Thursday, 17 September 2009

A first look at Creation

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This coming Sunday, we're hosting a debate at the Cambridge Film Festival on the subject of "Science on Screen" – "What are, or should be, the ethics of putting scientific debate on screen? Is there any evidence that film can depict science accurately?" One of the films that we'll be discussing is Creation, the big-budget Charles Darwin biopic starring Paul Bettany, which comes out in the UK in a week's time (if you're in the US though, it seems you're out of luck - the word is that a Darwin flick is "too controversial" for your eyes).

So, to ensure we'd seen the film in time for the debate, we had a little editorial outing (you could call it a general humanist outing - we bumped into several colleagues from the BHA there too) last night to the Science Museum for a special preview showing hosted by Nature magazine. The screening was in the museum's impressive Imax cinema, although the film iself wasn't in Imax (Darwin may have been a hero, but surely we must all admit he was no Batman), and several members of the film's production crew, including director Jon Amiel, and the Darwin family were present.

Sadly, I have to say I was unimpressed by the film, which traces Darwin's inner turmoil as he set about writing On the Origin of Species. Central to the plot is the conflict between his wife Emma's (played by Jennifer Connelly) strong Christian faith and Darwin's own loss of faith in the face of the implications of his ideas. Unfortunately, the frequent references to this felt clumsy, with the development of Darwin's theory accompanied at every turn by a "but what about God?" moment. This is at its most absurd near the beginning, when we see Thomas Huxley (played in a truly bulldog-esque manner by Toby Jones) excitedly informing Darwin that he's about to kill God.

Throughout the film we see Darwin, whose health is failing, haunted by this conflict between religion and science, as well as by the death of his beloved daughter Annie (Martha West) eight years earlier, an event which is also shown to have played a role in his gradual loss of faith. Unfortunately, the film has Darwin quite literally haunted by Annie, who pops up in the room with irritating frequency as he attempts to get his magnum opus down on page.

This (in my view mishandled) attempt to inject some drama into the story of the writing of The Origin of Species ties in nicely with the debate we're hosting on Sunday, particularly the question of whether film can depict science accurately. Frankly, there's not much in the way of science on display in Creation, but could that be because real science (as opposed to exciting science fiction) isn't particularly dramatic? The Origin of Species may be one of the most important books ever written, but if the makers of Creation had tried to accurately depict Darwin's experiences writing it, we'd probably just be left with two hours of Paul Bettany sitting at a desk writing.

Alongside Creation, we'll be discussing three more films on Sunday – House of Numbers, which questions the relationship between HIV and AIDS (see a NY Times review here), The Nature of Existence and the notorious pro-Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I'm actually about to watch Expelled now (something I've been waiting for ever since it came out in the US last year), so I may well blog my thoughts later this afternoon.

Sunday's debate, Science on Screen, takes place at 4.30pm at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge. It's being chaired by our editor, Caspar Melville, and features a panel including Leonro Sierra, of Sense about Science, and medical historian Louise Foxcroft, author of The Making of Addiction and Hot Flushes, Cold Science: The History of Modern Menopause. If you would like to come along, it's free, but you need to book your places in advance.


Greg P said...

As an aside, Neil deGrasse explains his problems with the depiction of the night sky in Titanic, and the importance of accurately depicting science in film. Especially after the attention given over to detail in a film such as Titanic.

Haven't had a chance to watch expelled, but I'm looking forward to your thoughts!

garik said...

It sounds as if the film is exactly as I expected. Oh well.

Rowan said...

New Scientist's review pretty much agrees with yours: