Every semi-knowledgeable moviegoer and reader of movie criticism knows what the words "not screened for critics" means: The movie is a dog.
"Not screened for critics" means a movie is so terrible that the studio will take its chances, deprive itself of free publicity, and go without release-date reviews. Considering the garbage the studios will show us critics ahead of time (such as the gruesomely lurid "Street Kings" or the laughably stupid "10,000 B.C."), to keep a movie away from critics is usually a sign that things are really, really bad.
But the 19th movie of 2008 to be released without critical appraisal is doing so under quite different circumstances.
That movie is a documentary, opening nationwide this Friday, with the title "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." It features Ben Stein - comic actor, former game-show host, conservative commentator and former Nixon speechwriter - on "his heroic and, at times, shocking journey confronting the world's top scientists, educators and philosophers, regarding the persecution of the many by an elite few," as the film's Web site describes it.
Who's being persecuted? People who espouse the notion of "intelligent design," a k a creationism. Who's doing the persecuting? Everybody, according to Stein, who narrates and co-wrote the film - academics, the education system, the legal system and (blush) the media.
I contacted the public relations firm handling the movie, and was told there were no screenings for critics for "Expelled." Critics in other cities were told the same thing.
There have been screenings around the country, but not for critics. The film's producers arranged preview screenings for selected "grass-roots" audiences, mainly church groups, to stimulate good word-of-mouth.
In January, the Orlando Sentinel's movie critic Roger Moore was invited to a screening at a Florida megachurch. He was also disinvited, but went anyway. Moore wrote a harsh review of the film, and was excoriated by the film's producers.
Another "grass-roots" screening, this one at the Mall of America in Minnesota, may have created the strangest "disinvitation." In line for the film was PZ Myers, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota who was interviewed for the film (under false pretenses, Myers says on his blog, Pharyngula). But someone recognized Myers, and a security guard told him he'd have to leave the theater immediately or risk arrest.
Myers left quietly, though his wife and daughter stayed to see the movie. So did Myers' guest: British biologist - and much-quoted atheist - Richard Dawkins (who's also in the movie).
Accounts vary on what happened next. The "Expelled" producers say, on the movie's Web site, that they made Dawkins cower in the post-screening Q-and-A. Dawkins and Myers, in a wry conversation on YouTube, say that no such thing happened.
Now, I have no idea whether "Expelled" is a good movie or a bad one. Like a good critic, I will reserve judgment until I actually see the thing. But I can't help but be struck by the irony of Stein's own words in the movie's introduction (which is also on YouTube):
"In my experience, people who are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism. So that tells me the Darwinists are afraid. They're hiding something."
What, pray tell, are Stein and the "Expelled" producers hiding? And what are they afraid of?
You can check out the NCSE website for more on the movie Expelled.