My personal anticipation of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” has varied since early last fall.

After I first heard about the movie, seeing the early trailer and Ben Stein attached got me pretty excited. I’ve learned (as we all have) to be a bit reserved in my excitement over upcoming related-at-all-to-faith-issues films. But I was guardedly optimistic.

Then, that optimism was systematically undermined in the ensuing months. A promised screening at a college ministers’ conference in November was suspiciously canceled. Next, the shifting release date looked awfully unprofessional. Third, I thought I noticed a distinct lack of involvement by Stein himself in promoting this film. If he, the brilliant, savvy, well-known protagonist was in fact distancing himself from his own show… That spelled trouble. Plus, some of the promotional material seemed awfully corny. But I was gonna wait and see.

In recent weeks, though, I’ve heard more about Stein’s involvement in promotions, and I started hearing great things from several sources about this movie – although some Christian sources, as we all know, have a hard time with subtlety when it comes to discussions of cultural phenomena they appreciate (as well as those they don’t).

So it all came down to opening night on Friday, when I went to see “Expelled” at the local cineplex here in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. I was a little worried, and a little hopeful. All at once.

Question 1: Should you see “Expelled”? Yes. Particularly if you’re involved at all in higher academia, which includes us college ministers. And you should take your students, who need as often as we can tell them to understand that there are biases everywhere – even in the professors they respect.

There are several very good quotes in the movie that make the basic argument for academic freedom succinctly. At the same time, balance is generally preserved, and very, very little is said that could (honestly) be considered “outlandish” or contrived. Some of my fave quotes:

  • On daring to disagree with the majority of very brilliant scientists who hold to evolutionary theory: “It may seem a little cheeky, but it’s what scientists are supposed to do.”
  • “The questions that aren’t properly answered don’t go away.”
  • “It would be nice to have a real spirit of self-criticism pervading [the scientific community].”
  • Richard Dawkins’s words to God, if he did encounter Him in the afterlife (apparently quoting Bertrand Russell): “Sir, why did You take such pains to hide Yourself?” (good quote, even if I disagree)
  • On the possibility of discovering some sort of intelligent designer behind the natural world: “What could be more intriguing than that?”

Critics are already decrying this movie as “propaganda,” and I don’t understand that concern at all. (Find the growing list of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.) My surprise is not because “Expelled” clearly isn’t propaganda, but because it so obviously is – so what’s the problem? Has the movie or its advertising made any attempt to hide the fact that it has deliberately presented its information with a cause in mind? (See the definition of propaganda.)

The cause, as delineated in the last five (powerful) minutes of the film, is creating a hole in the Berlin-like wall that has kept Intelligent Design from being considered within academia. At the movie’s beginning, Stein says he always assumed scientists were free “to ask any question, to pursue any line of inquiry, without fear of reprisal.” The film hammers toward making that wish reality. It’s a documentary-with-a-purpose and is therefore propaganda. Nobody said it wasn’t.

[Update: While most of the negative reviews I’ve seen have been quite strangely unbalanced and even angry, I feel like Variety presents a much more balanced take, even if they ultimately found “Expelled” ineffective as well.]

Question 2: Is it an apologetics movie? No. Or, better said, the greatest weakness of “Expelled” comes at the point it tries to build an apologetic against evolutionary belief. The only real attacks against evolutionary theory (rather than just against “Big Science” and its refusal to discuss the issue) come in the last 20 minutes. These attacks come at the points of linking evolutionary thought with the Holocaust, abortion, eugenics, etc., as well as linking Darwinism with atheism. While such links (debatably) exist, they:

  • are not very strong arguments against evolutionary theory
  • do not fit tightly with Stein’s overall purpose in this film
  • have received a disproportionate focus among movie critics reviewing this film, which is a bummer

At the same time, I didn’t find the movie’s efforts here to be as heavy-handed as some seem to have found, or even uninformative. It was very interesting to think about links between Darwinian thought and, for instance, the Holocaust, Planned Parenthood, and “eugenics” (which I didn’t really know much about). Still, this semi-diversion may hurt the film’s cause more than they help it.

However, “Expelled” does do a pretty good job of showing some speciousness in the theory that “Big Science” has a unified voice on evolutionary theory, or even a unified understanding of each scientist’s personal positions. The discussions with several people from this community are enjoyable to watch, and it’s not “gotcha” editing, either. The footage shows that some of these scientists’ own (semi-private) leanings are, at times, quite peculiar.

Most powerful among these episodes comes with Richard Dawkins, the biggest spokesman of the recent anti-god fervor, at the end of the film. (Don’t read Christianity Today’s review yet if you want to save that surprise.)

Question 3: Did I enjoy this movie? Yeah, I actually did! It was a documentary that certainly kept my interest, with an excellent use of “samplings” of old movie / TV clips, songs, etc. It was fast-moving, which was great – although with some of the stories it told, I wanted to know more. The movie was funny at several points, both in its sampling as well as in Stein’s back-and-forths with the interviewees depicted. (Many reviewers are overzealously mocking the “sampling,” but it fit the tones of the movie and should be appreciated by youth and collegians, especially.)

The crowd I was with seemed to enjoy it, too, even in the Research Triangle near Raleigh, NC. But we had far from a packed house at 9:15pm, and I imagine most who saw “Expelled” on its first night were friendly to its premises. There were occasional chuckles from the audience and scattered clapping at the end (which I found slightly annoying, but whatever). Most encouraging to me were the multiple small groups of students standing around outside the theater, clearly discussing what they had just seen.

Whether individuals like the film and its premise or not, its biggest “win” will be inducing this sort of discussion. And that’s exactly what the film hopes to accomplish within the scientific community at large, as well: Whether scientists like Intelligent Design theory or not, it seems it should be “on the table” for discussion.

[the movie’s site is at www.expelledthemovie.com, and it’s got lots of “extras” for your perusal]

Written from “The Triangle,” North Carolina (as part of a year-long road trip researching college ministry)