On Knowing

On Knowing July 28, 2009
I recently watched the movie Knowing, and as someone who combines the roles of New Testament scholar and science fiction fan, it was perhaps inevitable that I’d blog about it. I will be talking about details right up until the movie’s ending, and there is a sense in which the most enjoyable thing about Knowing is not knowing, and so I’m issuing an extra special SPOILER ALERT and asking those who have not watched the movie and intend to watch it to turn back now, avert their gaze, or run for their lives.

For those who have seen the movie, they may have already picked up that my statement about “inevitability” is an allusion to a key theme in the movie, the question whether things that happen are random or determined. The movie’s answer seems to be the latter, but in a rather strange way. I must say that, although the movie does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful, spooky atmosphere, its attempt to bring closure to the story and offer seeming answers to the questions it raised left me deeply perplexed and unsatisfied.

The movie begins with a troubled girl living 50 years ago. She hears whispers, and they seem to compel her to write numbers, which get put in a time capsule and opened 50 years later, in our time. The numbers, the father of the child who received the girl’s “gift from the past” discovers, provide the date, number killed and location of every major disaster that happened between her time and the present. It also predicts a few more, the last apparently being the end of the world.

The “whisper people” apparently turn out to be the “angels” that Ezekiel saw, and the wheels within wheels of their spaceship would have delighted Erich von Daniken. At least the “angels” are not cute – indeed, they are profoundly creepy and disturbing, although apparently benevolent. But therein lies the greatest perplexity in the movie’s message. The movie questions but in the end affirms an afterlife, and yet has aliens/angels come to save a couple of children from the imminent end of their world, an action the purpose of which is impossible to fathom – indeed, it seems that the rest of humankind, reunited in the afterlife, is better off than those two who are separated from them and taken to another world. What’s the point?
The treatment of determinism is also unsatisfying. Was it foreordained that all but two humans would die in the final catastrophe? Who or what determined these events in such detail, that it is apparently impossible not only to avoid the disasters but also to change the number of those who die? And even if we grant that that is simply the way things are, why do the “whisper people” disturb other human beings down the ages, rather than simply turning up at the end to take away their chosen couple of individuals?
I watched the movie with high expectations – after all, I very much enjoy a TV series that features numbers, questions of free will and determinism, catastrophes, whispers, and religious overtones. But I found that the vision the movie offered of the end of individual lives, the end of all human lives, and the afterlife ultimately unsatisfying in its incoherence. But perhaps there is no way to think about such matters in a way that is coherent and satisfying – and if the movie gets us to think about that, then its production was worthwhile for the questions it raises, not the answers it gives or fails to give.
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