Blogging will continue to be sporadic for a while, sorry about that. But having dragged myself down to Washington D.C. last weekend to see the new movie Creation, I figured I should at least get a blog post out of it.
Short review: Excellent! Completely engrossing, and historically accurate on the important things.
Longer review, and minor spoilers, below the fold.
Creation is a biography of Charles Darwin, focusing specifically on the years leading up to the publication of The Origin of Species. The emphasis is on the death of Darwin’s ten-year-old daughter, and the subsequent family strife this caused.
Darwin famously became an agnostic later in life, though it was not, as is sometimes reported, the theory of evolution which led to his crisis of faith. Instead it was a combination of his grief over the loss of his daughter (and later an infant son), and his acute awareness of the wanton cruelty and wastefulness of nature that made him question the idea of divine providence. This is all compellingly portrayed in the film. Paul Bettany as Darwin is well-cast; physically he is a dead ringer for the middle-aged Darwin. Jennifer Connelly continues her long-standing streak of exemplary portrayals of dour, unhappy women by playing Emma Darwin.
There is very little of the scientific context for Darwin’s work. There is also one potentially serious omission from the film. As Darwin was slowly writing his big book on evolution (of which the Origin was a short abstract), he received a paper from Alfred Russell Wallace, outlining all of the main elements of evolution by natural selection. As things are portrayed in the film, Darwin decides he has been scooped and seems inclined to abandon the project altogether. Joseph Hooker persuades him to reconsider, pointing out that Wallace’s paper was 20 pages long, while Darwin was over two hundred pages into his book. Darwin then gets moving and finishes the book.
Absent from the film is any mention of the joint paper between Darwin and Wallace, which was the first public explication of the theory of evolution by natural selection. This paper was presented in 1858, to little notice. The following year Darwin published his book, and that is when things really took off. This is potentially a serious omission. To this day creationists are fond of repeating the myth that Darwin stole the idea of evolution by natural selection from Wallace, and this film could justify the conclusion that Wallace was treated unfairly.
My favorite aspect of the film, however, was how hard it is on religion. I would not go so far as to say that this is an anti-religion film, but it certainly does not soft pedal the extent of the challenge Darwin was posing.
For example, early in the film there is a scene where Hooker and Thomas Huxley visit Darwin at his home, intending to pressure Darwin into finishing his book. Huxley is especially exultant, and tells Darwin that his theory is of critical importance in diminishing the church. “You’ve killed God!” he exclaims. Darwin is plainly uncomfortable with this idea, but he does not reply with some vapid bromide like, “Nonsense! Science tells you how the heavens go, religion tells you how to go to heaven. Theologians have long recognized that God’s will might be achieved through secondary causes.” Instead he points out that the church plays a critical social function, and that its imminent demise is not necessarily something to celebrate.
Near the end of the film there is a scene between Darwin and Emma. Darwin has completed a first draft of his book and presents it to the religious Emma for her opinion. He even puts the fate of the manuscript in her hands. “Someone should take God’s side in all this,” he quips. Once again, it is simply taken for granted that the Origin is something over which theologians should worry.
Religion is also represented by the minister of Darwin’s church. Said minister is portrayed as a simple-minded sadist. Early in the film he makes Darwin’s daughter kneel in rock salt for in some way challenging him. Darwin is all set to give him what-for, until Emma talks him down. Later in the film there is a confrontation between the minister and Darwin. At this point Darwin has just received the paper from Wallace. The minister offers some platitude about God’s ways not being for us to question, but that he loves us no matter what. Darwin tells him off, saying something like (I am doing this from memory) “Yes, I have often been moved to consider the goodness of a God who blessed us with not one but nine hundred species of intestinal worm. Or the love he shows for the caterpillar in creating a species of wasp that paralyzes it before laying its eggs, so that its young may have live meat on which to feast. As for Wallace, perhaps it is good that he is in the Spice Islands. Were he to return to England with his present views he would no doubt be made to kneel in rock salt!” I can promise you that no in the theater was sympathizing with the minister during this outburst.
All in all, I liked the film very much. It is not clear how widely distributed it will be, given that in this country its subject matter is considered controversial. The theater in which I saw the film was sold out, but it was a fairly small theater. It is a hugely important film for portraying Darwin as a normal human being, as opposed to some sort of icon or villain, depending on your point of view. If you have the chance, go see it.