The folks at www.rottentomatoes.com are out with a list of the ten worst films of 2008. If you're not familiar with the site, it's essentially a clearinghouse for movie reviews. Rotten Tomatoes pulls together major reviews from newspapers and Internet sites and lets viewers know if the majority were positive or negative.
Many film buffs love the site. If 90 percent of the critics agree that a new movie is spectacular, folks might feel better about parting with some hard-earned dollars to see it. Of course, it can also work the other way. You might want to think twice before opening your wallet to see a film that most critics say is a stinker.
Normally this subject would not be of interest to us here at the Wall of Separation. After all, if you really want to add "The Love Guru" to your Netflix queue, feel free.
This year, however, there is a film on the list that might be familiar to readers of this blog: Ben Stein's "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed."
Stein, a comedian, game show host and financial columnist for The New York Times, decided to tell the world that evolution is a crock and that "intelligent design" creationism is the way to go. "Expelled" was his attempt to spread that message through a pseudo-documentary that would combine humor with propaganda, kind of in the style of a right-wing Michael Moore.
There was one problem: Pretty much everyone agreed that the film featured precious little humor but lots of propaganda. This made for an unpleasant viewing experience. (In one especially over-the-top segment, Stein attempts to argue that evolution led to the Nazi Holocaust.)
Although Stein is Jewish, he promoted the film heavily in conservative Christian circles. I heard him speak to the Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit" in 2007, before the film was released. Stein was very smug and arrogant, behaving as if he had just produced a masterpiece that was bound to bring Darwinism to its knees.
Not quite. In fact, Stein reminded me of one of these cranks who is forever mailing copies of a rambling, 15-page treatise arguing that he's debunked Einstein's theory of relativity to major scientific publications. Ah, hubris!
Despite the Religious Right's attempts to promote it, "Expelled" disappeared from most theaters in about a week. On Rotten Tomatoes, 90 percent of the reviews of "Expelled" are negative. (Several are pretty funny. One of my favorites is this line from the Toronto Globe and Mail: "This film is an appallingly unscrupulous example of hack propaganda and it sucketh mightily. What's more, I didn't laugh once.")
The Religious Right, of course, was certain it knew why the reviews of "Expelled" were so negative: It was all a plot by the liberal media and yet another assault on God, faith and all things decent by those decadent Hollywood types.
That could be it – but that would mean that critics all over the United States and Canada worked in concert in a type of secret cabal to bring down the film. Rather than invoke conspiracy theories, I think there's a simpler explanation for the failure of "Expelled": It was a lousy movie.