Flock of Dodos (2006)
"Intelligent design is mendacity."- A Harvard Ph.D., during a poker game with similarly educated colleaguesDirector: Randy Olson
MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and brief mild language
Run Time: 01h:24m:58s
Release Date: 2007-09-10
DVD ReviewIf you think the Scopes monkey trial settled the issue of the scientific legitimacy of Darwin and evolution, you haven't been paying attention to the Kansas State Board of Education. This documentary is an all-out assault on "intelligent design," the latest incarnation of creationism and its adherents' efforts to get it taught in the public schools as a plausible alternative to evolution—it's essentially a scientific screed, but as it was made by a really nice guy and a Kansan, even when the gloves come off, everybody is still sort of pals.
Here's my thumbnail sketch of the debate: in the 19th century, Darwin propounded his ideas about evolution, suggesting that genetic mutations over the course of billions of years are responsible for the extraordinary complexity of life on our planet. Through lots and lots of trial and error, useful mutations were rewarded—for intelligence, or speed, or size, or whatever might leave an organism better suited than its mates to survive. It's how complex life forms emerged out of the primordial ooze, and why ours isn't simply a planet of amoebas—it also takes for granted that there's an essential randomness to the genetic mutations, that one cannot predict what is going to come down the chromosomal pike. Classic creationism, on the other hand, is faith-based at its most basic: in the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Intelligent design is more nuanced than that—it argues that some organisms are of such complexity, with parts functioning together in a way that they could never function or evolve alone, that some (unnamed) creator or life force must be behind the presence of such sophisticated beings.
Director Randy Olson and his friends are here to tell you that this is all poppycock, nothing more than a backdoor attempt to penetrate the church/state barrier. But he goes about it in a genial way, sitting down for coffees or beers with the big guns in the intelligent design community, including Dr. Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh who's the godfather of intelligent design, among others. The movie is basically a diatribe about the idiocy of these people, and about how they've tried to foist their faith-based pseudoscience on the reality-based community—it's a point that you'll get in just a couple of minutes, and Olson's sermon does get a bit tiresome and repetitive. A lot of the movie, then, is no more than Olson's scientist buddies schmoozing during poker games about the dopes who believe in this intelligent design stuff. If you're not being dealt in, it's not all that much fun to listen to a bunch of evolutionists kibitzing.
Olson has also done himself no favors by tarting up his movie with goofy little bits of animation, lots of rimshots punctuating jokes in the musical scoring, and spending lots of screen time on his mother, whose Kansas neighbor is a prominent intelligent design advocate. (She seems like a very nice woman, certainly, but in a movie about science that's kind of beside the point.) The portrait you get of the intelligent design folks is that they're decent, and caring, and just plain wrong; though some of them, like the members of the Kansas school board, seem a little too enamored of their own celebrity.
What is kind of funny is that intelligent design advocates use the kind of political rhetoric that their conservative allies so decry in those on the other side of the aisle—they speak always about the evolution "debate," and want schools to "teach the controversy," engaging in the language of moral relativism that so many on the right have hollered about for so long. (It's like their argument, in which creationism begets intelligent design, itself makes the case for evolution—out of a crude idea comes a more nuanced one, though this irony is never pointed out. And I am partial to the Pastafarian explanation of the origins of the universe, myself. Behold His Noodly Appendage.) Admittedly where we came from is the original and the only ontological question, but unless you're in the evolutionary trenches on campus, this may be more on the intelligent design wars than you need to know.
Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Resolution with the transfer seems a bit weak; it's got a made-for-TV look, and not in a good way.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Some static and buzzing, but it's all reasonably audible.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Air Guitar Nation, A Crude Awakening, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Extras Review: Olson gets his Letterman on as an hour-long evolutionary Q and A answers his top ten questions—the clips are taken from presentations made by representatives from the National Center for Science Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and particularly interesting are the points on reconciling religious belief with scientific inquiry. Olson is perched in a theater after a screening for three featurettes—one is on the reception the film has received, the second is on his comedic choices (animation, and so on), and the last is on making the rounds of the festival circuit. Shared Visions is a three-minute evolution debate parody, and it's almost painfully unfunny; two brief animated pieces from HHMI, on natural selection and fossil records, are easier to take. There's also a brief biography on the director.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsOverly jokey and too long, but a strong case for science, and for keeping religion in our places of worship, and not our schools.
Jon Danziger 2007-09-10