The Unbelievers (Gus Holwerda, 2013)


In this documentary film, we follow two world-renowned scientists – evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss – on their quest to spread scientific understanding and awareness, and encourage people to abandon blind belief in the supernatural.

I generally enjoy most things Richard Dawkins does, and I definitely didn’t expect this film to be an exception. There was so much potential in its premise – to promote science, reason and critical thinking throughout the world, and to convince people that a scientific, evidence-based world view is, above all things, interesting and rewarding.

But director Gus Holwerda didn’t seem particularly interested in this – the film is surprisingly lacking in substance. In its 77-minute running time, I think there were probably only about 20 or so minutes spent on showing actual intellectual discussion and debate. The rest of it: bizarre time lapses, scenes of Dawkins or Krauss gazing dreamily into the distance (there’s also one scene in which we’re shown Dawkins flicking through TV channels in his hotel room), car journey chit-chat, and thundering applause as the scientists walk onto huge stages with eager audiences (mostly all of whom already hold a scientific worldview). All of this is fine, of course, and makes the film more appealing to mass audiences, but to somebody who may be new to scepticism, science, and perhaps comes from a religious background and has recently started to rethink their position, this film does a terrible job in terms of persuasion. If I hadn’t already seen an abundance of material on the topic, including other talks and documentaries by Dawkins, I would think these scientists are really quite irritating – and perhaps not very nice people!

The whole thing was just very lazily done. It felt to me as though Dawkins and Krauss were simply on a mission to have a laugh (I’m sure this isn’t true, rather just bad direction), after growing tired and weary of the whole persuading-people-to-believe-in-science thing. The rigorous, exciting quality of enquiry isn’t present in this film. It seemed more just a celebration of how wonderful these men are, as opposed to trying to convince, educate and enlighten. Two guys, both brilliant in their fields, killing time. This was a shame.

None of the rich, illuminating arguments and debates for the non-existence of God are presented to us. None of the astonishing evidence (which is many times referred to) for evolution, for a universe from nothing, is properly explained, whether in a lecture or in the context of a debate. In the parts of debates that are shown, we are simply not given enough for anything to resonate, or for it to have any real lasting impact. There’s one particularly bizarre scene, where Dawkins is shown being on the phone with someone in his hotel room, and we can’t hear anything that the person on the other side of the phone is saying – we can only hear Dawkins’ side. What was the point of this?! Sure, we can see that it’s clearly a debate, but the laziness is striking. Perhaps it was simply supposed to demonstrate the looseness and frailty of arguments defending supernatural conviction. But still, a little more context would have been valuable. On the level of engagement, it’s a bad film. After a while, I just kept it on in the background.

I’d be interested to know what someone new to these sorts of debates, and watching the film as a sort of introductory activity thought, because maybe I’m wrong. But ultimately, my feelings: too rockstar-ish, not enough science, not enough substance.

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