Although he was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, most people know Ben Stein either from his movie roles - most notably the teacher who intones, "Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…" in Ferris Bueller's Day Off - or from his Comedy Central game show "Win Ben Stein's Money." It may come as something of a surprise, then, to see him in a documentary like Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which tackles the lightning-rod subject of intelligent design. The film takes Stein back to his political roots, while also capitalizing on the recent trend of using movies to explore controversial topics. The DVD is in stores now.
Stein introduces the theme of the film right off the bat by recounting the stories of several academics who lost their jobs simply for entertaining the idea that either: 1.) the widely-accepted theories of evolution and natural selection have notable flaws, or 2.) intelligent design could be a possible explanation for life as we know it. For anyone not in the know, intelligent design is the belief that a supreme being could have orchestrated the creation of our world. It is not quite the same as Creationism, which posits the Biblical idea that God created the earth in seven days, but it certainly fits in line with the concept that our existence is no accident.
That respected, successful people would lose their jobs or have their tenure denied simply for being open to the possibility of ID enrages Stein. He talks to those who have been penalized, most of whom say that, as scientists, they want to study and consider the unknown, especially if there's a possibility that answers may reside there. Stein also talks to the skeptics and the evolutionists, who argue vehemently that ID is a plot by the religious right to slip Creationism into schools on the back of science.
Expelled comes down quite clearly on the side of intelligent design. It makes the point - backed up in interviews with skeptics - that evolution fails to account for an origin point. Evolutionists believe that something happened spontaneously that allowed for the creation of life, but they don't really know what that something is. Nevertheless, many of them are insistent that it could not be God who is responsible. To Stein, this is nothing short of irresponsible. Far from coming at it from a religious perspective, he (and the film) makes the case that by ignoring a lead, no matter how unlikely it may seem to them, scientists are not doing their job. The only way to get genuine answers is to investigate every option fully. And you can't do this if you're shutting one of them down without looking into it.
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed raises some undeniably provocative issues. Surely there is something wrong when qualified academics are blacklisted simply because they want to explore an option that's generally unpopular in their field. I also have a hard time accepting that teachers would be fired for bringing the subject up. I'm not saying that Creationism per se should be taught in schools, but it should certainly be introduced as one theory. Hundreds of millions of people in this world believe that God created the universe someway, somehow. That's worth a mention in the classroom, alongside the opposite theory that we have evolved from nothingness. Until we have an unquestionably proven answer, where's the harm in teaching that we don't all agree on our own genesis?
There is one massive flaw in Expelled, and it prevents me from rating the movie a little higher: It never provides so much as a basic explanation of what intelligent design is. I knew going in, and many people inclined to rent the film may already know it too. That doesn't excuse the fact that any documentary needs to explain its central concept to the uninitiated. Anyone not already familiar with ID could probably figure it out by the end of 95 minutes, but having a brief explanation of it from the top would make things a lot easier on newbies, and strengthen the quality of the project at the same time. (The repeated ironic use of archival movie clips similarly indicates a lack of filmmaking confidence on the part of director Nathan Frankowski.)
Near the end, Stein sits down for a no-nonsense interview with one of the most publicly vehement anti-ID scientists he can find. With Stein pressing him firmly but politely, the guy acknowledges it's possible that a super-intelligent race from elsewhere in the cosmos may have "seeded" life on Earth as we know it. That's right - the man is more willing to concede that aliens might have created us rather than the Judeo-Christian God. Now, I don't know what was said around that statement - the film doesn't show the entire interview - but there's not much denying the blinders some people in the scientific community are wearing. (Another scientist goes so far as to posit that life began "on the backs of crystals" - but don't you dare suggest something as wacky as God!)
I don't know that Expelled is going to change any minds about intelligent design, simply because people who disagree with the theory aren't likely to watch the film. Yet despite some occasionally sloppy filmmaking, I think the picture is worth a look. It raises important ideas and issues, asks important questions. No one could argue against that, right? Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…
( 1/2 out of four)
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is available on DVD in widescreen format. Special features include a promo for the tie-in book, a deleted scene, and several music tracks from the film accessible as stand-alones.
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is rated PG for thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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