Atheists may be a bunch of godless heathen infidels, but they really deserve better than the bum rap they’ve been getting in Hollywood flicks such as Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage and now available on DVD . . .

[Warning: This article contains plot spoilers. If you haven’t seen Knowing yet and intend seeing it, then stop reading now.]

Knowing kicks off in 1959 with a primary school kid named Lucinda who “hears” voices. Lucinda is an odd outsider and when the kids in her class are told to draw pictures of what they imagine the future to be like in 50 years’ time, she doesn’t draw a bunch of rocket ships on their way to long weekends on the moon and commuters with jetpacks on their backs (they were a lot more optimistic about the future in the 1950s). Nope, Lucinda just fills up her entire page with random numbers.

You’d think that the teacher would insist that she draw something nice instead seeing as all the pictures are to be sealed in a time capsule, which will be re-opened in fifty years’ time, but no. Lucinda’s page joins the rest of her class mate’s drawings.

Fast forward to 2009. The time capsule is re-opened and the drawings are distributed amongst children currently enrolled at the school. Lucinda’s paper is given to Caleb Koestler, played by the 10-year-old Chandler Canterbury. Note Caleb’s very biblical name. According to Wikipedia Caleb was the son of Jephunneh and is “an important figure in the Hebrew Bible, noted for his faith in God.”

There are loads of Koestlers, but the best-known one is without a doubt Arthur Koestler – the prolific writer who is probably best remembered today for dropping out of the German Communist Party in 1938 and writing several tracts expressing his disillusionment with Communism thereafter. In 1983 – terminally ill with leukemia – he and his wife committed suicide together. Koestler was an atheist.

Caleb’s dad is John Koestler, an astrophysicist who teaches at the local college. Nicolas Cage – who is reportedly in tax difficulties with the IRS, which explains why he is appearing in so many movies nowadays (he needs the money!) – plays John. Cage’s performances usually tend to be maniacal and frenetic. After all, who can forget his over-the-top “we’re Italian – famous for singing, eating and making love!” speech in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?

"Nic Cage's character tells his students that 'I think shit just happens. But that's me . . .'"

Cage’s performance in Knowing however veers towards the other extreme: he is positively catatonic throughout Knowing. This is not a criticism however. One can understand Cage’s performance choice. After all, John Koestler has recently lost his wife in a senseless, random manner involving a hotel fire. (On a business trip she suffocated to death in her hotel room. John – oblivious to it all – was sweeping leaves at home.)

When we meet John we know that he is in mourning because he spends a lot of time listening to classical music, in particular Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, and as we know from previous movies “happy” people never listens to classical music. (An example? In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report the cop played by Tom Cruise who is distraught by the disappearance of his son also listens to a lot of classical music. Tchaikovsky and Schubert in this case.)

Early on in the movie Cage’s character explains the difference between determinism and randomness to his students. Determinism means that everything has been predetermined somehow and that there are no coincidences. It is usually a religious argument: God has a Plan (capital letter ‘P’) for us all. We may not know what it is, but He does have one. To illustrate the case for Determinism, Cage asks why is it that Earth is exactly the right distance from the sun for life to have evolved, unlike the other planets in our solar system which are either too close or too far away. Coincidence? Or divine plan?

On the other hand we have the irreligious “everything is random” argument. There may be natural laws governing our everyday existence (such as gravity), but everything is purely random. Such as for instance John’s wife dying in the hotel room. There is no Grand Plan and there probably is no God either. For adherents of this theory, all religion is built on coincidence. When one of his students asks what he believes, John replies: “I think shit just happens. But that's me . . .”

(Another famous adherent to the “shit happens” school of thought is Rorschach in the original 1987 Watchmen graphic novel. He tells his shrink that “existence is random, has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.” In the movie he comes across as less extreme: “You see, Doctor, God didn't kill that little girl. Fate didn't butcher her and destiny didn't feed her to those dogs. If God saw what any of us did that night he didn't seem to mind. From then on I knew... God doesn't make the world this way. We do.”)

Instead of throwing away the page filled with seemingly random numbers, one night whilst boozing and listening to Beethoven (we told you that in Hollywood happy people don’t listen to classical music!) Cage’s character realizes that the numbers aren’t really random at all. They are in fact dates of major disasters over the past 50 years followed by a body count number and some handy Latitude and Longitude co-ordinates.

For a skeptic, John is quickly convinced that a mentally disturbed girl from the late-1950s did somehow manage to predict the future. “I know how this sounds,” he tells a colleague, “but I've mapped these numbers to the dates of every major global disaster from the last 50 years in perfect sequence. Earthquakes, fires, tsunamis... The next number on the chain predicts that tomorrow, somewhere on the planet, 81 people are going to die, in some kind of tragedy.”


Next: "Sir, (a + bⁿ /n = x. Therefore God exists!"




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