In Knowing, which opens in theaters today, Nicolas Cage plays an astrophysics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). If you can accept that, your suspension-of-disbelief levels may be sufficient for the fiction portion of this slab of science fiction.

View a slide show of images from the film

As for the science portion, the film gets off to a more promising start. The first time we see Professor John Koestler (Cage), he's peering through a telescope at the rings of Saturn and talking exoplanets and the odds of extraterrestrial life with his young son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury).

Soon we're whisked into an M.I.T. classroom, where Koestler holds court with his students on the "Goldilocks" zone, the band of space around a star like the sun where liquid water can exist and life can flourish on an orbiting planet—the zone where Earth just happens to reside. Or does it? Koestler dives into a meditation on randomness versus determinism, in a soliloquy that foreshadows the heft of the plot. He sides with randomness ("there is no grand meaning, there is no purpose") and, we later learn, can't abide the divine Providence preferred by his pastor father. As he tells his students, "I think shit just happens."

That philosophy is tested when Caleb brings home a sheet of paper from 1959, fresh out of his elementary school's time capsule, covered with a string of numbers. Those numbers, Koestler discovers, foretell every major man-made and natural disaster to befall the world in the intervening 50 years—9/11, Lockerbie, Katrina—and a few more just about to hit. (The professor uncovers this fact almost immediately—cryptography buffs will be disappointed in how transparently the meaning is encoded in the numbers.)

The film's overarching tug-of-war between randomness and fate is hardly a chance occurrence itself. Director Alex Proyas (Dark City; The Crow; I, Robot) told a group of reporters earlier this month at a New York City press event that with Knowing, he "wanted to make a film that asked a lot of questions and showed you different sides of the perspectives." Proyas adds that he sees merit in both sides of the divide—"the scientific viewpoint of the logical construct of the universe and the one of faith, where people see this incredibly complex place we live in and go, 'Well, how could this have all just happened randomly?'" Proyas calls himself "a confused guy searching for some sort of meaning" who hasn't yet found any answers.

Swayed by his son's deterministic document, Koestler rushes to share his existential angst with an M.I.T. colleague and friend, brash cosmologist Phil Beckman (Ben Mendelsohn). (Earlier in the film, Beckman refers to a potential love interest for the widowed Koestler as "P–h–double-Ds.") Beckman accuses his co-worker of losing his scientific nerve, invoking numerology, Pythagorean cults and Kabbalah. "There are systems that find meaning in numbers," he says, "and they are dime a dozen."

Koestler and Beckman's hardwired aversion to the notion of fate is dashed when the first of the document's predicted tragedies unfolds just as foretold; that's also when the science of the film begins to give way to a decidedly more mystical bent involving a band of silent, slender, Aryan-looking "strangers" and a mystifying pair of apparently symbolic rabbits. (An homage to the mathematician-penned Alice in Wonderland?)

"What science asks us to do is not to see structure where structure doesn't exist," Proyas says. "That's called superstition." But being an artist and not a scientist, he says, "I'm a little uncertain about that point of departure, and I like that area of question and confusion." For the many proponents of randomness, reaching that point of departure in Knowing just means helping oneself to another handful of popcorn and falling back on that finely cultivated suspension of disbelief.