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Oct 2020

Knowing

He said only the chosen must go, those who have heard the call. – Caleb Koestler in Knowing

For many are called, but few are chosen. – Jesus in Matthew 22:14

I can’t go with you Caleb. They haven’t chosen us, Caleb, they’ve chosen you! – John Koestler in Knowing

No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father. – Jesus in John 6:65

Seldom does a movie leave me as unsettled and disturbed as my initial viewing of Alex Proyas’ Knowing did back in 2009. In fact, the only other movie that I can think of was David Fincher’s Seven. But revisiting this sci-fi film recently reminded me why people like the late Roger Ebert said that Director Alex Proyas’ Knowing is “among the best science-fiction films I’ve seen — frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome.” While I don’t consider the film as highly as Ebert did, Knowing is still a great movie, and one that I want to examine further as its larger than life themes really left an impression on me in 2009, and continue to do so today: themes such as predestination, the apocalypse, and the idea of “being chosen.” I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but will inevitably reveal some major spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, beware.

The protagonist in the film, MIT Professor John Koestler, is a man biased by a very personal loss. He is a man who has lost hope in anything save the investment in his son, and even that seems lacking. The film opens as he challenges the students in his class with contrasting theories of randomness and determinism. The deep tragic hole in Koestler’s life has led him to abandon any sense of determinism, or destiny, or fate, or higher order. He cannot see or accept any meaning in the loss of his wife, the mother of his young son.

Koestler’s bias is apparent in the ongoing silent standoff with his father, who is conveniently a Christian pastor. It’s also evident to the discerning viewer that Koestler isn’t truly wrestling with randomness or determinism, but the idea that a conscious mind, or entity (God?) is behind the scenes and involved in the decision that robbed him of his spouse. Koestler isn’t angry at his father, or at the universe, he simply doesn’t want to acknowledge the idea of an intelligent design.

Even the numerical premise that initially disturbs Koestler has an intelligent design subtext; the page of numbers he finds predicts “every major global disaster from the last 50 years in perfect sequence…” and soon the troubled teacher realizes it also “predicts that tomorrow…” grave events will occur. Where the numerical revelation came from, however, is not the schoolgirl who scribbled it. Something, or someone, fed the girl this information, and the shadowy characters in the dark outside Koestler’s home add fuel to his fears that somehow this cracks open the cosmological argument for the existence of an intelligent causal agent that is smart enough to know the alpha and omega of the human race.

  • Is there a beginning and end to the story of man?
  • Are we fated? Do we have a destiny?

 
Some of us love the notion of destiny when it involves romance or a deeper purpose for our suffering, but when we realize the full set of consequences (the impact on our will, on our desires, decisions, and direction), most of us chafe at being predestined; but here is a news flash, you can’t have it both ways. If you and your significant other were “destined” to be together, you’re not an autonomous agent with free will. For various reasons, related to fear, regret, independence (but ultimately control) we don’t want to be contingent beings. We don’t want to think we’re influenced and inclined, dependent, and certainly not fated. Under the guidance of an ordered hand sounds comforting, except we don’t like the idea of that hand pulling strings. However tight or loose we hold it; and however, and whatever we call it (wheels of fate, karma, cosmic justice, sovereignty), something in us though is still drawn to this idea.

Even within Christianity, there is a healthy tension and heated debate between predestination and “free will,” though it’s impossible to argue against scripture that makes it clear the biblical Creator is a God defined as one who predestines and appoints. A first century Christian hymn quoted in the book of Acts reads:

Acts 4:27–28
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

The oldest account in the Bible, Job, is about a man who suffers great loss like our character in Proyas’ film. In the narrative, he admits that God’s “eyes are on the ways of a man, and he sees all his steps.” Later, the powerful, rich and wise philosopher King Solomon took this one step further, asserting that “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Unveiling even more, Paul wrote “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So has the future been written? The idea of predestination is a theme that rings brightly throughout this film, and even our own human psyche, but another theme that also rings true is the notion of a world’s end.

Apocalyptic movies tend to be very formulaic, but something within these stories still resonates with people. The dead rising from the grave. The sky turning red as blood. A monster attacking New York. Straggling survivors seeking shelter and struggling to survive. Dogs and cats living together. Knowing Director Alex Proyas even says “[the apocalyptic theme] touches on something in our psyche that resonates in some way. It feels true.” From Steven King’s The Stand, to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; from Night of the Living Dead to I Am Legend, the apocalypse features prominently in our cultural landscape. Knowing, it seems, is just another film to show that there is still plenty of cataclysm left to go around.

  • What is it about end time scenarios that fascinate us?
  • Is our underlying fascination and dread regarding the end of the world just our own mortality projected (i.e. the end of my world)?
  • Or, is there something in us, as creatures of story and narrative that knows intuitively our world will end in fire and cataclysm?
  • Does our “knowing” run this deep, a chord struck within us where we know the story of life and this planet has an end?

 
A movie like Knowing plays on these fears, but before movies were proclaiming fears of global upheaval, the book of Revelation was trumpeting it louder:

Revelation 6:12–17
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

I think there is more here than our own personal mortality at play in these world ending scenarios. We might argue over whether it is the dead returning, or a global pandemic; but the point is, we have a spiritual connection to doomsday that must be addressed.

  • If there is an end-time event lurking in our spiritual understanding with world-ending consequences, how should we prepare?
  • Should we try to stop Armageddon?
  • Is there something we need to do?
  • Is there something we need to know?
  • Is there someone we need to know?

 
John Koestler assumes that he can, or should, do something to stop it; but what if that same force that has determined beginnings and endings has already determined a plan? What if we can’t stop it, yet we can be saved from it? I thought Knowing explored these ideas with a daring and bravery I found refreshing, not the naive optimism that pervades many movies and often provides a pat answer. Some reviews I read even found it blatantly Christian and railed against it for doing so. Even more, the film not only explores the idea of determinism and a pending apocalypse, but even touches down on the recurring theme of being “chosen.” Knowing is a film that uses sci-fi as a narrative vehicle to wrestle with God’s existence and the End of Days, and even goes the extra step to suggest that forces are in play calling people to a better place.

From The Last Starfighter to The Matrix, we have a shared passion for a story in which there is a world beyond this one; a resolute Morpheus calling us to wake up; a soft voice wooing us, or firm hand wrenching us out of the miasma of this existence; a Neverending Story where the bullies, and the cancers, and the fractured relationships, and the wars, and the heartaches cease. John Koestler has lost any faith he might have had. He turns down his sister offer to pray for him, and severs the relationship with his pastor father. His son, however, exhibits signs as the movie continues that suggest otherwise. Something is watching, something is calling, and something is drawing them, or at least some of them.

The silent figures that seem dangerous, yet protective, move through the landscape of Knowing with an obvious parallel to angels, though we’re not really certain of their intentions, or their benevolence. They are frightening in their resolution. We are certain they have their eyes on John’s son, as well as other children, which makes the silent stalker motif and parenting instincts kick in. Over the course of the film, however, the children become reassured that everything is alright.

This, in my opinion, is really where the film went the extra “gospel” step. If the film wanted to be sappy, everyone would get a free pass and a shiny new earth. The looting, and theft, and rebellion, and deceit, and misery causing, and everything else that is bottled up in our nightmarish nature, would get a pat on the head and paved over with a shiny new bicycle (RE: planet) courtesy of alien angels. Knowing dares to parallel the biblical idea that not everyone receives grace.

John Koestler follows a harrowing course and desires to protect his son, but discovers in the end that something greater than he was looking out for him. Tragically, this discovery is soured when he realizes that his child will be saved, but he will not. It’s a bitter pill the film makes us swallow, considering the fact that a sovereign hand is at work and determines who will be saved from the apocalypse. All three themes (predestination, apocalypse, and divine calling) spill out of the film as though John Calvin wrote the screenplay himself.

As with all great science fiction, Knowing makes us wrestle with haunting parallels to our reality.

  • What if we’ve lost our childlike faith?
  • What if there is a guiding hand?
  • What if the world will come to an end?
  • And what is the distinction between those who are called out of it, and those who aren’t?

 

At the end of the film, after the children are rocket-raptured up in an extra-terrestrial Ezekiel wheel, John drives back through the rioting, and mess of humankind, and returns to his pastor dad and hugs him sadly. As his father reassures him that this isn’t the end, we see the ultimate meaning of the film’s title.

John Koestler replies solemnly “I know”. The question is, do we?

Shelby out!

imagrs

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