March 24, 2009 -- “Knowing” is a massive science fiction film about knowing the future. It opens with college professor, John Koestler, (played by Nicholas Cage of “Next”) offering his students two views of causality and future events. In one view, the future is a series of random events, only loosely based upon the past, or as Elbert Hubbard famously said, “Life is just one damned thing after another.” In the other view, determinism, the future is based on cause and effect, going all the way back to the beginning of time. Koestler argues that if determinism is valid it means that there is meaning to existence. If the future is based on random events and chaos, then life has no meaning. If determinism (predestination) is valid, we ought to be able to predict the future by analyzing past causes and effects and projecting them into the future. Since that works so poorly (have you tried predicting the stock market or the NCAA basketball playoffs lately?), there must be something wrong with that theory. As I've noted in past reviews and essays, Hollywood has a strong bias in favor of determinism and this film reflects that bias, warts and all.
Trouble starts when Koestler's son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) gets some papers filled with numbers from a time capsule buried 50 years ago. The numbers were scribbled by a strange grade school girl, Lucinda Embry. When John Koestler examines the numbers, he finds they predict every major disaster that happened during the time the capsule was buried. The numbers predict the exact date of the event, the exact number of people killed and the exact geographical coordinates of the event. There are multiple problems with this, the main one being that such detailed advance knowledge would require actual time travel to achieve. The number of people killed, for instance, isn't necessarily the exact number of dead, which may never be known in a major disaster like an earthquake, conflagrations, massive explosions or the 9/11 attacks. The numbers provided in the film are the official government numbers as reported in the news media. The only way to know the official number as reported by the news media in advance is to somehow get that number in the future and transmit it back through time. This is impossible according to today's science.
Prophecy is a feature of all the major monotheistic religions, so many people are predisposed to believe at least in the possibility of such prophesies as those in the movie. Even some non-believers might alternatively buy into such nonsense as the prophesies of Nostradamus, or Jeane Dixon or other astrologers and sham artists. None of these, however, has ever provided predictions anywhere near as precise and detailed as those in this movie. Most so-called predictions, such as astrological predictions are the result of semantics, using words and phrases which seem to be specific, but are, in fact, quite general. Semantic tricks, coupled with the tendency of believers to selectively retain and discard predictive results according to their beliefs and to see patterns where none exist, have kept astrologers in money for hundreds of years. Then again, there is science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke's second and third laws of prediction, which state, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible,” and “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
John Koestler begins researching the numbers, which leads him to the daughter and granddaughter of Lucinda Embry, Diana (Rose Byrne of “28 Days Later”) and Abbey Wayland (Lara Robinson, who also plays Lucinda Embry in the movie). It turns out that these five people are intimately connected to events of earth-shattering importance. By the time the movie ends it has moved far beyond normal science to the realms of far-out science fiction. We see evidence of vastly advanced civilizations which may, indeed, be capable of the kinds of “magic” referred to by Arthur C. Clarke in his three laws of prediction. Prediction is what this film is all about. It predicts a future which rigidly and completely determined, but also a future in which life is valued and has meaning. It predicts a future when people put their own fears behind them and act courageously and selflessly to preserve their families and the future of mankind. I like that idea, even though I reject determinism. This film rates a B.
This discussion is about the end of the movie, so if you don't want to know that in advance, don't read further. The movie depicts the end of most life on earth due to a giant solar flare. This is possible, though probably not on the scale, and in the exact manner, depicted in the film. I recently saw another film about a solar disaster, “Sunshine” and it was quite different and much closer to impossibility (it depends on the existence and placement of a theoretical mass which dismantles the sun). The main loss of life from a super flare would not be immediate, but long term cancer caused by hard radiation. A super flare of the sun on September 1, 1859 destroyed an estimated five percent of the earth's ozone layer. It caused fires in telegraph stations due to electrical arcing in wires and equipment. The northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii. The 1859 Carrington super flare, the largest in the past 500 years, did not cause any major damage or immediate loss of life. It probably did cause a spike in cancer rates. I doubt that a solar flare would cause destruction on the scale shown in the movie, but it is remotely possible a massive super flare could cause significant damage and loss of life. Particularly vulnerable would be astronauts in space, passengers in high-flying aircraft and people living at high elevations. Depletion of the ozone layer would, in turn, increase the risk of skin cancer for several years. The movie also depicts children being transported to other worlds besides earth. This seems strange. Why not just return them to earth after the sun returns to normal? Maybe the aliens will do that at some later date. Another thing that bothered me was John Koestler being able to figure out what is going to happen with the super flare before anyone else does due to some vague solar research he did. Then he very accurately predicts what the government knows and when people will be informed. That is a huge stretch, but then again, maybe it is a part of the aliens master plan. It also bothered me that John gets left behind. Don't these aliens know that children need parents, human ones?
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