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.