Despite a massive push from the Religious Right, a pro-creationist documentary that was released in theaters nationwide in April was a critical flop and a box-office failure.
“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” hosted by actor Ben Stein, argues that American schools and universities are persecuting adherents of “intelligent design” (ID) and refusing to let them proclaim their ideas.
The film opened April 18 in more than 1,000 theaters nationwide but was not made available for pre-screening by critics, a sign that the film was weak. Sure enough, when the reviews did start to come in, they were overwhelmingly negative.
“This is propaganda, a political rant disguised as a serious commentary on stifled freedom of inquiry,” opined USA Today.
The New York Times reviewer wrote, “One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time, ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ is a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.”
The popular film review site www.rottentomatoes.com, which collects newspaper and online reviews from all over the country, indicated that only 9 percent of the “Expelled” reviews were positive.
Controversy dogged the film before it opened. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., biology professor P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota-Morris was refused admittance to a pre-screening of “Expelled.”
People connected with the film spotted him in line and sent security guards to remove him – even though Myers is interviewed in the film. (Ironically, Meyers was accompanied by famous evolution defender Richard Dawkins, who had no trouble walking right in to see the movie.)
In Tempe, Ariz., a biology professor signed up to see the film but then received an e-mail saying the screening had been canceled. He later learned that this was a lie; the film had aired as planned.
Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, pointed out another deception: The film opens with a scene of Stein lecturing students at Pepperdine University, giving the appearance that Stein had been invited to speak there before a rapt crowd. But the scene was staged, and the “students” in attendance were extras bused in by the producers of “Expelled” to fill the auditorium.
The producers of “Expelled” have trumpeted the fact that the film has been called the eighth-highest grossing political documentary ever released. But this claim is misleading. Political documentaries usually play in just a handful of big cities and rarely receive national release. So far, “Expelled” has grossed about $7.5 million, a pathetic figure for a major release. By contrast, the last documentary to achieve national release was Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which opened on 868 screens and grossed nearly $120 million during its run.
To combat the deceptions of “Expelled,” the National Center for Science Education set up a Web site titled “Expelled Exposed.” A section titled “The Truth Behind the Fiction” debunks Stein’s claims, including his assertion that evolution somehow caused the Nazi Holocaust. (Visit the site at www.expelledexposed.com.)
Religious Right organizations gave the film lots of promotion. TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” ran a favorable piece about the movie, and the Baptist Press, the news arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, raved about the film, calling it a “must see.” Several other Religious Right organizations heaped praise on the movie as well, and church groups were offered bulk tickets at a greatly reduced rate.