Creation at the cineplex

This weekend marks the U.S. premiere of Creation, featuring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma. It’s an adaptation of Darwin descendant Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box, an account of Darwin’s struggle to decide whether to publish the Origin while overcoming the death of his favorite daughter.

I got to see a preview of it last fall, and it’s a tremendous film. The history had to be tweaked here and there to make the picture hang together, but the science, the ideas, and the basic sweep of the history are accurate. As a bit of a nerd about such things, that’s important to me. And while the average viewer might not care, it matters to me that this movie could bring a new vision of Darwin to a public who usually thinks of him as a polarizing figure, a warrior in grand sociopolitical battles.

The historical Darwin resisted such conflicts. He came to reject conventional Christianity not because of his science but because he found the cruelty of the world around him too great to reconcile with the loving omnipotent God preached in churches. Some of that cruelty he saw in the natural world, with wasp larvae surviving only by slowly digesting the insides of caterpillars, but the death of his beloved Annie was unquestionably a turning point, and a cause of great tension in his household, and between him and his more religious colleagues.

In the movie, an enthusiastic Thomas Huxley channels Richard Dawkins early on, urging Darwin to publish his ideas in hopes that doing so would destroy faith. Darwin, already no conventional theist, resists this argument, insisting that religion has social value even if theism itself is incorrect. It is this tension that drives the movie: Darwin is driven from his church and therefore from his deeply religious wife by the death of their daughter, and his magnum opus remains incomplete and unpublished as he is caught between a desire to reconnect with the wife and family he loves, and his urge to complete this major work which he knows could drive a wedge between them.

The producers did a magnificent job of avoiding cheap stereotypes throughout the movie. In an age where battles over the compatibility of science and religion can result in vitriol and stupidity from all sides, the producers give a fair voice to various views of that relationship without lapsing into cliché. Darwin and his friends and family are well-rounded characters, whose flaws are integral to the story, not unfortunate facts to be brushed over.

Creationists will find no comfort in the film, but may come out of the theater seeing the issue differently than they did before, as will evolution’s defenders. The group who will benefit most from seeing this film, though, is that third of the public who haven’t got firm positions on the matter. So take a friend like that to the movies this weekend, and then have a conversation about Darwin’s ideas.

Creation opens in New York, Boston, DC, LA, and San Francisco this weekend, with a wider release after that. The more people who watch it this weekend, the more widely it’ll open down the road, and the more conversations we can have about the real Darwin, and the real meaning of his ideas. So go early and go often.