The Unbelievers (Gus Holwerda, 2013)

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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.

Before the Flood (Fisher Stevens, 2016)

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I saw this at London’s Debtford Cinema, where it was programmed by a friend of mine. It doesn’t really feel possible to review a documentary film made to raise awareness of climate change in the same way as one would another film. The attempt to educate on the issue is commendable, so all that can really be said is that this is a genuine and heartfelt film, and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to the cause.

DiCaprio travels the world to investigate the causes and impact of the global addiction to burning fossil fuels. He speaks to politicians, scientists, and other important figures (including the Pope), and tries to achieve the knowledge and understanding relevant to reducing our own carbon footprints. We get a sense of our moral culpability – but also our power to drive change – through the stats and figures presented throughout the film.

There is one particularly powerful scene near the end, where former astronaut Dr. Piers Sellers sits down with DiCaprio in a dark room that’s illuminated by a graphic of the Earth. He talks about how his experiences in space allowed him to appreciate the world’s beauty. After getting a stage-four cancer diagnosis upon returning to Earth, he became inspired to create satellite images that put the world’s big problems onto one image. We can see how different currents and rising temperatures will soon affect different parts of the world, leading to water and food shortages, thereby leading to more conflicts between humankind. But Dr. Sellers is an optimist— he believes that if we can all see our presence in the world on a much larger scale than simply what’s in front of us, we might be able to change our way of life, before it’s too late.

In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

3.5*

My second novel from Ryu Murakami. This gave me the creeps! It was delicious. I do like the way Murakami combines the horror/thriller genre with a sort of philosophical quality, addressing fundamental questions of human nature – loneliness, meaning, despair – all within the context of Japanese society.

Kenji is a 20-year-old ‘nightlife guide’ for foreigners who visit Tokyo. He shows them around the sex clubs and hostess bars of the city. His latest client, Frank, an overweight American tourist with disturbing (murderous) tendencies, arouses Kenji’s suspicion from the outset. We accompany Kenji and Frank on their night tour of Tokyo, and through Kenji’s narration, we learn a lot about Japan and Japanese society along the way.

There’s only one really gory part (as in Audition), but when the actual horror begins it completely throws you off balance. Kenji’s state of mind after the horrific event was the most interesting thing to me about the novel – an examination of the human psyche, struggling with questions of right and wrong.

The writing is engaging – Kenji’s insights and curiosities provide plenty of food for thought and reflection on every page, and he remains a likeable character to the very end, even though his decision is shocking. The innocent quality of his narration makes him very sympathetic and exposes the extent of the decadence all around him. Having him as a narrator, the environment we are in becomes easier to deal with and there’s some security to be found in his observations, even after he decides to not to act on what he’s witnessed.

My (limited) experience of reading Japanese fiction so far is that novels’ endings are often left quite open, quite ambiguous – you don’t feel the story is truly over. It’s intriguing, but in this case I would have wanted some more questions answered.

Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman, 1996)

3*

This novel, a stand-alone urban fantasy about a hidden world that lurks beneath the streets of London, the world of London Below, consisting of all those who have ‘fallen between the cracks of reality’, was a charming reading experience. Reminiscent of childhood classics like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the other world of this story is much like a Narnia for adults – filled with monsters and saints, angels and knights, and, most importantly, a strong sense of mission and purpose which forms the core of the book.

Richard Mayhew leads a fairly conventional life. A recently engaged businessman in London, it is his caring nature that eventually leads to his discovery of this other London. A single act of compassion catapults him out of his everyday existence, and hurls him into a world that is completely and utterly bizarre, yet, as we discover, equally delightful.  Being a Londoner myself, the joys of meeting an angel named Islington, a mysterious Night’s Bridge whose darkness sometimes swallows up those who cross it, a group of people called the Black Friars, and the Earl of Earl’s Court, were hugely enjoyable and added a new, wonderfully wacky dimension to my conception of London.

With a few obvious exceptions (HP, LotR, etc.), fantasy is not an area of fiction I had ever really explored or found myself at home with. But the pleasure of discovering The Floating Market, a giant bazaar (which moves from location to location) where people trade all manners of junk and magical items, was one which was reminiscent of the first time experiencing the moving staircases of Hogwarts. So, even for those who find fantasy somewhat out of their comfort zone, this book will certainly surprise and enchant. My experience as the reader in many ways paralleled the experience of Richard as he slowly fell from the reality we all know (and sometimes detest).

Many times while reading Neverwhere, I found myself marvelling at the author’s creation – what a mad, yet utterly delightful world! Looking forward to reading more of Neil Gaiman’s stuff.