Knowing (2009)

This review includes full spoilers. Proceed accordingly. For other movie reviews from me, click HERE:

Subscribers: We have to let everyone know.
Dusty: They will know. The announcement will come anytime now. That is the purpose to all this. Why else would I write this review about the end of the world?

Rating: PG-13
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Ryne Douglas Pearson (screenplay & story), Juliet Snowden (screenplay), Stiles White (screenplay)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, Lara Robinson, D.G. Maloney
Release Date: March 20, 2009
Run time: 2 hours, 1 minutes


via wiki:

In 1959, a Lexington, Massachusetts elementary school celebrates its opening with a competition in which students draw what they believe will happen in the future. All the children create visual works except for Lucinda Embry. Guided by whispering voices, Lucinda fills her paper with a series of numbers. Before she can write the final numbers, the allotted time for the task expires, and the teacher collects the students’ drawings. The following day, Lucinda engraves the remaining numbers into a closet door with her fingernails. The works are stored in a time capsule and opened fifty years later when the current class distributes the drawings among the students. Lucinda’s paper is given to Caleb Koestler, the nine-year-old son of widowed MIT astrophysics professor John Koestler.

John discovers that Lucinda’s numbers are dates, death tolls, and geographical coordinates of major disasters over the past fifty years, including the Oklahoma City bombing, the September 11 attacks, and Hurricane Katrina, and three have yet to happen. In the following days, John witnesses two of the three final events in person: a plane crash and a New York City Subway derailment caused by a faulty siding. John becomes convinced that his family has a significant role in these incidents: his wife died in one of the earlier events, while Caleb was the one to receive Lucinda’s message. Meanwhile, Caleb begins hearing the same whispering voices as Lucinda.

John tracks Lucinda’s daughter Diana and her granddaughter Abby to prevent the last event. After some initial disbelief, Diana goes with John to Lucinda’s childhood home, where they find a copy of Matthäus Merian‘s engraving of Ezekiel’s “chariot vision”, in which a great sun is represented. They also discover that the final two digits of Lucinda’s message are not numbers but two reversed letter E’s, matching the message left by Lucinda under her bed: “Everyone Else,” implying an extinction-level event. During the search, Caleb and Abby, who were left asleep in the car, have an encounter with the beings who are the source of the whispers. Diana tells John that her mother had always told her the date she would die. He also visits Lucinda’s teacher, who despite showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, tells him of the scratching on the door left by Lucinda.

A copy of Matthäus Merian‘s engraving of Ezekiel’s “chariot vision” (1670), which the film’s protagonists interpret as an announcement of the end of the world.

The next day, Abby colors in the sun on the engraving, which gives John a revelation. He rushes to the MIT observatory and learns that a massive solar flare with the potential to destroy all life will strike the Earth on the last date indicated by the message. As Diana and Abby prepare to take refuge in nearby caves, John goes to the school and finds the door on which Lucinda engraved the final numbers. He identifies them as coordinates of a place where he believes they may find salvation from the solar flare. The skeptical and hysterical Diana loads Caleb and Abby into her car and flees for the caves.

At a gas station, the whispering beings steal Diana’s car with Caleb and Abby inside. Diana pursues them at high speed in a stolen SUV but is killed in a collision with a semi-truck on the date her mother predicted. The beings take Caleb and Abby to Lucinda’s mobile home, where John encounters them shortly thereafter. The beings, acting as extraterrestrial angels, are leading children to safety on interstellar arks. John is told he cannot go with them because he never heard the whispering, so he convinces Caleb to leave with Abby and two pet rabbits they found. Both are transported away by the beings, and the ark, along with many others, leaves Earth.

The following morning, John decides to be with his family when the flare strikes and drives through chaotic Boston to his parents’ house, where he reconciles with his estranged father. The solar flare then strikes, destroying all life on Earth. Meanwhile, the ark, along with others, deposits Caleb and Abby on another world resembling an earthly paradise and departs. The two run through a field towards a large white mysterious tree, resembling the tree of life.


Knowing is one of the best sci-fi apocalypse movies I’ve ever seen, though it is definitely not for the faint of heart. It is emotionally intense, well-acted, and tightly paced. The cinematography is excellent, as is the score – which effectively builds a sense of dread throughout. An apocalypse movie is nothing new, but the story here puts a unique spin on the genre in the way that it combines science, religious beliefs, and other-worldly beings, with time capsules, secret codes that need to be solved, and an MIT professor who knows what is coming but lacks the capacity to act on his knowledge. It is essentially a sci-fi version of a “rapture” story, but with less moral clarity and fewer answers.

Knowing what’s coming presents one core question that makes this movie great. What would you do if you knew when and how the world was ending? John Koestler (Nic Cage) has to answer this question. Initially, he tries to avert the disaster, but he fails and concludes that no one can stop what is coming. From there, he hopes for the salvation of his son and he works to find reconciliation with his estranged father and achieves both. The whole thing is touching, heart-breaking, ominous, and beautiful, all under the darkest and worst of circumstances.

Another large question posed by the story is whether the universe has a determined destiny, or whether things just kind of happen at random. A too shallow viewing might lead one to believe that the film answers its own question and lands on the answer of design and fate. However, that easy answer relies on a narrow focus on Caleb and Abby’s lives (as well as the others who make it onto “arks.”) What are we to make of the lives and destinies of “everyone else”? You have to answer that for yourself. We, as the audience, do not know why those who were saved were selected. Was it something they did? Was it random? Why did they hear the whispers when no one else did?

Picking some nits from this movie, I will point out that some of the special effects look a little dated. The plane crash sequence early on looked computer generated, though not so badly so that it took me out of the story. The subway attack aged similarly. This is just an unavoidable reality when watching a movie this old. That said, these were minor imperfections born from the age of the film, and not a meaningful problem with the movie itself. Overall, Knowing still looks great.

The other nitpick is in the numbers that Lucinda placed in the time capsule. There are disasters around the world all the time. Those numbers from the note seem very specifically tailored to pique the interest of Koestler (or, perhaps an American movie audience in 2009.) On the other hand, perhaps they were intentionally tailored to a specific audience, given the role John Koestler plays in the film’s resolution. It appears to have ben the goal of the beings to save Koestler’s son, and the girl Abby, and in order for that to happen, John Koestler needed to pick up on the clues from Lucinda’s time capsule note as quickly as possible. Who is to say that these beings did not whisper numbers to Lucinda knowing John Koestler would need to care about them? It is not spelled out, but I do not think that’s an inference that asks too much of the audience.

There are weird aspects of the film which invite speculation. The aliens (or whatever they are) communicate by whispers. Why? It appears that this is how they selected who could go with them. The form of communication seems to be an allusion to the way God is said to communicate in the Bible.

1 Kings 19: 11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?

A reference to God’s interaction with Elijah fits the story, given the fact Elijah is described as leaving earth, without dying, in a fiery chariot. The film also refers overtly to Ezekiel 1’s “wheels within wheels” passage. The craft the two children leave on looks vaguely like the one described in Ezekiel.

Near the end of the film, the beings give Caleb and Abby rabbits, without explanation. The meaning is unclear, though like some of the other oddities from the story, it seems to harken to the Bible, this time the Book of Genesis. We might infer a couple of things from this gift. First, as the rabbits are associated with reproduction, the beings might be communicating to the two children that they are to multiply and fill their new world. Second, the giving of animals to care for is a way to communicate that they are to be in charge of animals in their new world. Since we seem to have seen other crafts making this journey, perhaps other humans had different animals. In total, we seem to be getting a mashup of Noah’s story and the Garden of Eden story.

The movie makes its Genesis allusions most clear at the end. In a beautifully shot scene, as the movie ends, Caleb and Abby, with rabbits in tow, set foot in their new world. It looks like a paradise. As we see their own ship leaving, and other ships leaving the planet’s sky at a distance, the two children look up at an enormous tree in the distance. The tree resembles the depiction of the Tree of Life.

The interesting thing, as the audience, is that this is neither clearly a happy nor a sad ending. It’s both hopeful and ominous. The scenery is gorgeous but the sky is gray. The allusion to the Garden of Eden provides both a sense of restoration and a sense of dread – with the history from our own time working as baggage to cause worry. We are required to interpret the scene and settle on a meaning ourselves. I suspect that your feelings about humanity will dictate your levels of good or bad feeling, when presented with the idea of starting over.

The critics and audiences generally did not enjoy this movie in 2009. Rotten Tomatoes summarizes the reception in the following way:

Knowing has some interesting ideas and a couple good scenes, but it’s weighted down by its absurd plot and over-seriousness.

Is it odd that a movie about the apocalypse would face criticism for being “over-serious”? I wonder if the world has gone through enough serious moments together since 2009 to merit a change in this sentiment?

Not all of the reviews were bad, though. Roger Ebert really enjoyed it and rated it highly.

“Knowing” is among the best science-fiction films I’ve seen — frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome. In its very different way, it is comparable to the great “Dark City,” by the same director, Alex Proyas. That film was about the hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit, and so is this one.

I land on the same side of this debate as Ebert. I loved the movie and I fully recommend it. Maybe humanity just needed to stand a little closer to the edge of oblivion (WW3, global pandemics, AI, etc.) to appreciate the message.

Have you seen Knowing? If so, what did you think?

2 thoughts on “Knowing (2009)

  1. I saw this movie many years ago, but your review makes me want to see it again. I especially like what you wrote about fate, whispers, rabbits, and “over-seriousness.” I have noticed more and more that current action and sci-fi movie-makers seem to feel obligated to throw some degree of humor into their work; this can be done well, as in the wonderful original Indiana Jones trilogy, but if done poorly, it can leave viewers with a bad taste in their mouths.

    1. Thanks for this great comment! I’m glad you liked the review, and I agree about sense of apparent obligation to inject humor from recent movie-makers. It is tricky to do it well and I’d rather see humor left out altogether than to have it added poorly. It’s okay to just let weighty things be weighty.

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