Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Knowing" the Sci-Fi Genre

Science-Fiction as a genre usually has two types of movies. The first is the conventional, big budget, special effects laden box office bait that aim at providing entertainment and discard the possibilities of interesting ideas and originality altogether. Among these are “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “The Core” and “Armageddon” among many many others. The human element here is either ignored or developed in a schmaltzy manner as seen in movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Deep Impact.” These are churned out in large numbers every year. While some hit the bull’s eye like “Independence Day,” others like “The Core” bite the dust and leave the studios poorer and the audiences unsatisfied.

However, thankfully, there is also the other kind of science fiction: one which is daring in its ideas and visionary in its approach. It is based on good science and treats its characters with respect and care rather than use them as an excuse for giving a headache inducing dose of special effects. It is the ideas of such movies which are appealing and not just their visuals. The most obvious example in this type is Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” While it was dull and supremely slow, the ideas in there were awe inspiring and its marriage of the scientific with the philosophical is unparalleled in cinema to date.

Of course, there are the occasional combinations of the two types that also work well. The immediate examples that come to mind are “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “Aliens.” There was imagination there that has triggered a number of inferior inspired films and proved to be timeless in terms of entertainment and imagination. However, films falling in the second and third category are few and far between. Therefore, an entrant in such a category is always a cause for celebration.

Recently, I had the opportunity of catching “Knowing” starring Nicholas Cage among others. The premise was intriguing and the man at the helm was Alex Proyas, the man behind the gutsy and visionary sci-fi noir, “Dark City” and the somewhat disappointingly mainstream “I, Robot.” These two factors were enough to make me interested. And thankfully, I was not disappointed. This was that rare film where the subject matter blew me away! Falling in the second category of sci-fi genre explained above, the movie is daring in its ideas and it lays bare the fragility of human existence without diminishing its value.

The premise is as follows: a school opens a time capsule it buried 50 years ago containing drawings by children of what they imagined the future to be and distribute it among the current students. One child gets a paper which has a seemingly random series of numbers written on it. On closer scrutiny, his father (Nicholas Cage), a professor at MIT, finds that the numbers match with the date and location of every major disaster of the last 50 years and the number of casualties in each. And it also has some dates of the future on which more disasters are to occur. He soon realises that his family and the family of the child who actually wrote the numbers are to play a significant role in determining the future of mankind.

The premise is intriguing although it sounds like a plot of a typical sci-fi – horror whodunit. And Alex Proyas does an excellent job of developing it. The atmosphere is cold and tense throughout, an aspect for which the movie has been faulted by many. However, I fail to see how the theme it chooses for itself could be explored in any other manner. In fact, the element of horror is exceptionally well established and demonstrates that one does not need ghosts or supernatural elements to really scare the crap of human beings. A mirror showing their fragility suffices. Also, Proyas, unlike most pedestrian filmmakers, never discounts the importance of human emotions and relationships that are central to the film. The relationship between the widower father and son is well explored and the film is actually moving towards the end, a rare feat in the sci-fi/horror genre.

I couldn’t help myself but compare it to my recent experience watching “Watchmen.” Both movies fall on two ends of the spectrum in terms of ideas. While “Watchmen” looks at the decadence of human nature as the primary cause of bringing human existence in danger, “Knowing” juxtaposes human existence with the infinity of the cosmos thereby laying bare its fragility and even irrelevance. Really, the world could come to an end tomorrow due to some remote cosmic event and there is nothing we could do about it. At the same time, Alex Proyas combines science fiction with biblical symbolism and religious ideas, themes and beliefs to really leave us with some serious food for thought. While it may be easy to dismiss it as preposterous, it is the preposterousness of it that is, in fact, most appealing. Proyas is unflinching in his vision and dares to take his ideas to their logical conclusion. The climax is a sight to behold and both the producer and the director must be lauded for having the guts to conclude the story like that. While such conclusions may have often featured in writings of great science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, (as a friend pointed it out to me) to see it mounted on this scale in a film is a rare delight.

Another aspect of the film that is breathtaking is its special effects. In today’s digital age, special effects are rarely special. While software can create almost any imagery one desires, most filmmakers/special effects teams lack the requisite vision to conceive and create visuals that are awe-inspiring and more than a mere a large scale reproduction of visuals created earlier. Alex Proyas was one of the pioneers in visual effects in “Dark City.” There were visuals there that are memorable even today. The transformations of the city, the climactic battle between the hero and the aliens and the finale were astounding. He brings similar vision to “Knowing” wherein there is a freshness brought to even the most used scenarios. The air crash and train accident sequences sent a chill down my spine with their realistic look. This is possibly because Proyas uses a mix of set design, stuntmen and CGI to create these scenes. The other scenes of destruction are also terrifying and authentic. The special effects in the final scenes involving the children are simply breathtaking in their vision. More than that, I do not wish to reveal.

Ultimately, however, despite its visual appeal, the primary aspect I am drawn towards is the ideas the film attempts to explore. They are a rare feature of mainstream cinema and Proyas displays a fair amount of intelligence in developing them. He may not be a Kubrick (which actually is in some ways, good), but he is a gifted storyteller with a knack to tell something original and distinct in every outing. His vision here results in a film that deserves respect, a claim few science fiction films can make.


  1. Hmm.. not sci-fi but a manga i read recently has a similar premise. A group of kids use their imagination to create a fictitious tale of how the Earth will be in danger from various means and how they will be the heroes who will save the world. When they grow older one of them uses these plans and makes the perils come true in a bid to gain power. Very interesting stuff.

  2. Sounds damn cool! But this one turns out quite differently. :) Do watch it!