“The Principle’s” principal raison d’etre is to prompt a reconsideration of the Copernican principle in cosmology, effectively meaning a return to the ancient geocentric view that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. The film never quite comes out and says this directly, however, and therein lies its insidiousness. Featuring some impressive-looking visual illustrations of a decidedly unorthodox notion, and corralling an impressive array of scientists (some of whom publicly disavowed the film once they discovered its primary angle), the best that can be said of this documentary is that it makes enough gestures toward fair and balanced treatment to obscure much of the bad faith lying beneath. Box office earnings should certainly rise above the quantum level, but not by much.
Professionally directed by Katheryne Thomas, “The Principle” is executive produced by Robert Sungenis, who is interviewed onscreen quite liberally throughout. Sungenis is a controversial Catholic apologist who co-authored a book titled “Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right,” and who once delivered an address at a geocentrism conference titled “Geocentrism: They Know It But They’re Hiding It.” Such blunt titles leave no secret where he and co-author Robert Bennett (another frequent interviewee) stand, but the film is altogether more slippery.
For most of its first hour, “The Principle” offers a fairly straightforward history of cosmological thought, stretching from Ptolemy to Tycho, Copernicus to Einstein. Narrated by “Star Trek: Voyager” star Kate Mulgrew, the film invites a clutch of figures ranging from major physicists to outright skeptics and religious thinkers to comment. (Mulgrew distanced herself from the film post-facto, as did such bold-name interview subjects as Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, George F.R. Ellis and Max Tegmark. Even John Hartnett, an avowed biblical creationist who espouses a “galactocentric” model, has complained that the film misrepresents some of his views.)
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Toward the end, however, it begins to make its case, applying sly ridicule to contempo cosmological ideas like dark matter and multiverses, while arguing that recently discovered temperature patterns in the Cosmic Microwave Background seem to align with the Earth – these presumably being the “astonishing new scientific observations” promised by the film’s publicity materials. From here, the pic begins to sketch a vague conspiracy narrative of a scientific community too wedded to its own pet theories (and sweet, sweet grant money) to acknowledge non-Copernican views, and then, somewhat incongruously, ends by pleading for a more harmonious relationship between science and religious faith.
This reviewer makes absolutely no claim to know more than the rough rudiments of modern cosmological theory; nor has he read the neo-geocentric literature in question. (For whatever the ultimate principles and properties of space-time may turn out to be, his allotment of it is certainly limited.) Yet it’s easy to see a skewed argument in the making.
For one, specific scientific objections to the notion that the CMB proscribes a geocentric model are hardly given an airing. And it’s hard not to notice that complicated concepts like the Lorentz transformation and “quantum foam” are summarized in layman’s terms, while arguments for a non-Copernican worldview invoke such terms as “anisotrophies,” “quadropole” and “ecliptic” without much in the way of catch-up.
More subtly, the film has a way of seeding doubts without ever particularly owning them. At one point, Sungenis claims that data suggesting a geocentric model of the universe has been disappearing from the NASA website, though no evidence of this theoretically explosive allegation is provided; nor is the claim followed up on. At another, an interviewee offhandedly equates the scientific community’s dismissal of geocentrism to the Vatican’s execution of Giordano Bruno. This is a morally repugnant comparison — as though the distinction between burning a man alive and declining to publish his paper in Scientific American is merely a question of degrees — but one that comes and goes so quickly the viewer hardly has time to process it.
But perhaps most fatal are the film’s essential twin assumptions: One, that the Copernican view of the universe necessarily renders the Earth “non-special” in some greater philosophical sense; and second, that cosmology represents just another belief system, one whose dismissal of religious views constitutes a form of intolerance. The first premise allows the film to appeal to kitsch, invoking the beauty of “a baby’s smile” and “the crescendo of a symphony” as evidence of the planet’s specialness (that this specialness should translate to a favored position in the universe does not logically follow). The second allows it to take a number of genuinely provocative questions – for example, when does cosmological theory reach so far beyond the observable universe that it becomes sheer intellectual exercise? – and use them merely as cheap, lawyerly devices to problematize centuries of scientific discovery.
The film is well paced, at least, and visual quality ranges from polished (the visual effects) to inappropriately jokey (the cut-out animations of historical figures).