Film Review: ‘The Unbelievers’

The Unbelievers Review

This superficial and overly reverent portrait of avowed atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss won't convert many.

Whatever opinion one has of atheism won’t be changed, or even challenged, by “The Unbelievers.” This superficial documentary from first-time feature helmer Gus Holwerda follows scientists and avowed atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss on a supposed “rock ‘n’ roll tour” of media and public appearances. While every moment is captured with the reverence of a fawning fan, Holwerda’s star-struck approach neglects to shed new light on his subjects or even showcase their greatest hits. Perhaps it’s appropriate that any meaningful afterlife following limited theatrical engagements appears to be wishful thinking.

Evolutionary biologist and “The God Delusion” author Dawkins is the clear headliner, but theoretical physicist and “A Universe From Nothing” author Krauss gets a bit more screentime (he’s an executive producer, natch) as the two make a series of appearances both individually and together in the U.S. and Australia. A prolonged stretch Down Under takes up the bulk of the film’s scant running time, highlighted by Krauss debating Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar at a local college intercut with Dawkins taking on Catholic cardinal George Pell on televised debate show “Q&A.” Dawkins and Krauss then team up for a conversation at a packed Sydney Opera House, and eventually speak at 2012’s Rally for Reason in Washington, D.C.

Whatever cogent arguments or interesting insights the pair have to make on topics of reason, morality and skepticism are reduced to glib soundbites here, as Holwerda seems inexplicably skittish about devoting too much time to his subjects’ oratorical skills. Instead there’s a baffling enthusiasm for scenes of Dawkins and Krauss on the road between engagements, and an almost fetishistic use of establishing shots, particularly of Aussie cityscapes, beautifully filmed in “Koyaanisqatsi”-style time-lapse photography by the director’s brother, Luke Holwerda. (The brothers also collaborated on editing the film and are members of the band Smokescreen, which provides several tunes on the soundtrack alongside more recognizable work from the likes of Radiohead and R.E.M.)

Additional distractions come from the decision to open and close the film with talking-head interviews featuring an assortment of celebrities — ranging from comedians Ricky Gervais and Sarah Silverman to filmmakers Woody Allen and Werner Herzog to authors Ian McEwan and Cormac McCarthy — offering up pro-science, anti-religion testimonials of varying length and conviction. Even with the added dose of star power, “Unbelievers” lacks the confrontational punch (and entertainment value) of Bill Maher’s 2008 atheist call-to-arms, “Religulous,” which doesn’t make it any more evenhanded or accessible to believers — it’s simply easier to ignore.

Film Review: 'The Unbelievers'

Reviewed online, West Hollywood, Dec. 4, 2013. Running time: 77 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) A JJC Films and Primordial Prods. presentation of a Black Chalk production in association with Shirley Films. Produced by Gus Holwerda, Luke Holwerda, Jason Spisak. Executive producers, Lawrence Krauss.

Crew

Directed by Gus Holwerda. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Luke Holwerda; editor, Gus Holwerda, Luke Holwerda; music, Thomas Amason, Chris Henderson; sound designer, Amason.

With

Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Woody Allen, Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz, Stephen Hawking, Sarah Silverman, Werner Herzog, Bill Pullman, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy.

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  1. MIchael says:

    I found Krauss shoes the most annoying thing about this film. Somehow I suspect they were used to try and identify himself as some sort of outsider. It didn’t work. He isn’t an outsider. The author is correct; Bill Maher’s film was better. At least it gave Atheism an anchor. This was film was made in my opinion just so the film maker could spend time with Dawkin’s.

  2. stooshie says:

    Agree with Darrell about the film not being designed to convert people. Additionally it is there to counter the “militant atheist” tag that has been misappropriately attached to them.

  3. Darrell Ross says:

    As are many atheist fliers, billboards, and other films, this film is *not* designed to convert anyone to atheism. There are lots of non-believers out there who are afraid to come out of the closet to their peers. This film is another shout out to the closeted non-believers letting them know that it is ok. There are plenty of us out here.

    You missed the point entirely but that is nothing new.

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