You’ve heard of Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, but have you heard of Darwin Day? Darwin Day takes place every February 12, commemorating the birth of naturalist and co-father of evolution Charles Darwin.
A collaborative international effort began in 2000. Some say it was first called “Darwin Day” in 1994, while others credit the celebration to cell biologist Robert Stephens in 1991. Regardless of who began it, Darwin Day is now sold as a non-religious holiday, a celebration in honor of “the brave, human enterprise of science in confronting they mystery of existence.”
In that spirit, this humble film critic would like to offer up ten scientific, skeptic, atheist, or humanist movies appropriate for a quiet little Darwin Day celebration.
Inherit the Wind
What Darwin Day list could be complete without this classic retelling of the 1925 Scopes trial, the legal battleground of the American schoolteacher who was arrested for teaching evolution. Frederic March plays the blustery William Jennings Bryan (renamed Matthew Harrison Brady for the purposes of the movie), prosecuting the teacher under Tennessee law. Opposite him in the courtroom is Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow (renamed Henry Drummond).
Although religious critics could fairly complain that the film stacks the deck against them, director Stanley Kramer captures the essence and the importance of the debate. If you haven’t seen Inherit the Wind yet, put it at the top of your list.
Completed in 1923, two years before the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, Haxan is a docudrama on the subject of witchcraft. Haxan is split into three parts. An opening segment presents a classroom-like introduction to the origins and history of witchcraft. The middle section, also the longest, features a hypothetical recreation of witch hunts in the Middle Ages. A title card speculates that millions of lives were lost at the hands of witch hunters.
The last section, presented documentary-style and set in modern times (i.e., the early 1920s) explains that all the symptoms of witchcraft — kleptomania, pyromania, sleepwalking, and insensitive areas on the back — can be attributed to a common disease known as “hysteria.” For an 80-year old movie, that’s not too bad.
Although this is the oldest film on this list, it is perhaps one of the most apt.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Brotherhood of the Wolf is the newest film of these ten and hasn’t yet withstood the test of time. It may or may not survive, but I include it because it is the inspiration for this list.
Our hero, Gregoire de Fronsac, is a naturalist and explorer living in colonial America. He is summoned to France to investigate reports of a giant wolf that terrorizes a village, killing women and children.
Gregoire is a man of science, and he has a skeptic’s sense of humor. He presents to a nobleman a new kind of trout he discovered in Canada, a trout that is completely covered in fur. Of course the furry fish is a taxidermic hoax, but it illustrates his point that the senses can’t always be trusted. Sometimes a careful, skeptical investigation is what’s called for.
Without revealing too much about “The Beast,” I can say that Brotherhood of the Wolf stays true to its scientific roots. It may take a few liberties with the laws of physics, just like any good action movie, but it illustrates the importance of skeptical inquiry and an open mind.
The Advocate also takes place in a France of days gone by, this time in the seventeenth century. A young lawyer named Courtois, fresh from law school, is sent from Paris to rural France. It’s not the kind of work he wants to do, but he must pay his dues.
The contrast between rural and city values is one of the many contrasts in The Advocate. Courtois uses logic in the courtroom while the local legal eagles appeal to tradition. Courtois seems to be living in the Enlightenment while the townspeople are still living in the Middle Ages.
An atmosphere of religious hysteria prevails. Women fear accusations of witchcraft. Witch-burnings are not uncommon. Even animals — pigs, rats, and donkeys — must answer to the court, and it is Courtois’ misfortune to defend them all.
The Advocate makes the list partly because of its contrasts, and partly because of its deadpan depiction of a ridiculous legal system, one that values tradition over logic and misinterpreted holiness over justice.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Documentarian Errol Morris is known for his eccentric style and subject matter. In Mr. Death, he looks open-mindedly at the life and times of Fred A. Leuchter, a death penalty proponent, and the designer of execution devices used in several U.S. prisons. His fascination with old electric chairs is curious and a little off-putting, but his sound mind and solid methods make him seem merely eccentric. Through Morris’ lens, he comes across as a true scientist, one with an unusual field of expertise.
Halfway through, Leuchter’s story takes an ugly turn. He is called upon to test bricks and concrete, illegally and surreptitiously taken from a Nazi concentration camp, for the presence of cyanide and Zyklon-B. Leuchter “learns” that there is no trace of poisonous gas, and soon becomes a hero of hate groups around the world. His once-clean reputation as a scientist earns him lots of dirty lecture-circuit money.
But Morris shows us the flawed science behind Leuchter’s findings. His methods were all wrong for the task at hand. Testing for cyanide requires a very thin sample, but Leuchter took thick ones. Even his assumptions — that traces of poison gas would still be on bricks and concrete fifty years later — are flawed, as Morris shows from other experts in the field.
Morris gives Leuchter the benefit of the doubt at the beginning of the film. Ironically, it’s the same open-minded and inquisitive approach to Leuchter’s life that makes him look like such a monster by the end.
Director and co-writer George Miller (who is also an M.D.) really seems to understand what makes for good science. Though it’s often dismissed as a “disease-of-the-week” movie, Lorenzo’s Oil is more about the scientific process than the ravages of disease.
Michaela and Augusto Odone are loving parents, but their son Lorenzo can’t behave in school. It’s soon discovered that he has a disease known as ALD (adrenoleukodystrophy), which usually kills its victims before puberty. Like most parents in this situation, Michaela and Augusto become interested in the nature of the disease.
The slow process of medical research is frustrating to the Odones. Unlike the medical community at large, they don’t have the luxury of time, so they take matters into their own hands. Without any prior training, Augusto practically becomes a theoretical research scientist, working with the medical community on new therapies and drugs. The plot might almost seem farfetched if it weren’t based on a true story.
Great acting and a wonderfully uplifting sense of empowerment make Lorenzo’s Oil a triumph. Since it puts science into the hands of everyday non-scientists, it makes a great choice for Darwin Day.
Jodie Foster brings to life Carl Sagan’s Ellie Arroway, the atheist astronomer who dreams of visiting another world. She knows her atheism counts against her — 95% of Americans believe in a god, the movie tells us — but she stays true to herself and lets the chips fall where they may.
Contact is a science fiction movie without being an action movie. Instead of laser blasts, chases and grunting, it offers questions, dilemmas, and discussion. It is science fiction from the perspective of a scientist, not from that of a studio with too much money and firepower.
Contact is also a great tribute to Sagan. Ellie has all of Sagan’s curiosity, morality, and rationality. Like Sagan, Ellie is a rationalist who’s interested in religious discussion. She repeats a probabilistic argument for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence that Sagan used in his Cosmos. And when she says “billion” you can almost hear him in her voice.
The Gods Must Be Crazy
This charmer is set in an unnamed country in Africa. Three storylines weave together, one of which involves a bushman named Xi. His tribe is nearly ruined when a wayward Coke bottle, thrown from a passing airplane, lands in their camp.
In a land without rocks, the Coke bottle is the hardest substance around. The tribe attributes its appearance to the gods, as a gift to Xi’s people. “But the gods were very foolish,” the narrator says, “for they only gave them one of these Things.” Concepts such as “ownership” and “greed” come to these peaceful bushmen who had not known such concepts before.
Although the film isn’t particularly skeptical or atheistic — it seems too eager-to-please to cover these divisive topics — it is interesting to see how extraordinary, unexplainable phenomena can be attributed to divine beings. The Gods Must Be Crazy proves Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Lord of the Flies
Humanism is not an easily defined term. It means different things to different people. For me, it’s a philosophy and practice that respects humans as humans. In all our glory and with all our warts, we are what we are, and that’s good enough. The Humanist Magazine says “Free of supernaturalism, [humanism]... holds that values — be they religious, ethical, social, or political — have their source in human experience and culture.”
Lord of the Flies is a classic – the classic – “what if” movie. It dares to ask what humans are like without a social structure. Deep down at our core, what is the essence of being human? The movie asks the question by dropping a schoolful of boys on an uninhabited island. Given just their humanity and no adult authority figure, what will these boys become? Are they angels at heart, or are they devils?
The answer — which is worth seeing for yourself – is actually some of each. Some horrible things happen to the boys, and they do some horrible things to each other. But on the other hand, they manage to survive and they find a sense of order and structure. If any movie could be called Humanist in my book – warts and all — it must be Lord of the Flies.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Italian Neorealism is a movement in film that emphasizes simple human drama, location shooting, and unknown actors. The Gospel According to St. Matthew makes a good example.
Why would a religious epic round out this list? Because perhaps more than any other portrayal, St Matthew’s Jesus is presented as simply a man. Pasolini’s Jesus is not too popular. He lives among real people, in real cities, bringing real discord into their daily lives. He causes so much trouble among his contemporaries that they want to crucify him. When Judas betrays him three times, he seems to be doing it just to get him off his back.
This angle — Jesus as parade-rainer — is interesting to contemplate. Modern pictures of Jesus show him as a martyr, a man unjustly accused. We think Jesus was killed in order to wash away our sins. Few people have dared to asked what reasons were given at the time of his death, or why his apostles would be willing to turn him in to the authorities.
The film itself doesn’t particularly emphasize this angle, and that’s the brilliance of it. It takes a holy text as source material and distills the humanity from it. The core of the story is still there, but all judgments and spiritual baggage has been removed. Believers and nonbelievers alike can approach this film, and leave it, with their own values intact.
Pasolini, by the way, was an atheist.