Tomorrow Angels and Demons comes to theaters across the country. One in a long series of movies that profits from the idea that underneath our regular, ordinary world, there are powerful forces controlling the scenes. I understand the appeal of these movies, it’s an entertaining concept. A fictional conspiracy engages your intellect, creates a mystery, makes you think about the world and who is in control. But we have to remember when we see these films that these are works of fiction for entertainment. The Illuminati are not real, this sadly ludicrous belief still persists for some people but fortunately for most of us has become a joke. The Priory of Sion was conclusively demonstrated to be a hoax decades ago. These groups are, of course, not real because such conspiratorial groups and actions could never be kept secret or hidden in the real world.
The reality of conspiracy theories is very different. These don’t represent any kind of healthy thought process at all. They require one to reach a conclusion, then ignore any information that contradicts it. They attempt to explain, but only create more questions. I like to say they are non-parsimonious. And worse, rather than make people think, they tend only to enforce bigotry and ideology. It is the intellectual equivalent of self-lobotomy.
Films often seem to reinforce non-skeptical thought. We like to be entertained, or scared, or shocked. Hence, every time someone is introduced as an atheist or “skeptic” in a film they’re inevitably exposed to ghosts, or aliens, or whatever unlikely boogeyman serves the script. The skeptic never turns out to be right, as they are in real life. What would be the fun in that? Every movie would turn into an episode of Scooby Doo. It was just old man Withers with a flashlight after all, and a multi-million dollar CGI budget.
So the question is, do films like these make the situation worse? Do they encourage conspiratorial thought or are they recognized by film goers appropriately as entertainment?
I suspect that to some degree our fascination with, and desire to be entertained by conspiracies is encouraged by these films, but for most of us, seeing 1408 or the X-files is just entertainment and that’s OK. I read Angels and Demons and I gotta tell you, it’s a pretty silly, unbelievable book. But that never precludes it from being a good movie.
If instead you want to spend this weekend watching an entertaining movie that deals with conspiracies in a realistic way, those exist too. I can highly recommend Burn After Reading which is the antidote to government conspiracy theories. In a hysterical way it mocks how little we are in control of anything. Or if you like the murder-mystery types, try Blood Simple. Really, anything by Joel and Ethan Coen will be highly entertaining while keeping your skeptic’s circuits sharp. Any other skeptical suggestions for entertainment? Leave them in the comments.