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.)
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.