Make Up Your Mind Already…

It’s not unusual for even secular apocalyptic films to have religious under/overtones.  As a meteor hurdles to earth or aliens poise for attack, invariably characters utter or scream, “Oh my God!” or the president informs everyone to pray.  There might even be implications that  God is angry and thus causing the potential destruction, usually from the mouth of a crazy, homeless street preacher.  However, in Hollywood’s latest apocalyptic blockbuster, Knowing, the religious implications play a more prominent, if still uncertain, role.

Knowing tells the story of John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), a fifty-something astrophysicist at MIT whose son receives a mysterious page full of numbers when his elementary school unearths a fifty-year-old time capsule.  In a drunken stupor (John is still mourning the death of his wife), he decodes the numbers and realizes that they reveal the day, location, and body count of every major natural or man-made disaster over the past fifty years.  However, a sequence of remaining numbers leads him to believe that a series of events have yet to occur, but will do so in the days ahead.

The film is laced with theological and religious implications.  First, Koestler asks his students to write about determinism vs. randomness in the universe.  The film lets us know that he believes “shit just happens.”  Of course, this no doubt contradicts with his father’s worldview who is a minister about which we know very little.  Second, the girl who left the letter in the time capsule, Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), grows up to be obsessed with those numbers.  We also learn that she was obsessed with a picture of Ezekiel receiving a prophecy from God.  Those who know their scripture will readily recall Ezekiel 33.  Finally, we have these mysterious strangers who haunt John’s son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury).  Are they aliens or angels?  Before I continue, a word of warning:  SPOILERS ahead.

As John continues his investigation, he realizes that the last series of numbers signals the end of the earth.  He has previously predicted a heat burst from the sun that will scorch the planet.  We quickly learn that the strangers/aliens are not a threat to John and his son, but are rather protecting Caleb and his friend Abby (also played by Robinson), Lucinda’s granddaughter.  As the earth’s destruction approaches, the strangers/aliens shed their earthly skin to reveal their true, (literally) blue nature.  A gaseous substance does everything it can to not turn into wings.  They take Caleb and Abby into an orb and transport them to a new planet, dropping them off in a glowing wheat field that surrounds a radiant tree.  We could debate the angelic nature of the strangers, but compounded with the orb that resembles the one in the picture of Ezekiel and God, it is hard to miss this point.  Furthermore, the Edenic overtones at the end of the film make it impossible to rule out some sort of Divine presence or intention in the narrative.

The problem with Knowing is not that it uses religion, it’s that it doesn’t seem to know how to use it.  The veiled references to John’s father’s vocation, the image of Ezekiel without any explanation, the pseudo-angels, and the tree of knowledge/life become distractions in a film that doesn’t necessarily need religion.  Why the religious inclusions if they are not going to play a larger role in the plot…why not leave them out altogether and make it simply an alien invasion?  Instead, watching the film feels as if you are wrestling with the director, Alex Proyas, for two hours as he tries to decide what role these religious elements will actually play.  It seems like the director might respond to the “are you religious?” question with “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if you have a well-articulated concept of spirituality and religion.  Unfortunately, the film has neither.

There’s an interesting discussion taking place at Rober Ebert’s (one of the few critics who didn’t pan the film) blog about the nature of free will vs. determinism inspired by the film.

Also, check out the chapter on the apocalypse and film in Conrad Ostwalt’s Secular Steeples:  Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination.

Knowing (121 mins.) is rated PG-13 for disaster sequences (fueled by great special effects), disturbing images, and brief strong language and is in theaters everywhere.