Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Worst Film of 2008: the Review

Oh, Ben Stein. For countless years the go-to “smart guy” for movies and TV shows, Stein became a pop culture icon as a the prototypical genius. He even had a game show, “Win Ben Stein's Money”, built entirely around trying to outsmart him, which it seemed few people ever did. With his thick glasses, condescending half-lid stare, severe suit-and-tie attire and monotonous delivery of endless facts, figures, and pop culture trivia tidbits, Stein seemed to fit the bill of one of the smartest guys in show business.

And then he starred in this movie. I refuse to call it a documentary, though that is what it sells itself as, because to do so would insult the legacy of a genre devoted to capturing reality and truth on film. I speak, of course, of eXpelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the Stein-hosted mockery of a documentary that puts forth Intelligent Design theory in yet another would-be shiny, new repackaging. This time, the ID crowd, with Stein as their spokesperson, present their loony theory as something that is being so strongly suppressed by the scientific community that it must be dangerous and, therefore, true. Sound ridiculous? Oh yeah. I've heard the same line of “reasoning” from people who support the JFK Second Shooter theory and the 9/11 Inside Job theory. It's just as inane and stupid here.

But, much like those other insane conspiracy theories, ID has infected a portion of this population and there seemingly is no cure for the disease. And, much like the 9/11 conspiracy film “Loose Change”, eXpelled has managed to find itself a massive audience. In fact, eXpelled had the widest opening in the history of documentaries in the US, the third biggest opening weekend gross, and overall is the twelfth highest-grossing documentary since 1982, coming in right after Hoop Dreams, a beautiful and masterful film that doesn't deserve to be insulted by being lumped into the same category as this tripe.

Of course, just because a lot of people support and believe something doesn't mean it's true. But it does mean we have our work cut out for us, and we may as well know what we're up against, which is why I'm reviewing eXpelled. Normally, I wouldn't go anywhere near a documentary because even the bad ones are usually just meh or crushingly boring and there's no way for me to make that shit funny. I doubt I'll make this funny. But it is the worst movie of the year, one of the worst of all time, and easily the worst excuse for a documentary this side of Michael Moore. When I first saw eXpelled, I walked out of the theater with my collar up because I was embarrassed and didn't want anyone to see me. This despite it being a midnight showing with no one left except the ticket taker. And I had used a gift pass, so it's not like he could tell anyone I had actually spent money on it. But it was that bad.

Deep breath, kids. We're diving into a big old pile of shit and going all the way to the bottom of it.

The “film” opens with black and white footage of the construction of the Berlin Wall. Not only is this blunt metaphor, it's also where the credits go, digitally added in to the footage like graffiti on the wall. That seems somehow offensive, doesn't it?

From there we go to our wrap-around segment: Ben Stein giving a speech to a crowd of college kids. As Ben waits in the wings for his intro to end, we get glimpses of nefarious atheists like Dawkins and Dennett and such dismissing ID theory for the pap it is, saying that science doesn't need the God hypothesis. Um...Boo? And so Ben goes on stage and makes a speech about Freedom. Oh God, not this. “Freedom has allowed us to create, to explore, to overcome every challenge we have faced as a nation”. Let me guess, getting a scientifically untennable theory about the magic sky wizard is the new challenge?

“Imagine if these freedoms were taken away...” he prattles on as footage of THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT plays. “I no longer need to imagine, it's happening!” OH. FUCK. YOU. We're four minutes in and already, FUCK YOU. He goes on to say that he always thought that scientists had the right to ask any questions, but now he knows that's not the case. We meet Ben's first subject, “Evolutionary Biologist” Richard Sternberg. Stein says Sternberg's life was nearly ruined when he was working for the Smithsonian. It is here that we get our first glimpse of the “Case Files” the goofy on-screen graphics designed to make Ben's friends look like convicts with rap sheets. Jesus Christ, dude.

Sternberg's “crime” was publishing an article by ID proponent Dr. Stephen Meyer, for which Stein alleges Sternberg was fired, and his religious and political beliefs were scrutinized. Sternberg prattles on about the horrible accusations lodged against Meyer: “He's a well-known Christian, he's a republican”, etc, etc. Stein reacts to this with a look of awe and pain best reserved for hearing someone accuse Harvey Fierstein of being straight. And they make sure to intercut this sequence with footage of a man being beaten by a group of thugs. Sternberg wraps up by saying he was accused of being “an intellectual terrorist” for giving ID a modicum of credibility.

Well, that's all bullshit. Let's ask Randall Kramer, Director of Public Affairs for the Smithsonian, what's what.

For the Record
In your April 14 Periscope interview with Ben Stein ("You Say You Want an Evolution?"), one of Stein's responses contained a serious error: He said, "There are a number of scientists and academics who've been fired, denied tenure, lost tenure or lost grants because they even suggested the possibility of intelligent design. The most egregious is Richard Sternberg at the Smithsonian, the editor of a magazine that published a peer reviewed paper about ID. He lost his job." Sternberg has never been employed by the Smithsonian Institution. Since January 2004, he has been an unpaid research associate in the departments of invertebrate and vertebrate zoology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Dr. Sternberg continues to enjoy full access to research facilities at the museum. Moreover, Stein's assertion that Sternberg was removed from a Smithsonian publication is not true. The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington is an independent journal and is not affiliated with the Smithsonian.
Randall Kremer, Director of Public Affairs National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.


Stein says that, while what happened to Sternberg was horrible, he was still skeptical. “So I checked in with the head of the Skeptic's Society, Michael Shermer”. I didn't know anyone could leap a chasm that huge, but hot damn Ben Stein just did it. What one has to do with the other is beyond me. Shermer is introduced via stock footage of the typical “I can't disprove God anymore than I can disprove Zeus, Isis, etc” speech, which has the weirdest “scary” synth music played under it. Apparently we're not just attacking the anti-ID crowd, we're also demonizing the anti-Pink Unicornists. They also show a clip of him denying little green men from mars. And then they show him talking to Stein and saying that ID falls in the “shaded area between good, solid science and total nonsense”.

In other words, we're supposed to think he doesn't dismiss it. The magic of editing. Stein questions Shermer over the Smithsonian situation. Why Shermer would know anything about it is beyond me but they of course use his lack of knowledge of the situation to make it sound like he's actually covering something up when really he's just trying to brush past a question he isn't qualified to answer. Oh wait, I forgot: the evil Atheist evolutionist crowd is an intricately connected Intelligentsia-like network and we all work together to make bad things happen to unpaid research associates who's opinions don't matter. Of course he knows what happened! Spill it, Shermer!

Shermer lays it down in plain terms that if you want a theory to be accepted, you have to roll up your sleeves and work for it. Stein asks “What if you try and try and they say 'well, we're going to fire you if you even mention the words Intelligent Design?” Shermer asks the question anyone would “Where's that happening?” The film answers the question by smash cutting at breakneck speeds to an archival clip about George Mason University. This movie jumps around like it's playing fucking hopscotch! Was their editor equipped only with a machete?

Any way, it's off to GMU to meet Caroline Crocker, a professor supposedly fired for merely mentioning ID in her Cell Biology class. More specifically, she says she was disciplined for “teaching Creationism”. She's insistent that she barely made mention of ID on one or two slides, but that was it. Despite her protests, she was fired. From there, she was, Stein alleges, “blacklisted”. She couldn't find any work after the GMU incident. “I was only trying to teach what the University stands for, which is academic freedom”.

And the bullshit alarm is going off. Turns out Crocker wasn't fired at all. She was a part-time faculty member who's contract came up and simply wasn't renewed. GMU denies that Crocker's ID views had anything to with it. But about those views...Crocker says she just mentioned ID passingly. Let's ask the Washington Post, which did an article on Crocker when she repeated the lecture in question for an audience at Northern Virginia Community College:

Crocker, who wore a light brown sweater and slacks, flashed a slide showing a cartoon of a cheerful monkey eating a banana. An arrow led from the monkey to a photograph of an exceptionally unattractive man sitting in his underwear on a couch. Above the arrow was a question mark.
Crocker was about to establish a small beachhead for an insurgency that ultimately aims to topple Darwin's view that humans and apes are distant cousins.[...]As a nontenured professor, she had little institutional protection. But this highly trained biologist wanted students to know what she herself deeply believed: that the scientific establishment was perpetrating fraud, hunting down critics of evolution to ruin them and disguising an atheistic view of life in the garb of science.
Source: Washington Post

It goes on from there. She even throws in Young Earth Creationist and Conspiracy Theorist Kent Hovind's spiel about Macro- and Microevolutions and “no one has ever seen a dog turn into a cat”. I love when they pick two random non-related animals and insist one must become the other in order for evolution to be true. Their ignorance is so cute when it's not outright insulting.

And all of a sudden we're on to subject number three: Dr. Michael Egnor. Brief aside: we're only eleven minutes in. This movie is edited like an episode of TNA iMPACT. Egnor is a neurosurgeon who wrote a letter to high school students saying doctors don't need to study evolution to practice medicine. “the Darwinists were quick to try and exterminate this new threat”. Do you find this guy threatening? He's just a quack. And are we supposed to believe he's the first doctor who didn't believe in evolution? Did doctors not exist pre-Darwin? Are there not creationist doctors today? What the fuck, movie?

Egnor claims to have been the victim of insults and smears and pressure to retire. He says he was surprised by how base it all was.

MOVING ALONG, we go to our next subject. They spent 56 seconds with Dr. Egnor before moving on. Gee, you think maybe there was nothing to him? Duh. Anway, meet Robert J. Marks II, a professor at Baylor university who *gasp* got his WEB SITE shut down. He also had to return grant money when his work was found to be linked to ID. This twit's first appearance on screen includes the words “scientism gulag” which is as hilarious as it is nonsensical. What the movie fails to mention is that these things happened because it looked like Marks' ID research was endorsed by the University, which it wasn't, and that the site was put back up when appropriate changes were made to make it clear that Baylor doesn't endorse ID. (Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 2007)

Marks admits that he never even asked permission to put the site up and is galled to have been treated this way. Footage from Planet of the Apes (“It's a madhouse!”) is added in for...I dunno, effect? What effect I don't know. UH-OH! We've spent nearly a whole minute with Mr. Marks! Time to move on!

After a clip from an old gun slinger movie, re-dubbed to make it sound like the man shot to death was an evil Creationist (lovely), we meet Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, apparently a relative of Bob Hoskins judging from his mug shot.

Gonzalez published a pro-ID book. His application for tenure was denied. The two are not related, but the movie doesn't care. Even though Stein claims Gonzalez has discovered several planets, Iowa State University says Gonzalez' work rate actually dropped off after he joined the faculty and that his work didn't show the level of excellence they expected (source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 2007). So why should they give him tenure? And it's not like he was an unusual case: in the previous decade four out of twelve tenure applications at ISU were denied. That's a third! Welcome to the (sizable) club, Guillermo!

God, I feel like I'm writing a research paper with all these sources and whatnot. eXpelled is not only a bad movie, it's taken me back to college. Damn you, Ben Stein. Gonzalez goes on to say that anyone who values their career should just shut up about their ID beliefs. I guess he never thought of just being honest and hard working.

Stein talks about all the scientists who didn't want to be filmed for fear of losing their jobs for secretly being proponents of ID. Stein says Shermer (again, why is he supposed to be the expert here? He publishes a magazine, he's not the president of every college in America!) is wrong, that ID is being suppressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion. Just like phlogiston, I tell ya!

“Maybe Intelligent Design should be suppressed. I didn't like what was happening to these scientists, but on the other hand we don't want our kids being taught that the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust never happened!”


Without any explanation whatsoever for that statement, Stein moves on to ask the scientific community what's so bad about ID. We get a montage of evolutionists calling ID stupid and an excuse to squeeze religion into school. One fellow even calls it boring. And then everyone rags on The Discovery Institute, the biggest pro-ID group. So Stein decides to visit the Discovery Institute...but he gets lost along the way. Of course, this is just an excuse for him to ask people for directions there and film their befuddled reactions, so as to make it seem as though The Discovery Institute were completely unheard of and turned into a strawman for the evolution meanies to knock down. Cute. And of course the Institute itself is just a small office. Bruce Chapman, head of Discovery Institute, compares the group to the little boy who said the emperor had no clothes. At least the boy had demonstrable evidence of his claim. And, ya know, he was actually right.

Almost immediately after getting to Discovery Institute, Ben gets the fuck out to go to Viola University, the so-called “Bible Institute of Los Angeles”. I take it back, TNA is paced better than this movie. We're only 21 minutes in, by the way. An unnamed man there (couldn't even bother with a graphic?) says he never got money from Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Why...that encompasses the entire intelligent design movement! Ugh. He also says he's not a pastor or minister or whatever. He did teach Sunday School once, though. And then we get more of that “depends how you define evolution” crap. And he denies that ID has anything to do with God.

Stein cals this man “Dr. Nelson” as we move on to our next subject, William Dembski, of Discovery Institute. Dembski insists that Evolution is acceptable to ID. Well you're full of it, or this movie is pointless. BOTH! Dembski goes on to say that Darwin had good insights, but isn't the whole picture.


Let's meet Stephen Meyer, the guy who should have been introduced about sixteen minutes ago when he supposedly got that Sternberg twat canned. “We'll pin him down like a butterfly on a...butterfly...board...” Valuable words from Ben Stein. This butterfly pinning involves softballing him with questions about how silly it is to challenge Darwin. Meyer takes the opportunity to say ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in his approximately thirty seconds of screen time.


Jonathan Wells is a douchebag.


David Berlinski has a nice house in France and admits he doesn't know enough to comprehend what evolution means or what a species is.

What a waste of time these people were.

Finally, we get to spend some time with Richard Dawkins who, in his wonderful blunt fashion flat-out says that people who don't believe in evolution are ignorant. They already admitted that themselves, but thank you nonetheless Richard. Stein says these people he spoke to aren't ignorant, they're highly credentialed scientists! Not that any evidence of such was actually presented to us. That's like me saying I won a Caldecott Medal for the childrens' book I wrote. I didn't even write such a book or win such an award, but if I say I did and then move on to the next topic quickly enough, you should just believe it going by this film's logic.

Back to Wells who reveals the stunning news that Darwin wrote a book called “The Origin of Species”. Stein is flabbergasted. Wells further states that Darwin believed that microevolutionary changes within species led to the rise of new species. Gee, want to tell me that the sky is blue and that I have a posable thumb? Stein asks how Darwin explained the beginning of life. Wells says he didn't know.

The origin of life has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution. You asshole.

Michael Ruce presents the theory that life may have originated on crystals. The film, of course, connects this to a picture of a crystal ball. Ha ha, it is to laugh. Stein mocks the theory. He also whiplashes around to mocking the idea that all 250 necessary proteins for functioning life could have aligned themselves in the correct order by accident. Dude, just because something is unlikely doesn't mean it's impossible. But that's above this movie's level of intelligence. They even have a cute cartoon showing Richard Dawkins at a genetic slot machine trying and failing to spin the right combo 250 times.

Where to next? Panspermia, the theory that life originated in space. Nice excuse for stock footage from 50's flying saucer flicks. Stein says all this crystals and aliens stuff (yes, these are the only theories of life's origins according to the movie) sounds like science fiction. Everyone knows there's no such thing as crystals, after all! Oh ho ho, silly scientists with your research and educations. The magical creature that poofed life into existence merely by thinking it is so much more plausible!

God damn this is rough. And there's still an entire hour left.

So what's Stein's next question? “What is a cell?” No, really. He asks this question. Out loud. And everyone says Darwin had a primitive grasp of the answer. He worked in evolution, not cell biolo-oh fuck it, they don't care. We get a CGI sequence showing how a cell works, as if the complexity of our building blocks somehow disproves evolution. Again...

Whiny interlude complaining of a Berlin Wall sectioning ID thinking off from the rest of science. Fuck off. That's all I have left, really. Fuck. Off. I've seen better arguments in Kent Hovind videos.

And now the film openly mocks peer review, comparing it to the series of checkpoints in divided Berlin. How dare they discredit anyone who contradicts stupid things like known facts? All theories, regardless of their validity, must be equal! So what if our idea makes no sense and relies on non-scientific foundations and doesn't jibe with things we've already proven about our world? It's still right, 'cuz da Bible sez so. Derpa derpa, derpa dumb.

You fucking idiots!

They used a clip from The Wizard of Oz. In this movie. You savages spit on the greatest movie ever made by not only using it in this tripe, but also by putting it in black and white and cropping it to widescreen? That's a trifecta of shittiness that not only insults my intelligence, it insults me as a movie lover. Why not throw in some colorized Citizen Kane clips for good measure? They can't rest easy with merely assaulting science, they have to attack the art of cinema, too. God almighty, this is an apocalypse.

And hey, let's bring up the battle between liberal and conservative Christians. Why stop at lobbing bombs at the atheists when we can cannibalize our own side, too. Those liberal Christians are just atheists in waiting, anyway. Fuck 'em! And then Richard Dawkins says studying evolution helped him develop his atheism. Oh no! I guess that's supposed to prove that evolution is just propaganda or a “conversion” tool or something.

And let's attack the reporters too! I'm just throwing my hands up. I don't know what to say, because this section just reiterates the hysteria about the consequences of mentioning the words Intelligent Design in print. Been there, done that.

Stein goes to Europe. Thank God, they'll straighten him out.

SONUVABITCH! He found the one fucking idiot in the European Parliament dumb enough to support this pap. Some guy with a name I can't begin to transcribe talks about how Poland allows more “freedom” in discussing ID in the classroom. He even says the problem in America is political correctness. That's just stupid.

And now the inevitable “science and religion are compatible” junk, which the film had seemingly rejected by vilifying liberal Christians just minutes earlier.

Can there really be FORTY MINUTES left? There is no God, and that is proof of it. This is torturous.



Meet Dr. Will Provine. He DARES to not believe in God. Stein calls this “disturbing”. Provine also disbelieves in free will, a meaning of life, and ultimate morality. All of these are rational and arguable perspectives. Stein chooses this moment to tell us Provine has a major brain tumor. Oh, he's just a deformed retard! Phew! Provine says he'd rather commit suicide than sit around and suffer through the slow, agonizing death his tumor offers.

Stein condescends to suggest he pities these poor souls who have, judging from his grave tone, been hopelessly destroyed. And he insists that evolution inevitably leads to atheism. Oh, if only.

“Would eradicating religion really lead to a modern utopia?” Stein asks. The answer is yes, but since he still has thirty-two fucking minutes to go, I'm guessing he's gonna ask a lot of douches to deny that. Oh, it's worse. Let's bring up the worn-out “Hitler was an atheist” thing. I refuse to comment on that fallacious and meaningless bullshit. All you need to know is that this asshole has the balls to visit Nazi ovens and concentration camps as part of his propaganda.

Skipping over that shit, Stein tells us that he visited Charles Darwin's home. That's it. He just tells us. Good for you, Ben. We next see our moronic host in a science museum staring at various displays with nothing but contempt, a fine visual metaphor for the stupidity of his side that I'm sure he didn't catch. And then he stares at a statue of Darwin with a look that seems to say “How could you? How dare you?”. Fuck off.

The movie repeats itself on the Berlin Wall metaphor and then by going all the way back to America being founded on freedom. No one's challenging your freedom, we're just expressing our freedom to tell you how fucking stupid you are.

The GMU spokesperson actually shows up to tell Stein flat-out that Dr. Crocker's contract simply wasn't renewed. Good God, man. The balls you have to include that.

The coup de crap is a sit-down with Richard Dawkins where they basically use the fact that he's intellectually honest enough to admit that it's not impossible for there to be a God as some bizarre evidence that he must actually be a believer and that this whole atheism thing is just a big lie. Leave in all the “um”ing and “uh”ing and you can me anyone look stupid. We know that, movie, and it isn't going to fool us. And the fact that he even considers the panspermia possibility is proof that he really really thinks little green men live on mars.

Finally! The end is in sight! We go back to Ben's speech to the college kids. He's still whining about his freedoms being impinged upon. Ultimately, they intercut Ben's speech with Ronald Reagan's Berlin Wall speech and footage of the wall itself falling. And they end with the “Bueller? Bueller” joke, somehow.

I don't even know how to wrap this up. Well, THANK GOD I NEVER HAVE TO WATCH THAT AGAIN. But other than that, I'm just fucking out of ideas. This movie is stunningly bad and it makes my piss boil to think that people actually believe it. For insulting the very word documentary, Ben Stein deserves to be beaten by an angry mob consisting of Barbara Kopple, Steve James, The Maysles Brothers, and D.A. Pennebaker. And even though I have spent literally zero dollars on this film, he owes me a refund.

You have to win Ben Stein's money, but this film proves that you can have his dignity for free.


The Cheap-Arse Film Critic said...

It's a shame all the stuff I've heard about this movie, because I like Ben Stein, and there's probably a very good documentary to be made out of what it's like to be both a Christian and a scientist. his doesnn't sound like it, though. I'll probably still watch it out of curiosity's sake eventually.

Redunbeck said...

That curiosity will kill ya, eventually.

Yeah, there probably is a good movie to be made out of such a topic, too bad this one was so very, very far off the mark. You'd need to find a filmmaker who won't just devolve into propaganda to do it and, well...good luck finding someone neutral enough on this topic to pull it off.