Further Semiologies of Science Fiction
21 July 2009
Knowing as a Science Fiction Fairy Tale
Last weekend I watched the recent film Knowing, which is apparently quite popular as after I picked it off the shelf at the video rental store I saw that it was identified as the most popular rental. I haven’t been following films much recently, however, so I was completely unaware of this film and really had no idea what to expect from it.
On a cinematic level, it showed the dazzling visual imagination that we have come to expect from contemporary film. I once said to a friend of mine, who was bemoaning the state of contemporary cinema, that since American films had gone so far in the direction of visual spectacle at the expense of anything that could be called plot or characterization, that he should be optimistic because things can only get better from this point. My friend remained unconsoled by this observation, and perhaps he was right to resist my blandishments on the future of film. While I may yet be proved right, I left unanswered the question of how long we would have to wait for a renaissance of film.
The screenplay had some serious weaknesses. For example, the scene near the beginning of the film when the Nicholas Cage character is giving a lecture was botched. The script writers here were punching way over their weight class, which led to an incoherent exposition of some of the ideas that would figure in the film. Probably few will notice this, but it is a weakness nevertheless.
There were many implicit internal references to other films. For example, having a few people called to be taken away by space aliens looks back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The final scenes of the end of the world were strongly reminiscent of the disaster scenes in Deep Impact, only with fire instead of water. And leading up to the end of the world the gathering of the family of the protagonist just before the fire (or water) levels everything is again parallel to Deep Impact.
The film begins in the vein of classic horror conventions, and since I knew nothing about the film when I began to watch it, I assumed the whole thing would be essentially a horror flick, which is to say that the strange and unaccountable events that occur would be supernatural in origin, and that the action of the film would be confined to human beings on the surface of the earth. I was wrong in making this assumption, and later when I watched the film again and listened to the director’s commentary he clearly identified the work as a science fiction film.
But the metaphysics of the film, like the exposition in the lecture mentioned above, is deeply confused. On the one hand, the fact that the malevolent whispering strangers turn out to be space aliens, who will selectively rescue a very few people from the coming catastrophe, gives a completely naturalistic explanation for the whispering characters and the eventual fate of those to whom they whisper. These weren’t “spirits” or ghosts after all, only people with a higher technology than ours and therefore able to do things that appeared magical (or malevolent) to us.
The initial plot device of the film — the long list of highly specific predictions of disasters, with exact coordinates and number of fatalities — cannot be accounted for in any naturalistic way, however. Nor can the vision of a burning forest and its burning animals be easily reconciled with naturalism. No matter how high the technology of another species, predicting the future with that degree of accuracy is not a naturalistic undertaking but a supernaturalistic undertaking. This is prophecy and vision, not technology.
Of course we can find ways around this. For example, we could posit that the space aliens have time travel, and so forth and so on, but the further we go in this direction the more we violate the principle of parsimony. This definitely isn’t the simplest explanation. And filmmakers, whatever their conception of metaphysics, understand if anyone understands the imperative of economy. Contemporary American films are ruthlessly and rigorously cut down to the essentials of the story (except for the director’s cuts), and Ockham’s razor could as well be a maxim of the film editor as of scholastic nominalism.
So the world-view of the film is fundamentally flawed, or at least confused. This is a film that wants to embody what I called the naturalistic conception in Semiotics of Science Fiction, but which irredeemably incorporates elements of the poetic conception, i.e., plot devices that cannot be reduced to any naturalistic mechanism. So we see that Knowing straddles the dichotomy that I made between naturalistic and poetic conceptions, and so may be considered a science fiction fairy tale. It is interesting to observe, again in connection with what I wrote in Semiotics of Science Fiction, that the very fact of a science fiction fairy tale confirms that the science fiction genre has become just another setting for a story and is no longer a setting that determines the narrative or its moral. But when I wrote that, I did not have in mind the possibility of a science fiction fairy tale.
The fairy tale feeling of the film is underscored by the terror of the end of the world (where would a fairy tale be without a truly terror-inducing sequence?) and the almost surreal ending in which the young children are set down on an idyllic world, an untouched and uncorrupted world, where they will presumably, like the rabbits they brought with them, be fruitful and multiply. In the end, the prince and the princess are brought together and live happily every after.
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