The Expelled Saga
Long before there were “the making of” specials and long before DVDs had extra material – in fact long before DVDs – Eleanor Coppola filmed her husband’s struggles to produce the movie Apocalypse Now and made it into an award-winning documentary called Hearts of Darkness. It was a fortuitous initiative given the calamities that befell the main production. Coppola mortgaged everything he had to finance the movie, Brando made inflexible contract demands and showed up grossly overweight, Sheen had a heart attack during filming, a monsoon wiped out their sets, the Philippine army helicopters were often diverted mid-shot to respond to rebel attacks, the script was iteratively written just prior to each day’s filming, and the production went significantly over schedule and over budget. What started as an interesting film project for her turned into a riveting movie.
The producers of the pro-intelligent design movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed should have been thinking along these lines. So many controversies and missteps have preceded the movie’s release this Friday (18 Apr 08) that a behind-the-scenes video could have been produced. And the resulting alternative revenue stream might have come in handy. Based on the reviews to date, it doesn’t seem like it will stand the same chance as Apocalypse Now of becoming a blockbuster.
Halden drew our attention to Expelled a couple of months ago. The rhetorical, Michael-Moore-styled documentary starring Ben Stein and financed by Canadian software entrepreneur Walt Ruloff aims to draw attention to academics who feel they have been persecuted for publicly supporting intelligent design. The movie claims that academic freedom is at risk because the scientific community does not countenance dissent from evolution and, more insidiously, that evolution erodes society by leading to atheism, euthanasia, abortion, eugenics and Nazism. In perhaps the first full cinematic application of Godwin’s law, Stein charges evolution with being responsible for the Holocaust.
I have to say that Stein’s true colours came as a surprise to me when I started following this story. After watching him in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Win Ben Stein’s Money and the Clear Eyes commercials, I considered him a bit of a brain with dry wit, but I guess looks can be deceiving. Julia Sweeney points out that his “smart guy” public persona has been carefully cultivated.
Wikipedia’s Expelled article has been comprehensively tracking the movie, its background and the events surrounding it for a while now. That site was joined yesterday (15 Apr 08) by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) website Expelled Exposed, which provides detailed scientific analysis and response to the movie’s claims. The site critiques the movie’s misrepresentations of evolution as unquestionable dogma and intelligent design as valid science. It also reviews the cases of each of the supposedly persecuted academics – Richard Sternberg, Guillermo Gonzalez, Caroline Crocker, Robert Marks, Pamela Winnick and Michael Egnor – each case reading like a disgruntled employee story, complete with misrepresented facts, conflated issues and imagined motives.
Many of these cases have been tracked and analyzed by the blogs Dispatches from the Culture Wars (Ed Brayton), Pharyngula (P.Z. Myers) and Stranger Fruit (John Lynch) as the cases were originally in the news. (See for example Dispatches: “Creating a Martyr: The Sternberg Saga Continues“)
The controversies and missteps referred to at the start of the post are the most amusing part of this ongoing story. Early on, the producers misled pro-evolution interviewees by inviting them to participate in a film called Crossroads, an apparently even-handed look at the “intersection between science and religion” in the area of evolution. Subsequently, the taped interviews were subjected to quote-mining and selective editing for the movie.
At pre-screenings, evolutionists were screened out or turned away at the theatre. Start times were deliberately switched to preclude unwanted attendees. After bad reviews started appearing, people were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. And at press conferences, questions were pre-screened, or softball questions were asked by audience plants.
The current controversy playing out is the allegation that the animated cell segment in Expelled is a copyright infringement of Harvard University’s The Inner Life of the Cell. The animation firm XVIVO used by Harvard has sent a cease-and-desist letter to and filed suit against Expelled‘s Premise Films, who has just returned the favour with a countersuit.
The Expelled website lists the theatres at which the film will open this Friday. No Canadian theatres are shown, and it appears that the closest venue is Syracuse, NY. I will resist the urge to drive 3.5 hours to see it, though. When even FOX News pans such an ideologically conservative movie, what could it possibly have going for it?
I guess that I will just have to be satisfied with reading the reviews:
- Dan Whipple – ColoradoConfidential.com (16 Dec 07): “Science Sunday: Intelligent Design Goes to the Movies“
- Josh Timonen – RichardDawkins.net (25 Mar 08): “Expelled Overview“
- John Rennie – Scientific American (9 Apr 08): “Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Integrity Displayed“
- Michael Shermer – Scientific American (9 Apr 08): “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed–Ben Stein Launches a Science-free Attack on Darwin“
- Jeffery Kluger – Time (10 Apr 08): “Ben Stein Dukes it Out with Darwin“
- Amanda Gefter – New Scientist (12 Apr 08): “Film review: Expelled: No intelligence allowed“