode where Apollo was actually from an advanced space race, and the tie to this movie, in the sesne of Richard Dawkins and the pan-sperma idea...

I did not see it as "redemptive" at all...kind of a neat movie, but too vague to be of any real value, except for those who want to posit some sort of "UFO's-are-demons-and-this-is-the-end-time-deception" conspiracy theory...

P.D. Nelson said...

Dan now I have to go see this movie that I was going to relegate to a dvd rental. Here I thought it was going to be a piece of numerological fluff and you've changed my mind. BTW I disagree with you about Sewell and Dark City but not enough to start another denomination. }:^{)>

CR said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Dan.

I'm still trying to get over watching Watchmen which I saw a few weeks ago. I didn't do my homework because I'm use to having DC Comic movies or Marvel movies as PG-13, this was not. I had to close my eyes several times and I was so embarrassed because I invited a couple of friends from church.

I should have known better when I never saw you do a review on it.

DJP said...

The real surprise: who could have guessed that the expressionless (unless you call slackjawed an "expression") Rufus Sewell had so many fans on this blog?

I just kept watching the vacant-eyed NOTHING that Sewell was giving us and thinking how much more fun it would have been with an actor who could actually SHOW something, like wheels whirring and clicking inside his head, or his gut churning. Someone like Sean Connery, or Ewan MacGregor, or Jimmy Stewart, or... oh, I don't know....

John Malkovich?

Kidding about that. Malkovich would have played Mr. Book or Mr. Hand, or Keifer Sutherland's character. Not the lead. Never the lead.

Even So, you make me glad I never said it was redemptive. And I think your interpretation is possible, but it is your interpretation. That's a thing I liked about it: there is no heavy-handed narrative about "all those stories in the Bible." There's just "Hey, look - this!" and "Hey, look - that!" It seemed pretty agenda-free. Certainly, if there was one (beyond raising the question about determinism), it wasn't heavy-handed.

Or I'd've hated it.

Becky Schell said...

I haven't read a word about Inkheart. Did I miss it or have you not seen it? It is really a fun movie.

The Squirrel said...

I just want to note, for the record, that Dan has now twice,in recent threads, invoked John Malkovich before anybody else mentioned him.

It's not my fault!

The Squirrel

DJP said...

Carlo — oh, ow. Maybe I should have done one titled "Why I won't be going to see Watchmen."

I absolutely planned to see it. Trailers looked awesome. Then I read these columns by Debbie Shlussel detailing the stuff in the movie and... just couldn't do it. I hoped she was wrong, looked around for some counter, but never found it.

Becky — I simply missed Inkheart. Looked like a good "burger movie." So I'll probably rent it.

SS — It's totally your fault.

CR said...

Ok, I just read Debbie's review (never heard of her before). Her review is accurate. Like I said, I was embarrassed and was glad there weren't any women that came with us.

Like you, when I saw the trailers, I thought this is going to be awesome. Boy, was I wrong.

Aaron said...

Three out of four starts, huh? The trailers looked awful. I'll tell my wife we can rent it when it comes out. Still looking forward to the day I can rent Blu-rays from my local redbox.

I also saw trailers for the Watchmen and was intrigued. Then some acquantaince of mine told me it was "pornographic."

trogdor said...

I strongly recommend using a site that rates content before going to see a movie, and even before renting it (so you have an idea when you may need to fast forward). Here's one I've used before that gets pretty detailed; you can just look at the numerical ratings if you want to be spoiler-free. It's not perfect, but it works. For example, I considered maybe seeing Watchmen, then I checked out their rating, and decided I'd pass. Sounds like I have no reason to regret that choice. Any other recommended content advisory sites?

DJP said...

Yep. Screenit.

Joe W. said...

Focus on the Family also has very detailed reviews at Plugged In.

I didn't see Watchmen. I was traumatized by just reading Debbie Shlussel's review. I might need therapy.

Stefan Ewing said...

Our local movie rental chain here exhaustively lists the number of occurrences of profane words, suggestive scenes, depictions of use of intoxicating substances, etc. Perhaps they get that info from one of the abovementioned websites.

Blu-ray? That umpteenth example of a technology vendor attempting to force us to upgrade on new hardware?

Unknown said...

Haven't seen it, although I want to. Don't know if it will make it to Honduras, but here's to hoping it will! As to his character, it seems very similar to his character in Next. I did, however, like the movie very much, so sounds like it has definite possibilities!

Michael said...

I thought Watchmen was fantastic. Though I will never watch it again. I also though it was better than the Dark Knight as far as a closure and character development goes. The ending scene with Rorsach is particularlly moving (IMO).

Minus some really unnecessary graphic violence I thought it was a well done and thoughtful movie.

It is not a movie for anyone under 20! Because of it's content and the fact that teen adolescent males may be bored to tears with dialogue.

Though yes, the movie contents everything we should probably avoid in movies -- but it does give interesting moral dilema and answers them consitently in the framework of the movie. IF you go see it be prepared for what it is.

My wife liked it too (FYI).

Sorry to hijack comment treads :D

DJP said...

From what I read, it's not for anyone under 85.

Michael said...

I'm confused what is so objectionable in this movie? I would say it's probably the full male nudity. Which in the context of the movie 1) makes sense or has a purpose 2) isn't any worse than Michaelangelo's David CGI'd and walking around...

Violence (while graphic in places) is not worse (probably less) that plenty of movies.

Sexual content, while I don't like it, I've seen plenty of movies with stuff that shouldn't pass for R -- Eyes Wide Shut comes to mind... not my choice btw in seeing.

All in all I'm not sure of why this movie would have MORE objections to it because at least it had the honesty to be rated R where Dark Knight SHOULD been because of the nature of the movie and how young kids shouldn't go see it just because it's Batman.

I'm not really an apologist for the movie by any standard -- if it was never made the world would still be the place it is. I just don't think it's remotely close to as bad as a majority of movies Hollywood tosses out.

Joe W. said...

Michael, with all due respect, perhaps you should prayerfully reconsider what you are setting before your eyes (Psalms 101:3).

I say this as a former movie addict. When I look back at the films that I have sat through (and even recommended) without even a tinge of conscience, I shudder. I had become far too comfortable with the culture.

When recommending a movie I might say something like, “If you just overlook the swearing, the brief nudity, and the gratuitous violence it was a pretty good movie that’ll make you think” or “Well that scene was necessary to the story and for character development …blah, blah, blah.”

Such nonsense. The entertainment industry is pumping raw sewage into our minds and culture. More than ever we need to be discerning about what we will spend our time and money watching.

Sorry Dan, I hope I didn’t derail the thread. I will now climb down from my soapbox.

Michael said...

@JTW - I'm thankful you at least said so in a caring manner. Me and my wife have taken it upon ourselves to really change our movie watching habit. But that extends to just movie that are happy moreso.

My take on this was that this movie is not any worse than other movies produced by Hollywood. In that if you have a problem with this specific movie you should have a problem with a lot of other movies. Ergo we shouldn't single this movie out for any particular reason -- and out of the movies that come out of Hollywood this was I believe tried to at least be intellictually interesting.

I'm sorry if I didn't make that clear. I am not suggesting any one go see this persay but merely that I found it to be a good movie.

We've wrecked the comment train a long while back...

DJP said...

Yes, that dark line 'way over there on the horizon... that's the track we used to be on, until the second comment.

So anyway, Michael, fwiw, this is the article that made me say "Oh, crud."

donsands said...

Thanks for the review.

I like Cage also. A lot of people seem to think he can't act, but I like him. The Family Man is where he shined I thought.

Roscoe Washington said...

Saw the movie last weekend. Loved the special effects. Was puzzled by the space ship. Why did the aliens/angels look so scary? Just for effect?

Joyce Rachel Lee said...

One should never mix God's word with the human interpretation, especially sci-fi. It's call adulterating the Word of God

This movie provokes me. I don't like it.

DJP said...

Jeff — in the Bible, most times instead of saying "Hi," angels say "Fear not." So I take it that that was the usual effect of seeing an angel.

Joyce L — thanks for sharing your opinion. I don't have the impression that you read either my review nor interview with the screenwriter; and so you criticize the movie as being bad at doing what it isn't trying to do. So yes, it is a very bad Bible lesson. It is also a very bad car repair manual, cookbook, travel guide to the Eastern Sierra, and fly fishing manual.

At what it set out to do, however, I think it was pretty effective. And, as I developed in the companion article, a Christian could use it as a taking-off point to communicate the truth of God's Word and Gospel.

Unknown said...

DJP said in response to Joyce L:
"At what it set out to do, however, I think it was pretty effective. And, as I developed in the companion article, a Christian could use it as a taking-off point to communicate the truth of God's Word and Gospel."

Could not have said it better myself. Last night I saw the movie for a second time. I loved it. It is exactly the kind of movie that should make people think. Believe it or not, I had the opportunity to witness to TWO people, right after the movie (one in the movie theater!) who were new to the church experience and had accepting CHRIST on their minds. One was a young man ( he was there on his own) who said he knew he had to change because he was getting into trouble too much, the other a friend of my daugher's who came with us to see the show. One has accepted CHRIST (daughter's friend), the other (the young man, I did not know him) is even closer to accepting CHRIST as LORD now.

Certainly this movie is not the Bible. However, it is a great taking off point about CHRIST. Introducing JESUS to someone after seeing the movie seems to catch them by surprise. They see the connection immediately after one explains the angels (kinda guessed that because of the handing out of the rocks, which seemed very symbolic of JESUS the ROCK of our salvation), the rapture escape from earth for those who "heard the call" and believed/responded affirmatively, and how it all ties into the sacrifice that JESUS made for all, showing us the real LOVE OF GOD. The use of Ezekiel 1 was fantastic - "wheel of fire" and "wheel in a wheel" was presented very well. Who knew the Bible could be used to make a scifi movie better? Over all, I loved the whole story. No sex,no nudity, only a tiny bit of swearing (no F-bombs at all). The disasters were shockingly real and intense but necessary. Great show!

Anonymous said...

Hey I just watched the film and loved it. I looked at a few other reviews and was not surprised that a few called it a mockery to bible prophecy. It amazes me that fellow Christians can say in one instance that nothing is to hard for God and in the next rule out that he could build a ship to carry angels around. I'm not saying that this movie is an accurate visual (no man knows the time nor season) but it does open one up to understanding God is capable of all things. God became Man. He sent Angels. He picked up Prophets in Chariots. So... If he comes on a ship with Jesus riding shotgun so be it. Thats a ship i am trying to be on.

Good movie. Not the bible as mentioned in previous comments but a mind opener for sure.

Azimuth5 said...

The one thing I appreciated, despite some bad acting, bad science & craft flaws, was that the movie did not flinch at the end. So many "apocalyptic" films from Hollywood either want to get rid of any Christian interpretations, or flat out go for some goody-two-shoes-ending that betrays everything done in the first 2/3rds of a film. Listening to Beethoven's Allegro as Cage drives past the chaos of a dying world was absolutely brilliant. Finally, only after there is nowhere else to turn, Cage's character, the "nowhere" man himself, finally let's go of his hate, his shame, his loss and embraces his family one last time. And then, a new beginning... how refreshing!

Cinemagogue said...

"I thought for sure they would be Vorlons" - Trogdor

Are you suggesting they WEREN'T???

DJP said...

Mm; good point.


Relationship Education said...

Just saw this movie tonight with my hubby and it was intense! They really made him a tragic character, sort of acquainted with sorrow? The whispers are really bothersome.
Now I gotta go back and re-read the book of Ezekiel - I usually stay away from that scary stuff. I was a bit put off by the whisper men since they seemed other wordly but the end tied it up well. The effects are amazing. They are definitely doing a sequel with that ending. And I do think that was the tree of life implied.

Michael Leopold said...

I wish DJP had really taken the time to reflect on the movie and it's meaning before saying that the movie was bad based on the personality of one of it's characters. The guy was depressed because his wife had passed. But regardless, I'm disappointed that such a small distraction completely took away your ability to ponder the movie's meaning. And it does have a great meaning when you take the time to think about it.

DJP said...

An 830-word review, plus an interview with the screenwriter... and you don't think I gave the movie enough thought? Wow.

You should see the other article that says I was too easy on the movie.

And giving it three out of four stars is saying it's a bad movie?

I think you didn't read the review very carefully.

Anonymous said...

It's just not surprising to read an ignorant comment and see the words Profile Not Available.

I thought it was an excellent review btw.

Tina said...

Good review and I respect your comments but this movie was just not good. The CG was obvious (but I'm going by 2012 standards not 2009 and I'm a graphics nerd). I wanted it to be good, I really did. And it started out with an interesting premise but went downhill not even halfway in. Yes, I knew there would be aliens in this film, and I figured that out during the opening credits--the space shot of the earth was just a bit of a tip off, hello? I agree about Cage's character being one-dimensional and that didn't lead me to care about him or believe that he'd had any kind of real "awakening" in the end. Hard not to notice that he's selfish when he tells his son, "I'm not saying there isn't Heaven or anything like that. [Just because I've given up on everything beyond this life or even having purpose while I am here doesn't mean you have to]. You go ahead and believe in [Heaven] if you want to, Caleb." Gee, Dad, kinda hard for a kid that young to make that kind of choice or even have a baseline to form anything from when you aren't setting any example.

Somber is the perfect word for the tone throughout--it never picks up at any point with any of the characters, period.

Oh, and the ending was just completely disappointing and reminded me too much of the end of Indy Jones IV Kingdome of Crystal Skulls...just horrid.

From a Christian perspective, there is nothing here to invest in. It's just more Hollywood fluff layered under CG explosions, very dark sets (those were okay), a story that lost it's way quickly, weak acting and an alien twist.