This is a story of a widowed astronomy professor played by Nicolas Cage, who has a young son that receives upon a cryptic pattern of numbers from a grade school “time capsule” written by a young school girl fifty years earlier. Cage stumbles upon the key to the numbers as a prophecy of important disasters around the world and their death tolls for the next fifty years up until this very year, when it indicates everyone will die in the last catasrophe. He soon realizes that it is a prophecy of the end of the world that will occur from a freak solar super flare that will burn up all life on earth.
The story is Cage’s spiritual journey from one of unbelief to belief in a purposeful meaning to life. I am careful not to add “God” in the equation, because even though the movie uses Christian concepts and imagery, I believe a convincing argument can be made that the movie is ultimately a humanistic demythologizing of the Faith similar to what Stargate and Planet of the Apes did.
The story begins with Cage unable to get over his wife’s recent death. He masks his own unbelief when he tells his son that he never said there was no heaven, “but if you want to believe there is a heaven and mom is there, that’s fine.” Of course Cage’s statements about the size of the universe and how “we are all alone” indicates his real belief and we soon see him in class addressing the classic question of randomness versus determinism in the universe. He brings up the galaxy and the anthropic principle of how life is so finely tuned to the precision of the universe that some people say this indicates a purposeful design. When he concludes with the other view he indicates that it may all be chance, “the result of a complex yet inevitable string of complex biological mutations. There is no grand meaning, there is no purpose.” It’s clear, the death of his wife has brought him to this conclusion and when a student asks him what he thinks, he says, “I think shit just happens,” indicating his despair.
We also learn that Cage is estranged from his pastor father because of his father’s religious beliefs. Cage tells his sister not to pray for him. Meanwhile, Cage’s son, Caleb is being stalked by strange men in trenchcoats, as if they are waiting for just the right time. When Cage figures out the prophecy is about the solar super flare, he calls his religious pastor father and talks about the gift of prophecy and that the end is near. Cage brings his son to a safe place, only to discover the trenchcoat beings are angels, with what appears to be wings who shed their human disguise, and come from an object that resembles the spinning wheels of Ezekiel’s visions in the Bible (This Ezekiel passage is clearly referenced in the film). We hear the kid explain that he and others are “chosen” to be taken away to start a new world. “Only the chosen can go. Those who heard the call.” Obvious New Testament language. We then see Caleb and other children from around the earth “raptured” off the earth as the solar super flare burns up all life in an apocalyptic “judgment” scenario reminiscent of Revelation.
Cage explains that he now believes and knows that he will be in heaven with mom and Caleb someday. He drives out to his parent’s home, makes his reconciliation with them. Dad says, “This isn’t the end, son.” Cage replies, “I know,” and he is now spiritually reunited as they burn up in a ball of fire. We then see Caleb and another little girl arrive on a pristine new planet like an adolescent Adam and Eve and run over to a huge tree that is an obvious metaphor of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden spoken about in the Book of Revelation at the end of the world. At least this is what one interpretation of the Bible says it means. Anyway, the Christian imagery is blatant throughout the film, making this an outright Christian metaphor.
But is it a Christian worldview? Or is it a humanistic demythologizing of Christianity? I think that there is enough indication for one to argue that the “angels” were actually aliens in physical starships just as Stargate argued, making religion a superstitious interpretation of scientific facts. This of course is a very common cliché in movies ever since the book “Chariots of the Gods” in the 1970s that posited that the angelic manifestations in the Bible were actually “ancient astronauts” in flying saucers that were misinterpreted by ignorant religious people as spiritual beings. The fact that the “angels” in Knowing are in very physical spaceships seems to indicate this secularizing demythologizing. But of course, one may argue that it is simply the same “wheels within wheels” that Ezekiel saw in his heavenly vision (and pointed out in the movie), making it ultimately biblical. I think there is just enough ambiguity for either interpretation.
In the DVD special features a documentary about apocalypticism in history addresses it as an element of all religions and an anthropological phenomenon of coding society’s fear. An anthropologist claims that the nuclear age created the “Rapture theory” in the Bible and birthed the UFO craze out of our social fears. They try to show commonalities in all religions regarding the deity and destructive identity of the sun and then explain the scientific possibility of solar super flares. They end on the “alien mythology” of aliens bringing us out of our self destruction to give us another chance, so the documentary at least is more a demythologizing than a scientific support for religious belief.
The Director, Alex Proyas seems to deny the imagery used in the film as being exclusively Christian. He explains on the director’s commentary that to him, the Christian mythology in the film is a part of our cultural imagery, but are more symbolic shorthand for a “bigger story” of humanity coming to peace with its mortality and finding hope beyond it. Anthropologized faith. Proyas addresses the presence of physical spaceships in the film as aliens and that the Ezekiel vision would be exactly how an ancient religious person would interpret an alien. Proyas, claims he is definitely showing the religious impulse as an interpretation of scientific reality, yet was deliberately making it ambiguous so that anyone could bring their own interpretation to the imagery. When the interviewer exclaims that the religious interpretation (over the alien science one) is the central image of the story, Proyas balks and says that that is what the interviewer brought to the film, rather than the film exhibiting.
For Proyas, the meaning lies in Cage’s son surviving him as the hope of how we survive our mortality. Humanistic demythology. Proyas wanted the movie to be relative in its meaning to the viewer. He explicitly says he deliberately wanted the imagery to be ambiguous so that they could be interpreted as either angels or aliens. Angels or Aliens? You decide.