Knowing Alex Proyas’s ‘Knowing’

Knowing Alex Proyas’s ‘Knowing’

Whether Deterministic or Random, the One Thing We Know

Alex Proyas’s 2009 film Knowing is a science fiction thriller wrapped inside a philosophical discourse. But a discourse about what?

Roger Ebert was one of the few major critics who gave the film a positive review. Ebert also authored a blog post exploring what he sees as the movie’s central theme: Whether the universe is deterministic or random — or, more to the point, whether human beings have free will or are merely watching a predetermined fate unfold.

I agree with Ebert’s overall assessment of the movie — it’s both thrilling and thought-provoking. But I take a somewhat different view of the film’s underlying theme. (Note: Major spoilers are included in what follows.)

Nicolas Cage in Alex Proyas's 'Knowing'The story’s main narrative does, indeed, focus on determinism versus free will. The plot follows Nicolas Cage’s character, John Koestler, as he deciphers the clues on a mysterious piece of paper that has been buried in a time capsule for 50 years. The seemingly random sequence of numbers on the paper turn out to be anything but random — they accurately predict the date, location, and number of fatalities of every major catastrophe since the message was buried.

Early in the film, Koestler engages his students in a discussion of determinism versus free will. In the course of this exchange, however, the film’s focus subtly shifts. The topic becomes not whether life’s events are predetermined, but whether they hold any deeper meaning. Koestler, for his part, doesn’t believe they do. “I think shit just happens” he tells the class.

This question of life’s meaning inches closer to the film’s the core issue: How we deal with the one certainty of our existence: its inevitable end. Knowing that we will die and, in passing away, leave our children alone to create a future without us, how do we abide such knowledge?

Koestler’s estranged father, a minister, believes that he and his wife will be together in heaven following their deaths. John Koestler has no such faith. Having lost his wife in a tragic accident, he and his son Caleb are now alone in the world, relying only on each other. The source of Koestler’s strength to endure, his one belief, is that he and his son will be together forever.

But, of course, they won’t. Parents pass away and leave their children behind. And once we accept the accuracy of the film’s chilling predictions, the movie becomes a relentless march toward the moment when Koestler and his son will be separated forever.

To its credit, Proyas’s film has the courage of its convictions. Once we learn that the list of predictions ends with a victim tally that includes “everyone else” and the earth will be destroyed by a gigantic solar flare, the film doesn’t pull any punches. As predicted, this terrifying future unfolds on screen.

One of the film’s characters — Lara Robinson’s Abby Wayland — has, since her childhood, been told the date of her death. It is the date of the apocalypse that climaxes the film. Ironically, the character dies not in the planet’s destruction, but in a seemingly random traffic accident earlier the same day. It matters not how we die, but only that we inevitably do.

Whether the day-by-day events of our world are deterministic or random is, ultimately, of only academic importance. Either way, our death is inevitable. John Koestler’s understanding — and acceptance — of this truth is at the heart of the film.

Images from Knowing are from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

6 thoughts on “Knowing Alex Proyas’s ‘Knowing’

  1. Many of my colleges say great things about the movie but I personally didn’t like it. What is up with Nicholas cage doing all these supernatural movies these days


  2. Yes, I saw this movie. Amazing movie, But I did not understand what was going on in this movie. I was very confused. This movie was puzzle. What happened in this movie I didn’t know?


  3. I found the movie to be compelling and frightening, but also thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I’m not sure I’m buying that it offers anything close to a coherent view of life. Rather, it seems to be the exploration of a possible reality in order to provoke thought about the human condition.

    However, let’s not forget a very important point here. It’s a movie, and it’s key purpose is to entertain.


  4. Yes, I saw this movie. Amazing movie, But I did not understand what was going on in this movie. I was very confused. This movie was puzzle. What happened in this movie I didn’t know?


  5. I have a question to ask you. Many time people see some things at movies which are subconscious in our minds.. Sometimes I think “is it random or do they want to give us some kind of subconscious message?” like the Gulf of Mexico which happened one year after the movie.


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