Film review: Better off not Knowing

Another film review! after months of not seeing any films at the cinema I seem to be getting back into the habit, and looking forward to seeing In The Loop, State Of Play and Star Trek sometime soon. But before that, sadly, there is … Knowing.

I saw this film on its opening weekend, and didn’t know that much about it; but we fancied seeing a film and it was the only thing on that appealed enough to get us into the cinema on that particular day. In hindsight, what this proves is: do the research, read the reviews, and don’t act on impulse!

A caution: this piece contains SPOILERS about the film. It can’t be helped if I’m to say what I think about the film with any kind of clarity; and it’s why I’ve held off writing this review for a few weeks, so that most people who are going to see it will already have done so.

The film is basically about a number sequence that is found in a school’s time capsule, that when decoded seems to predict all the major disasters that have happened in the last 50 years including (inevitably) the World Trade Center attacks. In fact, 9/11 looms large over this entire film, which appears to be another Hollywood contribution to the great psychiatric counselling of a traumatised nation, because the message seems to be: 9/11 wasn’t our fault, couldn’t have been avoided – look, it was foretold! Even if we’d known, we couldn’t have done anything to stop it.

This is one of a number of troubling and frankly off-putting aspects of the film. Very early on, a scene in a lecture hall sets up the film’s underlying premise – that this is about science versus faith. The lead character (played by Nicolas Cage, an actor that I have never seen the appeal of in any role) is a scientist, and it’s pretty clear from the start that he’s lost and on the wrong track. Which means you can pretty much rely on the story arc being about how he is able to “put aside science” and recover his faith.

Hmm. I can’t begin to tell you my problems with this. It’s not that I’m anti-faith, but I do resent it when science is painted as the way to the devil. As someone with a science background, I take that rather poorly. Oh, and when I say “faith”, what I more accurately mean is “American Bible-belt evangelist faith” so that anyone non-Christian (or even just non-American) is probably going to be irked by this film too.

And unfortunately that’s what the rest of the film is all about. It becomes a thuddingly obvious religious parable, and you can see where it’s going and how it will end from about half an hour into the film. So not only did I resent the totally unsubtle “science bad, faith good” message being drummed out, I also resented the fact that it was a crashingly dull obvious religious parable.

In fact it plays like an M. Night Shyamalan. Not one of the good ones, but one of the later, really bad ones. It has that same ploddingly slow pace where everything is given weight and portent in a realistic setting, before switching into the “sting in the tale” revelation. The film could easily have been half the length and got us to the same place; it might have worked as a decent Twilight Zone episode, for example.

But I’m painting an all-bad view of the film, and the sad fact is … It’s just not that bad. If it were worse then it would be possible to laugh at it and poke fun and exit the theatre in gales of laughter. Some people (like Colin Murray on Radio 5 Live) have dubbed this “the worse film I’ve ever seen” in which case I envy them, because I’ve seen many far worse films in my time and they’ve clearly had a charmed upbringing in the movie theatre. Instead it’s just dull, and obvious, and pretentious, and poe-faced – so that it’s not possible even to get some fun out of the proceedings.

There are nonetheless a couple of highlight moments. The first disaster witnessed first hand by Nic Cages’s character comes out of the blue and is quite shocking considering the slow realism up to that point, and has some of the visual flair and style we’d come to expect from I, Robot director Alex Proyas. At that point you hope the film will finally pick up and kick into life, but it never really does. There’s a good sequence on the New York subway, and the scenes toward the end (with chaos, flames and explosions happening on the horizon or almost out of frame) are effective, but it’s really meagre reward for having sat through whole dull sections.

Regardless of your feelings about faith and science (and this might well just be a particular sore point of mine that not too many other people will share when viewing the film), it’s also cluttered with lots of other unanswered questions and bad writing. What are the black pebble calling cards all about, for example? Why does Rose Byrne’s character completely change literally mid-scene on three occasions just to further the plot? And what’s the point of Nic Cage’s character anyway since he achieves precisely nothing in the plot? (I had to fight hard not to write that last sentence as “And what’s the point of Nic Cage?”)

And finally, having gone on about this film being about rapturous faith, the film does something which you can argue is either quite smart (in that it avoids the non-Christians from being totally alienated) or a complete betrayal. The climax supports alternate readings: one a very religious reading of the end of the world; and the other a science fiction version involving ET and space ships. It really is quite odd. By this point, the faithful will doubtless already have complete certainty of what’s going on and the possible extra-terrestrial version won’t occur to/bother them in the slightest. Whereas the ET version is less convincing, with the aliens … Let’s be honest, they develop a suggestion of CGI wings. Not unlike angels.

And at the end there is a new paradise. A garden of eden, you might call it. There are fields of wheat, and a tree that – you might be forgiven for thinking – is an apple tree. I think you can see where this is all going, and the truth is that it’s been obvious since the first half hour featured a prophetic dream featuring flames consuming a forest, and burning animals stampeding toward camera.

It was when we saw the burning (CGI) stag that I turned to the person I was with, and we agreed: after the film, let’s have steak and celebrate the end of the world in style.


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