by John Travis
Creation, the star-studded biopic of Charles Darwin, opens later this week in the United Kingdom, and scientists and science educators have been bemoaning the fact that the film doesn’t yet have a U.S. distributor. Although the production company behind the movie has hinted that a U.S. deal is imminent, some have suggested that the movie, in which fellow naturalist Thomas Huxley joyfully tells Darwin he has “killed God,” is too controversial to sell in America, where disbelief of the theory of evolution remains strong among religious conservatives. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, even sent out a letter encouraging a lobbying effort on the film’s behalf. Noting that she had seen and liked the movie, she wrote: “But I worry (and can only speculate) that the difficulty the producers have had getting a US distributor might reflect corporate nervousness about getting an audience for a topic that deals with evolution. 'Creation' is definitely honest about Darwin's religious skepticism. The big middle part of America that we are aiming at will see a complex character with a lot of reasons to doubt the Christian pieties spouted by the minister character in the movie.”
From a cinematic standpoint, however, it’s not clear that Creation deserves the fervent support of the scientific community. In a nutshell, the movie, based on the book Annie’s Box, depicts a midlife Darwin at home in an idyllic English village dealing with the grief of his daughter Annie’s recent death and trying to write On the Origin of Species, the book that would make him a household name. The film has many historical inaccuracies, but that’s to be expected when filmmakers condense a life into a few hours. Creation’s larger problem stems from the decision to focus on a narrow slice of Darwin’s life, arguably one of the least interesting.
According to the movie’s press material, the film portrays the “powerful story of Charles Darwin and the single most explosive idea in history. In Creation, the battleground is a man’s heart. Torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place, Darwin finds himself caught in a struggle between faith and reason, love and truth.” What this ultimately means is that the movie centers on why Darwin was so slow to publish On the Origin of Species, attributing the delay to his illness, his grief, and his desire not to offend the world, or at least his wife. In other words, instead of dramatizing how Darwin traveled the world and arrived at the most explosive idea in history, Creation is ultimately about the world’s biggest case of writer’s block.
That’s a flawed choice, especially when one has stars as talented as Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly playing the Darwins. Married in real-life, the pair bring a natural, loving chemistry to the well-acted roles (Connelly may need to seek out more ambitious and different roles, however; here she plays the beautiful, supportive wife of a tormented genius who sees things, an almost identical role to the one she had in A Beautiful Mind, the story of Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash). And there’s little question that Creation is beautifully and at times inventively filmed. One scene nicely exploits computer-generated graphics to show how the tragedy of death in nature is necessary for life to continue.
The film periodically tries to suggest the scientific methodology Darwin used, although highlighting his grisly preparation of pigeon skeletons may more likely turn some viewers' stomachs than explain his study of natural variations within species. As Scott notes, the film does reveal a more “complex” picture of Charles Darwin, one that may shock those used to the genius stereotype. The film depicts the celebrated naturalist as a young man so ravaged by depression and illness—whether real or imagined remains a matter of debate; a recent book labels Darwin a hypochondriac—that he avails himself of a quack Victorian water remedy. He’s also seen taking unknown medicinal drugs and hallucinating the ghost of Annie, with whom he discusses his doubts and to whom he relates some of his life’s adventures and scientific undertakings. For example, one interlude shows Darwin studying a captured orangutan, an episode that presumably helped lead to his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. But given that he’s telling stories to an apparition, it’s hard for viewers to evaluate how these tales allowed Darwin to form his pioneering ideas. And given that the ghost itself is a creation of the filmmakers’ minds, some viewers may wonder if they can trust the veracity of anything in the movie. As for the topic of science and religion, the movie’s approach would please Richard Dawkins in that it doesn’t offer a middle ground in which one can believe in both evolution and God. Such a compromise would ruin the drama of Darwin’s struggle it seems.
What’s missing in Creation is enough insight into what enabled Darwin to bring together disparate information into a powerful story of how nature works. His daughter is bright and insatiably curious, and presumably a proxy for Darwin the researcher, but the father offers little evidence of being a fountain of brilliant insights. After all, in the movie, his theory is already a fait accompli; he just needs to write it up for publication. While much of the movie is about Darwin trying to get past his grief and illness, in the end it’s only the threat of competition—a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace—that forces him to overcome his writer’s block. And then the filmmakers would have you think that Darwin allowed his wife to decide whether the work should be published. One wishes the script had gone through a few more generations of evolution.