There's an intelligent case to be made for intelligent design, which is why "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," a flimsy attempt to discredit Darwinist theory as the cornerstone of modern biology, reps such a missed opportunity.

There’s an intelligent case to be made for intelligent design, which is why “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” a flimsy attempt to discredit Darwinist theory as the cornerstone of modern biology, reps such a missed opportunity. While roving interviewer Ben Stein extracts some choice soundbites from scientists on both sides of the creation-vs.-evolution debate, the film’s flippant approach undermines the seriousness of its discourse, trading less in facts than in emotional appeals. A probable punching bag for film critics and evolution proponents alike, docu will be a natural selection for Christian audiences and should spread like the gospel on homevid.

Selectively screening the film for churchgoing crowds in the weeks leading up to its April 18 release, Motive Entertainment is pursuing a marketing strategy similar to its campaign for “The Passion of the Christ.” As with that film, hostile reviews and op-ed coverage will only raise the pic’s profile and broaden its reach.

An actor, comedian, columnist, gameshow host and Nixon-era White House speechwriter, Stein (who shares a writing credit here with Kevin Miller) has added intelligent-design advocacy to his resume in recent years. Like a thinner, more conservative version of Michael Moore, he roams from one university to the next, interviewing profs and scientists while his personal musings flood the soundtrack.

“Freedom is the essence of America,” he drones, his point being that the freedom to dispute Darwinism has been quashed by a scientific community that treats evolution as fact, not theory. Pic effectively argues that the debate is often shut down before it can even begin, rattling off a laundry list of scientists (among them Richard Sternberg, Caroline Crocker and Guillermo Gonzalez) who have lost grants, teaching posts and academic standing for expressing their views that life did not originate by random chance.

But as its awkward title suggests, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is more interested in portraying its subjects as victims than in rigorously examining and defending what they have to say. An open-minded viewer wants more than just sob stories and conspiracy theories; one hopes to hear conventional wisdom challenged and little-known facts brought to light.

Stein does find some eloquent ID supporters in movement co-founder Stephen C. Meyer, Paris-based mathematician David Berlinski and Oxford professor Alister McGrath, who argue that scientists have become slaves to their own dogma, willingly misreading the evidence to support their claims. Pic is most compelling when it contrasts this level-headed reasoning with the vitriol of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whose brief screen time constitutes a thorny, fascinating study of atheism taken to hateful extremes.

Pic has a good laugh at a few scientific hypotheses about the origin of life, some of which involve UFOs. And an animated illustration of the inner workings of a cell offers a striking visual argument in favor of “irreducible complexity,” raising the question of how such harmony of form and function could have developed through spontaneous mutation.

But it’s easier to critique evolution (oddly, the gaps in the fossil record, which even biologists concede, are never addressed) than to mount evidence for intelligent design, and the filmmakers’ failure to offer even a working definition of the term leaves them open to the common charge that it’s all unprovable, faith-based pseudo-science.

First-time director Nathan Frankowski strikes a relentlessly jokey tone throughout, using black-and-white film clips as comic punctuation (after news of a professor’s axing, pic cuts to a shot of a guillotine). In addition to being just plain irritating, this jittery style seems to reinforce the perception of the pic’s target audience as a bunch of intellectual lightweights.

Even more offensive is the film’s attempt to link Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” ideas and Hitler’s master-race ambitions (when in doubt, invoke the Holocaust), complete with solemnly scored footage of the experimentation labs at Dachau. Evocations of the Berlin Wall, treated as a symbol of a bullheaded scientific establishment on the verge of collapse, are equally fatuous.

Heavily sampling footage from classic films (including “Inherit the Wind,” natch), “Expelled” is technically well-mounted, though its aesthetics trump its ideas at every turn. If evolution is worth debating, it’s worth debating well, and by a more intelligently designed film than this one.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Production

A Rocky Mountain Pictures release of a Premise Media presentation of a Rampant Films production. Produced by Logan Craft, Walt Ruloff, John Sullivan. Directed by Nathan Frankowski. Written by Kevin Miller, Ben Stein.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Frankowski; editor, Simon Tondeur; music, Andy Hunter, Robbie Bronnimann; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Tittmar; supervising sound editor, Tittmar; re-recording mixers, Ewan Deane, Robert Hunter; lead animator, Joseph Condeelis; animation, Light Prods., Out of Our Mind Studios; associate producer, Mark Mathis; second unit camera, Ben Huddleston, Kevin Nowicki. Reviewed at Wilshire screening room, Los Angeles, March 28, 2008. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Ben Stein, Richard Sternberg, Mark Souder, Guillermo Gonzalez, Caroline Crocker, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Eugenie Scott, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, John Lennox, David Berlinski, Alister McGrath, Stephen C. Meyer.

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