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Creation: The good, the bad, and the ugly

A new movie about Charles Darwin's life and work struggles for distribution in the US, where many refuse to subscribe to the theory of evolution

By | January 29, 2010

It's a given: we're diehard Charles Darwin fans. So how can we resist a film that projects his life onto the big screen -- his study filled with flasks and beakers, stuffed birds, fountain pens, giant beetles, and a locked treasure chest with the beginnings of On the Origin of Species? At center of the new movie, Creation, is a 50-year-old Darwin at his peak creativity, in 1859, the year Origin is published. The conspicuously beardless Darwin (Paul Bettany) is sickly, from his travels on the HMS Beagle, from the death of his beloved daughter Annie, and from the burden of disavowing God. As Darwin grapples with the implications of publicizing the full breadth of his research, the memory of his recently departed 10-year-old daughter haunts him, literally, with psychotic visions of her ghost. The emotion surrounding Annie's untimely death overwhelms the film, which is adapted from the biography Annie's Box, written by Darwin's great-great-grandson Randal Keynes. Compared to the insights into Darwin's work and philosophical reckonings in the movie, his struggle to come to grips with his daughter's passing is a sentimental distraction. Creation seems to suggest that Annie's death, which occurred the same year Darwin completed Origin, was the trigger that compelled his writing --- exposing the rift between religion and biology that smoldered between Darwin and his devout wife and cousin Emma (Jennifer Connelly, who is Paul Bettany's real-life wife). Hydrotherapy and psychoanalysis bring Darwin to confront his family issues, tender looks are exchanged, "relations" are resumed, and Darwin's writer's block is vanquished. While this may have been the case, I found vastly more compelling the scenes where renowned biologist Thomas Huxley and botanist Joseph Hooker -- part of the nine-member X-Club that met monthly and was united by a "devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogmas" -- visit the frail Darwin to persuade him to put to rest all notions of God and write his tome. After all, it was 22 years since he joined Robert FitzRoy on the voyage of HMS Beagle, and his procrastinations had permitted Wallace to scoop his natural selection theory in a mere 20 pages. Indeed, those of us who live our lives in science might surmise that the Wallace essay gave Darwin that age-old "publish or perish" anxiety and spurred the publication of his manuscript. Creation presents visual treasures and thought-provoking drama -- including recreations of Darwin's garden and pigeon shed, and flashbacks of FitzRoy stealing Fuegian children in exchange for brass buttons in order to "civilize" them in the name of Her Majesty. Particularly moving was the sequence of Darwin bonding with Jenny -- a young orangutan captured in Borneo, now lonely in Queen Victoria's zoological garden -- and musing on the likeness of apes and humans. Yet this is overshadowed by an unattractive truth about who might get to see the film and experience such illuminating passages. The ugly news is that Creation had difficulty finding a US distributor and it remains uncertain whether it will be widely screened before American audiences. Not only does a linkurl:recent Gallop poll;http://www.gallup.com/poll/114544/Darwin-Birthday-Believe-Evolution.aspx reveal that only 39% of Americans believe in evolution (a "half-baked theory" that informed Adolph Hitler's genocide, according to the Christian-influenced linkurl:Movieguide.com;http://www.movieguide.org/articles/1/463/book-review-darwins-racists-yesterday-today-and-tomorrow ), but apparently the majority of US moviegoers prefer flying dragon-vampires to historical drama. According to director Jon Amiel in a linkurl:Wired.com interview,;http://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/01/creation/ "The fact is that any independent movie that's A) about something, B) period and C) a drama, is likely to have a very hard time finding distribution these days." Did this sad commentary on American society not only limit distribution, but also inform the distracting, ghost-infused story line of Creation? Regardless of the film's few letdowns, it succeeds at portraying a smooth-faced Darwin in love with ideas and with life, grappling with a question (often with his actual words! eloquent!) that remains impossibly frightening to many, a century-and-a-half later. One can only pray (to whomever) that Creationists and their children have ample opportunity to see this movie and many more of its ilk, conveying the beauty and complexity of science and evolution. Creation is playing for a limited time in a handful of theatres in New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Darwin's Minstrel;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56158/
[20th November 2009]*linkurl:Darwin vs. His Dad, circa 1831;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55374/
[February 2009]*linkurl:Darwinian Time;http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/01/1/26/1/
[January 2009]
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 4

January 29, 2010

Not mentioned in the story is the fact that Netflix has agreed to offer the film, so US subscribers to the service will be able to see it.

January 29, 2010

Why the 'creationist' title Creation? Darwin deserved a much better title: Evolution!
Avatar of: TED REID

TED REID

Posts: 1

January 29, 2010

Why is it that no one comments on the title of this movie - "Creation"?\nEvolution has nothing to do with creation as most religious people understand it and probably leads to the many misconceptions about the movie. This may be why so many religious people feel that evolution is not true. How science views creation is a totally different story and these two complex events should not be mixed together in people's minds. Evolution is a powerful theory that stands in its own right, but it occurs after creation.

January 29, 2010

I believe that the movie is excellent, Darwin had proof of evolution, no matter what religion says. This film should be seen by everyone interested.

January 30, 2010

I have looked at many sites on this subject and not come across a site such as yours which tells everyone everything that they need to know. I have bookmarked your site. Can anyone else suggest any other related topics that I can look for to find out further information?\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

January 31, 2010

A nit..."Hydrotherapy and psychoanalysis bring Darwin..." - Psychotherapy, by that name, was not developed until the 1890's, by Freud.\n\nIf the cited Gallup poll is true - I've not seen it - then it signals another sad turn of affairs for the U.S.. Along with endless political divisions, affirmation of virtual localisms (e.g., multiculturalism/ethnic-identity movement, fundamentalists, environmentalists, global utopians, regional isolationists), the rise of an aristocratic class of uber-wealthy and politicians, various manifestations of superstition/ghost-dancing (e.g., new age wierdities, para-psychology etc) and increasingly selective enforcement of some laws and arbitrary disregard for others, the society is, in general, falling apart. \n\nThe "disbelievers" in evolution (which, in any case, is not an article of faith) may not realize that, with the tight and complicated interdependence between biological evolution and physics, chemistry, biology, geology etc and one reinforcing the other, to reject bio-evo is to deny the validity of the others as well - that is, science in general.\n\nAs entreprenuers, profit-obsessed corporations, and politicians find money and votes to be made by feeding and exploiting such niche groups for their ignorance of history (and a lot else), they continue to grow and it is difficult for any voice of reason to be heard or to influence the ominous trends at work. \n
Avatar of: James Magner

James Magner

Posts: 2

February 1, 2010

I saw "Creation" at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA last night -- only five persons in the audience, though. That low turn-out bodes ill for writers and directors who might be thinking of making more such movies that depict important scientific history and personalities. I hope that many scientifically-minded persons, who are not all anti-religious I should add, will feel it their duty to vote with their $10 and go see this movie during the next week or two while it is still in a few theaters! The reviewer in The Scientist describes well the virtues and flaws of the film. The visions of Annie were overdone, as was time spent on repeated views of the "water cures" and those precious minutes could have been better spent with a scene explaining or showing that Wallace's paper and Darwin's paper were read together at the same scientific meeting, a superb historical scientific example of the ethics of assigning priority. I also was surprised that the famous debate with Bishop Wilberforce was not dramatized, but perhaps that was deemed a later event beyond the actual "creation of the book." In spite of slow spots and other flaws, the film is a worthy effort, and needs to be supported by an audience. We need more like it.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

February 1, 2010

I agree. Alas, film makers today find it hard to get funding and, importantly, distribution for anything less than block-busters - A Beautiful Mind being an exception, but then only with an exceptional case that few could identify with. \n\nMaybe scientists should turn their considerable talents to lobby and support the few remaining independent film makers, who do take on important, but less popular fare. There are, literally, thousands of stories of young students who realized their dreams, though good teachers, mentors, hard work, and their own determination to achieve prominence in science - many against the adverse odds of pop culture and some, while embracing it - and many of them would make great "stories" that would inspire others to try.
Avatar of: Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock

Posts: 5

February 1, 2010

Freud developed psychoanalysis in the 1890s and Darwin died in 1882. I haven't seen the film yet; does it really indicate that Darwin underwent analysis?
Avatar of: Andrew Lamb

Andrew Lamb

Posts: 2

February 1, 2010

There is another drama/documentary on Darwin's life and theory: "The Voyage that shook the World"; thevoyage.tv. I don't think it managed to get into US cinemas, despite excellent reviews.
Avatar of: JOHN COLLINS

JOHN COLLINS

Posts: 37

February 2, 2010

5 people in Kendall Square Cinema?!! How many 10s of thousands of scientists and students are living within 10 minutes of Kendall Square? This isn't just about the 36% of Americans rejecting evolutionary theory! Brains softened by explosions and hectic activity preferably in 3D?\n\nPerhaps more likely is that there is a general lack of interest in history amongst those at the research front. One could try to see the positive side. Darwin also had to reject the dogma of the past to go forward.
Avatar of: Sarah Greene

Sarah Greene

Posts: 2

February 2, 2010

Regarding Michael Pollack's query about whether the film portrays Darwin undergoing 'psychotherapy', and anonymous reader's note that Freud's terminology was post-Darwin: my comment in the review was slightly tongue-in-cheek. While there is much documentation about Darwin seeking hydrotherapy as a cure for his physical problems, I've seen no such reference to his seeking a physician's help for his general mental malaise. \n\nHowever, the film does portray Darwin with psychotic visions and has his physician (or hydrotherapist) asking him whether he's familiar with Quimby's book. This likely refers to Phineas Quimby, a hypnotist and mesmerist who posited, around this time, that the mind affects the body, and who conducted experiments to demonstrate this theory. Darwin is dismissive but later the physician is seen confronting his patient with the idea that unreleased passions can create internal boils, and next, Darwin races to the room of his daughter Annie's death and howls in sorrow. After that, sanity returns. Whether or not Darwin's great great grandson, who wrote the book on which the film is based, had evidence of this 'therapeutic' session, requires further digging.\n\nAlso, regarding a couple reader comments on the title "Creation" -- I agree that it's misleading and may be partly responsible for the weak box office. This has been noted in other reviews. However, after watching the film, I took it to refer to Darwin's creative passion and the dramatic forces within and without that finally brought Darwin to write his magnum opus. This act of creation -- writing up one's scientific findings to formulate a new theory or paradigm -- is one that The Scientist can relate to on a very personal level. \n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

February 2, 2010

This is a lot about demographics, very little about the theory of evolution. The subset formed by the triple intersection of the sets of (1) people who go to the movies (dominated by 14-year old boys), (2) people who are interested in costume dramas, and (3) people who are interested in science, is extremely small. How many people would go to see a movie about the life and thought of Louis Pasteur? Maybe five of us. (Unless they cast Will Ferrell as Pasteur.)
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 69

February 3, 2010

If a movie on Darwin is not a hit, are creationism and such forces directly or indrectly responsible for it? If religion, at least the conventional kind, matters, why was the Da Vinci Code a hit?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 12, 2010

this sounds like an interesting movie to see if you would like to see some of the history about Darwin. It always bothers me when someone does a movie like this that it is not historically accurate in its portrayal. \n\nThe movie on William Wilberforce was the same in that way. I was sorry to see how much poetic license was taken in showing the life of Wilberforce.\n\n I noticed that one person posted that what Darwin did proved that evolution was true. I know that no one can prove evolution least of which Darwin could.\n\nEvolution is still a faith based system and it really requires more faith than what is needed to believe in the God of the bible.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

February 17, 2010

Do we *have* do be "die-hard" Darwin fans to be scientists? From what I know of Darwin's biography, he did little to inspire me to be a fan, despite his discoveries and wildly successful theory that came from it. But I'm still a scientist.\n\nOn the other hand, Will Farrell at Louis Pasteur...\nThat would be awesome.
Avatar of: John Clement

John Clement

Posts: 2

February 17, 2010

It is currently playing in Houston, but at the artsy theater downtown. Too bad it had a small audience when we went.\n\nAnyone who looks up a bio of Darwin on the Wikipedia will probably discover the historical facts that were glossed over. But it would seem to be a fairly good portrait of him and his family life. As such it may undemonize him for some people. And of course the conflict between religion and evolution was overplayed because some noted clerics actually praised his work. The main conflict is between the fundamentalists and science, while many churches and congregations have embraced both science and faith.\n\nThe one thing that the movie should have brought out is that Darwin had already published a lot, and that his theory was actually originally presented in a joint paper, according to what I have read. His frailty was also lifelong and preceeded his struggle to publish the Origin of the Species. They could also have mentioned in the postscript that he had 10 children of which 7 survived to be come eminent authors and scientists.\n\nPerhaps this movie should be shown on PBS, as it is very similar to the types of things that they show. It is actually a love story with a strong historical background, a period costume piece.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

February 17, 2010

Although I agree with the points made by the "Demographics" poster to some degree, I wish to add that even "artsy" theaters would never show this film in the "Bible Belt" or in the more conservative southern states. I am sure there would be a huge movement by Southern Baptists and Moral Majority types who are firm creationists and who would swing a hefty financial punch at daring distributors or theaters. I have wondered how many school libraries have Darwin's book "On the Origin of Species" in the south. Some school systems have reportedly tried to offer the theory of evolution as an adjunct or alternative to teaching creationism. A Gallup poll taken in 2007 stated that the majority of Republicans doubt evolution (see http://www.gallup.com/poll/27847/Majority-Republicans-Doubt-Theory-Evolution.aspx"). I guess that 200 years since Darwin was born, and 150 years since "Origin" was published, the irony is that humankind still has yet to "evolve".

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