One must credit the producers of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed for stretching such a pathetic stock of original material into 90 minute feature. Given how preposterous intelligent design is, Ben Stein probably gave the most sympathetic account possible of how a handful of researchers defending it were ejected from their respective Universities. He did not, however, provide persuasive evidence for how evolutionary theory led to eugenics, racism, Communism, fascism, abortion, and a host of other evils that are either directly or indirectly referenced.
Expelled relies primarily on shoddy cinematic techniques to support its host of inane assertions. The movie opens with shots of soldiers—probably during the 1950s or 60s—patrolling around the Berlin Wall, laden with rifles and armor. Reels of black and white footage are shown throughout the film, giving the audience a clear idea of what words like “oppression” and “secularism” might mean in historical terms as they are attributed to the scientific community. One particularly jarring juxtaposition features a medieval guillotine operating while Stein recounts how Caroline Crocker, a biologist at Northern Virginia Community College, lost her job at George Mason. Other examples are similarly gratuitous: a monologue about ideological hostility is spliced with shots of Soviet tanks pounding away, and Stein’s own motivational speech is interposed with clips of Ronald Reagan mouthing “tear down that wall.” Another oft-employed visual gimmick is the use of simple cartoons or parody material to address tremendously complex ideas. The probability of abiogenesis occurring within a five billion year span is conveyed with a caricature of Richard Dawkins as he hurls Britishisms at a row of slot machines, and the Cairns-Smith theory of replicating crystals is dismissed with a clip of witches clasping their orbs while Stein incredulously exclaims, “crystals?!”
As the narrator, Stein relies on his proven monotonic character from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, that of a stultifying economics teacher. Stein’s familiar nasal voice and tiresome inquiries lend a somewhat droll effect to the documentary, but are laughably inappropriate for most scenes. After the opening credits, Stein addresses a packed auditorium (echoing the introduction of An Inconvenient Truth) and denounces the state of intellectual freedom in the academic community while inspirational music builds to a crescendo in the background. Stein’s rhetoric, however, is embarrassingly weak for a Yale Law valedictorian, and his famously obnoxious voice only emphasizes the unintended comic effect. He slouches as he plods the streets in Seattle, prattling about the infamous Discovery Institute, and shows up to his interviews dressed in a poor-fitting suit and tennis shoes. His antics, such as pulling out a retractable backscratcher during a boardroom conference, should make even his most ardent apologists cringe—aiming for humor and gravity, Stein fails at both.
Even after just a few days in the box office, all of the movie’s scientific claims have been torn to shreds by the scientific community. This fact is not especially surprising, however, as the film actually made few claims about science. Instead, it was an exercise in portrayal, conflating Darwinian science with Nazi eugenics to cast science in an evil light without actually delving into the specifics of evolutionary theory or natural selection (which are never defined). Stein also makes several conspicuous attempts to get scientists to misspeak. In one memorable scene, he asks Richard Dawkins to quantify his certainty that God doesn’t exist, to which Dawkins replies that he can’t put a precise figure on it—it was his intuition, not a scientific result. After repeated pressure from Stein, Dawkins says he would put the figure around 99%, and Stein predictably rejects—“how are you sure that it’s not more like 97%,” he asks. “I’m not,” Dawkins retorts, “but you asked me to give you a number, so I did.” Later on in the same interview, Stein begins asking Dawkins if he believes in any Gods after the latter has just finished explaining why he’s an atheist. “So you don’t believe in Buddha? Zeus? Any of the Hindu gods?” questions Stein. “No, obviously I don’t; don’t you realize that doing so would be entirely hypocritical in light of everything I just told you?” Stein replies that he was just making sure.
More passionate defenders of secularism and evolutionary science would implore you to skip this movie, lest the backers use their profits to advance the cause of religious zealotry. The box office figures, however, are in, and it appears that Expelled is falling quite short of expectations as it is: though one producer hoped to surpass Fahrenheit 9/11’s $23.9m opening weekend, Expelled is projected to bring in only $3.4m. Furthermore, the producers can expect to run into trouble for using John Lennon’s Imagine without permission, misleading The Killers about the nature of the film in order to use All These Things That I’ve Done, and allegedly lifting a cellular animation sequence from a Harvard University website without citation. In light of the circumstances, there is little harm in attending the movie, and the Christian youth group I spoke with after the show did say it was “brilliant.”