Creation: A Cinematic Look at Charles Darwin

Benjamin Radford

The new film Creation, which opens January 22, tells the true story of the circumstances surrounding Charles Darwin’s crowning creation, On the Origin of Species. The film is not really about Darwin writing the book; that would be cinematic suicide (as any screenwriter can tell you, watching someone write a book is about as dramatic and interesting as watching someone read a book). Nor is the film a biography of Darwin’s life, though several of his earlier adventures on the H.M.S. Beagle and elsewhere are told in flashback as stories to his children. Instead the film is about one of the world’s greatest scientists and his family, about how he was deeply in love with a religious woman who profoundly disagreed with much of his life’s work and the revolutionary theory it birthed.

Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) struggles to write his books as he battles poor health, internal and external pressures, and personal demons, especially regarding his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and his brightest daughter, Annie (Martha West). In one of the most moving and impassioned scenes, we see Darwin’s furor after Annie is punished in Sunday school for questioning her vicar and asking about dinosaurs. Darwin’s outrage is palpable as he prepares to confront the priest about punishing his daughter for simply speaking a self-evident scientific truth–not blasphemous impertinence.

Charles Darwin was clearly a man as enamored with his family as with his study of the world around him. Charles explains the naturalistic world to his children: how a camera works, how the geological strata of rocks tells a story of what happened millions of years ago, and so on. Several fanciful segments appear, essentially miniature documentaries depicting nature’s life cycles. Rarely has a film so effectively conveyed a wonderful, humanistic sense of the magic and awe of science.

When Annie dies, Charles is devastated and struggles to find the faith in himself to complete his book. While Emma takes solace in the idea that their beloved daughter is in heaven with God, Charles can’t bring himself to share her comforting belief. Nor is he willing to accept the insulting and feeble “comfort” that Annie’s death is part of some greater divine plan; he has studied nature’s cruelties and is too much a scientist to pretend that his family is exempt from them.

While Charles struggles with personal demons, the rest of the world waits for the product of his work. In one pivotal scene, Thomas Huxley (a piss-and-vinegar brimming Toby Jones) confronts Darwin, urging him to complete his long-gestating book. When Darwin says he needs more time and more evidence, Huxley barks: “Mr. Darwin, either you are being disingenuous, or you do not fully understand your own theory. Evidently what is true of the barnacle is true of all creatures–even humans. Clearly the Almighty can no longer claim to have authored all species in under a week. You’ve killed God, sir. You’ve killed God.”

Never before has the threat of Darwin’s ideas to creationism been so clearly depicted in a mainstream movie. While other films have downplayed or glossed over the friction between On the Origin of Species and the Bible, Creation tackles it head-on. Stephen Jay Gould’s conciliatory notion of the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion is out the window; here we have the bare-knuckled, Richard Dawkins view.

Creation‘s most remarkable achievement is to humanize one of the most important and influential scientists in history. It’s no secret that most scientists in films are depicted in an unflattering light. Horror films often depict scientists as Dr. Frankenstein-like evil geniuses whose experiments bring death and destruction. Comedies show scientists as socially inept nerds obsessed with numbers and data crunching. In the wake of the recent “Climategate controversy,” climate scientists were portrayed as deceitful and conspiratorial hoaxers trying to mislead the public about global warming. Rare indeed are films that show scientists as real humans with problems and struggles who do their best to reveal scientific truths. (A few of the best are Contact, The Dish, and A Beautiful Mind.)

Creation premiered on the opening night of the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival in September. At the time, Creation producer Jeremy Thomas lamented the fact that the film had not yet found a distributor in the United States. Creation was eventually picked up by Newmarket Films–ironically perhaps best known for releasing Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 religious gorefest The Passion of the Christ.

The performances in Creation are as remarkable as the script. Paul Bettany evokes Charles Darwin with seeming effortless ease, and truly inhabits the role. His Darwin is deeply conflicted, afraid of how his ideas may hurt those he loves, and wracked with guilt that he may have contributed to Annie’s death. Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Emma, depicting not only her strength and devotion to Charles, but her own conflicted devotion to her faith and her husband’s work.

The film was directed by Jon Amiel, from a screenplay written by John Collee, which in turn evolved from the biography Annie’s Box, written by one of Darwin’s great-great grandsons. Though Creation has been well received, some early reviewers groused that the film is boring; perhaps they were expecting the story of the theory of evolution would be told amidst action-packed swashbuckling and explosions. Creation is beautiful and powerful, with great performances and important ideas about faith, love, loss and truth.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).