Doc of the Day: Flock of Dodos Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Flock of Dodos

Posted in Days of Docs by - May 25, 2012

A biologist-turned-filmmaker takes a look at the “debate” between evolution and intelligent design.

Dir. Randy Olson, 2006, 84 min

Evolution works on species dying as they fail to adapt. That’s what happened to the dodo (Sort of. Humans kind of… “helped”). This documentary asks who the “dodos” are today: are they the proponents of intelligent design? Or are they the scientists who are failing to connect with the American public, which disbelieves in evolution in upsettingly great numbers? Or is it everyone who squabbles over this while politicians exploit the issue to secure voter loyalty? The film dissects ID to figure out the answer.

While its director is a biologist and firm acknowledger of evolution, Flock of Dodos is extraordinarily even-handed in its approach. Randy Olson gives both sides equal listening time and consideration. While he makes it abundantly clear which side he falls on, he incorporates that into the narrative rather than making it the viewpoint of the movie itself. His voice is just one of many in a spirited debate. Looking at it like this, you could almost think the ID movement is a reasonable one.

Almost. Olson plays fair, but he doesn’t pretzel the truth to create a level playing field. The plain fact is that intelligent design is an intellectually bankrupt theory, an attempt to sneak religion into a public sphere where it doesn’t belong. The Discovery Institute, the organization bankrolling many of the legal and educational agitations for ID, has a blatantly “Christian” agenda. The leaked “Wedge strategy” memo makes clear that the Institute sees evolution and secularism as the source of all social ills, and it will work to undo separation of church and state by any means it can.

But there’s a difference between dismantling a faulty argument and mocking someone who disagrees with you, and Olson never, ever falls to the temptation to be even the least bit mean-spirited. He finds many of the ID defenders he meets genial and fun, and he lets us know it. He and many of the other scientists he brings into the film defy the stereotype of the arrogant, dismissive atheist. I feel that even a hardcore creationist or ID believer would enjoy this film.

The doc is smart to boot, which is probably the most vital thing when dealing with a scientific topic. Olson knows both the science and the debate, and he makes it easy for newcomers to understand both. He also knows how to make sure that nothing ever becomes too academic or stuffy.

But for everything that Olson does right, he still gets a few things pretty badly wrong, and they’re all classic first-time doc filmmaking mistakes. He overestimates the need to “liven up” things, using cartoons that are horrendously obnoxious. You can explain how a rabbit digests its food without a crass illustration. It gets to the point where the movie is talking down to the audience, and it’s embarrassing. In fact, most of these problems stem from not trusting the audience. There’s a recurring bit where dictionary excerpts appear on screen to explain the “big words” that certain people use. How condescending is that? There are also some beats that are downright weird. After the aforementioned explanation of lapine digestion, we see the filmmakers proceed to prove that the process exists by filming some rabbits for a while. It may be, no exaggeration, one of the most useless scenes I’ve seen in a doc for this blog. Idiotic content like this very nearly wrecks the movie.

Flock of Dodos won’t change anyone’s mind about intelligent design. But then again, movies on their own very rarely change anyone’s mind about anything, so that’s an empty statement. And this is such an emotionally-charged subject that it’ll take far more than a film to shift a point of view. But the doc examines the conflict between science and non-science in an interesting, engaging way. I just wish it had been as intelligent as it could have / should have been.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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