April 24, 2008

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Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (PG)
“Darwinists” will destroy everything good about life, so argues Ben Stein in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a histrionic documentary about the intelligent design debate.

I might be employing a bit of hyperbole with that statement, but also maybe not. Stein makes the argument that belief in Darwinian evolution led to Nazism (or at least, that such a belief is necessary for Nazism to take hold). He suggests that it leads to atheism and, through musical score and dark lighting, that Darwinism sets the human soul adrift in a void.

OK, some of that probably is exaggeration. But with this movie, it’s hard to tell.

Stein’s documentary, shot in the style of a Michael Moore movie and full of cutesy music and stock footage, begins by looking at the cases of scientists and teachers at various institutions who found their jobs on the line or found themselves unemployed after teaching/writing/talking about intelligent design. What, exactly, did they say? We don’t know. Nor are we ever really told what intelligent design is or how it is different than a religious belief. Roughly the closest the film gets to a definition: intelligent design means that the development and/or existence of everything in the natural world (humans included) was guided by a designer. But who or what is the designer? What are the questions they seek to answer by studying it? What would scientific inquiry on the idea of intelligent design look like? What processes and measurements would it entail? The movie doesn’t say. Stein, for all his aw-shucks I-just-have-an-innocent-question posing, never gets around to asking the most mild possible questions. (And, for the record, I’m not being a wise guy with my questions here. If you say that your theory is rooted in science, as these people kinda claim, then explain it. Or, admit that it’s just your religious belief.)

Though the movie gives some lip service to intelligent design not being a way to sneak religion into schools, the movie gives us nothing else to fill the definition but creationism. Even if you want to pretend you’re an open-minded viewer (let’s face it, I’m not and neither are you — we both know when we go into this movie what we believe) the movie doesn’t give you enough information, however stilted, to let you for a moment take it seriously even on its own ground.

After using dramatic lighting and his monotone Visine voice to attempt to stir up indignation on behalf of the people who are just trying to ask questions, Stein (who, via stock footage of old Soviet leaders and Soviet military parades, not-so-subtly compares proponents of evolution — you know, most of the scientific community — to communists throughout the movie) starts in on the Nazi thing. Comparing your opponent to a Nazi has always seemed a cheap juvenile trick, particularly in this case where the Darwinism = atheism = Nazism equation seems to beg the question, hasn’t plenty of badness been perpetrated by people who claimed a particular god on their side? (See also: the history of the world for the last 20 years or even the history of the world from Moses through now.) After that Nazi cliché, Stein plays a medley of anti-evolution hits, linking it to communism, abortion, euthanasia and Planned Parenthood (whose founder did indeed have some bona fide nutcase ideas). Again — plenty of misery in those subjects, but it seems disingenuous to blame all the troubles of the world on the discovery that we all have some hairy ancestors. What of religion? Of class? Of political leaders who make dumb decisions (is it unfair to point out here that Stein worked for Richard Nixon?)? You can argue that Michael Moore simplifies his arguments and leaves out some opposing views but he doesn’t ask the questions with such determined myopia.

Which is all a way of saying that Expelled is ultimately a boring and hackily produced bit of entertainment and a failed piece of political argument. Forget evolution in the natural world for a moment — shouldn’t documentaries have evolved beyond this? F

Rated PG for thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking. Directed by Nathan Frankowski and written by Kevin Miller, Walt Ruloff and Ben Stein, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is an hour and 30 minutes long and is distributed in wide release.