This film is much smaller than most of those the Register reviews. Indeed, at the time of this writing it has only reported $16,826 at the box office—half of which was made in a single theater on its opening weekend.
But the film is being disproportionately discussed in conservative Catholic circles, so I agreed.
Like any documentary, this one can be looked at more than one way. One perspective concerns the production values and how well it is executed. Another concerns the content of the film and how successfully it argues its case.
In this piece, we will look at how well The Principle works as a documentary film. In a subsequent piece, we will look at its content.
So how does it work cinematically?
It’s not the worst documentary I’ve ever seen.
That would be Overlords of the UFO (1976). You can watch it here. It’s hilarious.
While The Principle is better than Overlords of the UFO in many ways, the two have at least one thing in common, which is that they contain footage of people who were profoundly embarrassed by the film and who subsequently disassociated themselves with the project.
In the case of Overlords of the UFO, physicist and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman was horrified by the film’s use of footage from an interview he gave to a television station, making it appear that he was in support of the loony ideas promoted by the producers.
In the case of The Principle, multiple figures distanced themselves, including physicists Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, Julian Barbour, and mathematician George Ellis (see here, for example).
Also disassociating herself from the project was actress Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager), who read the narration for the film (see her comments on her Facebook fan page).
Setting aside the fact that multiple individuals associated with the film feel that they were misled by the producers and misrepresented in the film, how does it hold up cinematically?
Some have said that they were impressed by the production values, and these are not bad.
In addition to the interview segments, a good deal of the film is made up of stock footage and outer space photographs. These days, though, anybody can get some stock footage from Shutterstock and some Hubble telescope images, load them into Final Cut Pro, put pre-existing music under them, and produce montages of the same caliber.
There are some video effects that were produced specially for the film, and many of these do look good.
What looks less good are the two-dimensional animations produced for the film, particularly those depicting historical figures. To produce these, illustrations and photographs of well-known historical figures (Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Albert Einstein, etc.) were redrawn or retouched and then animated in a clunky way that is basically a step above the cutout animations that Terry Gilliam produced for Monty Python.
These animations in The Principle move in ways that are unintentionally comical.
Sometimes, though, the filmmakers attempt comedy with them, but the result is disappointing and, in one case, comes off as juvenile.
This happens in a sequence in which astronomer Edwin Hubble is depicted sitting at a telescope, smoking a pipe. The animation awkwardly leans forward and back, observing distant galaxies. Then the narration indicates that Hubble’s observations were consistent with or suggestive of geocentrism, but he couldn’t accept this fact.
At this point the animation of Hubble gets an absurdly exaggerated expression of shock on its face. It falls over backward in its chair, and the still-smoking pipe spins around in mid air, defying the law of gravity, before it too plummets out of frame.
How does the film’s pacing work?
It begins with a general discussion of “the Copernican principle” (the idea that the earth is not the center of the solar system or the universe) and hammers the idea that this theory suggests that there is nothing special about mankind.
It then backs up to give a short history of astronomy and astrophysics and how they moved through different phases, leading up to the present. This segment depicts science and faith initially being in harmony, then diverging, and now possibly moving back together.
In the end it suggests that there are reasons to question (read: reject) the Copernican principle and that science and faith may have a more fruitful encounter than they did following the Galileo incident.
This is the kind of structure that you would expect in a film of this sort, but the timing in the film is problematic. With a run time of about 90 minutes, the film seems simultaneously too short and too long. Many viewers will find it confusing and boring.
It will come across as confusing because it is too short to adequately explain all the concepts it throws at the viewer.
Unless the viewer is a scientist or—at least—someone who reads science books for fun (as I do, including multiple books by Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku, both of whom were interviewed for the film), he will have a hard time keeping up with many of the concepts in the film.
Lots of terms get thrown around—either with no definition at all or with a definition so brief that a normal viewer will not be able to absorb and remember it.
Multipoles? Dipoles? Octopoles? Ecliptic? Isotropic? Anisotropies?
These are not terms that will be familiar to most viewers, and if you want the viewer to understand what is being said, you need to slow things down and really explain these terms so that the viewer can grasp and remember them.
The film doesn’t do that, and so significant sections of the film will come across as confusing and impossible to follow for the normal viewer.
It’s not that they don’t make an effort to explain some of the terms. In fact, there is a goofy holographic-computer-interface-dictionary-lady-who-speaks-with-an-apparent-British-accent who pops up occasionally to define a term for us, but it is not enough for a viewer not already familiar with the jargon used in the film.
With significant sections of the film being unintelligible to a typical viewer and with the film at 90 minutes running time, many will feel parts of it boring.
Thus, in a way, the film seems too long.
It either needed to cut these sections and deliver a shorter, more intelligible film, or it needed to expand its length—explain the concepts involved—and become a more intelligible miniseries.
Artistically, judged simply as an example of documentary filmmaking, The Principle might get * * 1/2 stars out of five.
In the next post, we will look at the content of The Principle and how well it stands up.