Reviews of documentary "We Believe in Dinosaurs"

Ark on Opening Day, courtesy of Dan Phelps.

Reviews of “We Believe in Dinosaurs.” Links courtesy of Dan Phelps. Excerpts by me.

“In the end, I liked We Believe in Dinosaurs. Unlike most of you reading this, in the past, I viewed the debate from the Creationist side. On occasion, I’d venture to the other side for education[,] and the facts presented in this film are both fascinating and fair. Brown and Ross smartly bring in local church leaders, who have equally grave concerns about the museum and its problematic existence. Films like this serve as a mirror to Christians to show just how the world sees our actions.” – Alan Ng, Film Threat.

We Believe in Dinosaurs captures a disturbing current in contemporary America, but it’s far from the whole story. There are a few naysayers among the film’s interview subjects — a former creationist who changed his mind and a geologist who tries to debunk the pseudo-science depicted at the museums — but the doc cries out for a few more scientific voices. The directors understandably didn’t want to overwhelm their audience with talking heads, but a few more sage voices would have been welcome.” – Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter.

Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown’s look at the Ark Encounter, Kentucky’s monument to young-earth creationism, highlights the false legitimacy afforded by competent design. Most responsible for that is Patrick Marsh, who created the Jaws ride and whose enthusiastic participation almost feels like a betrayal. Opposite him is beleaguered paleontologist and audience proxy Dan Phelps, whose role in the drama can sometimes feel a little Quixotic, with the Ark standing in for windmills. … I could have done with a a smidgen of humor in a film about people who believe dinosaurs lived a few thousand years ago.” – Arlin Goldin, Film Inquiry.

“And while the film checks all the boxes you expect from a documentary about this issue, with interviews with believers and non-believers alike, by trying to cover such a massive story (both figuratively and literally) ‘Dinosaurs’ spreads itself so thin and loses its grip on the basics of storytelling.

“If “We Believe in Dinosaurs” has one saving grace, it’s the subjects that are interviewed. From artists that sculpt the titular beasts that will populate the 510-foot long, 51-foot high Ark to a former creationist that is struggling with his own personal beliefs to a lonely, non-believing paleontologist that makes it his life’s mission to be the thorn in Ken Ham’s side, Brown and Ross have culled together a group of characters that are sincere, open, and above all, fascinating.

“The best of the group, without a doubt, is Dan Phelps, the aforementioned paleontologist and one-man army against the Ark Encounter exhibit. ‘Dinosaurs’ paints a portrait of a man who loves science from an early age and illustrates his day-to-day life, foraging for interesting specimens on the side of the highway. ‘Dinosaurs’ helps you get to know Phelps on a very deep level through his actions and his own words, and it’s an utter joy to behold. …

“Ultimately, the film struggles with its ambition. Brown and Ross attempt to tell the entire story of the Ark Encounter, down to every nail used to build the boat and every legal battle fought to ensure specific tax incentives. When the credits finally roll, and there is even more information being fed into your eyeballs—it’s just too much.” – Charles Barfield, The Playlist.

“The multi-year journey features a number of fascinating and complex personalities, including Dan Phelps, a geologist and head of the Kentucky Paleontology Society who serves as a frequent and vocal critic of the museum’s faulty science; David MacMillan, a former creationist who could no longer reconcile his beliefs with the facts of the real world; and the Tri-State Free Thinkers, an atheist group who show up on opening day to protest the museum’s message of “incest and genocide,” for which a conservative radio host condemns their leader to an eternity of damnation.

“Notably absent are any direct interviews with Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, ….

“We Believe in Dinosaurs illustrates the ever-growing divide between religion and science, and manages a fairly even-handed portrayal of both sides of the debate, despite the clear skepticism of the filmmakers toward the Creationist belief system. Some stones are left unturned, and it would have made for a compelling addition to explore the conflict between the teachings of Answers in Genesis and their actions, such as Ham’s decidedly non-Christian scheme to escape tax liability by selling the Ark Encounter land to his own non-profit organization for $10. But the existing material is certainly captivating and disquieting enough to engage with.” – Brent Hankins, The Lamplight Review.

You may also see a clip from the film and a short background article in The Playlist here.

Review added 4/23/19, 4:25 p.m.: “The bigger story here, though, is the massive investment in anti-science propaganda. To justify their literal acceptance of Biblical content that is inconsistent with scientific fact, these folks behind the Ark Encounter believe that they need to discredit science itself. And they’re not just defending the literal occurrence of every Bible story, but also the chronology of Bishop Ussher who, in the mid 1600s, calculated that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. That means that the Ark Encounter aggressively explains that the Earth and the human race, despite fossil evidence, are each 6,000 years old – and that dinosaurs lived alongside humans (and voyaged on the Ark). It also means that they seek to discredit the Theory of Evolution and the scientific method itself (while enjoying its byproducts – vaccines, for example).

“When you distill their beliefs, these neo-creationists are essentially turbanless Taliban. … – The Movie Gourmet.

Review added 4/26/19, 9:20 a.m.: “[T]he film never comes across as mocking, letting all its participants speak for themselves and leaving the viewer to make sense of it all. It is in large part an ethnography, providing a glimpse inside a culture that gets relatively little exposure in media. Some will find it disturbing, especially with regard to the propaganda on display, but it deserves credit for making room for everyone involved to be seen as a human being, and the story of what actually happens once the Ark is opened is an interesting one, raising questions about the real motives behind its creation.

“What really matters about this film, however, is the way it fits into the bigger societal conversation about truth, opinion and fact and how we manage these things in a democracy. Through the microcosm of the Ark story, Brown and Ross touch on much bigger things, bringing them down to a scale that’s easier to grasp. in a key scene, Young Earth Creatonists tell one another that they shouldn’t be talking about Bible stories because that makes them sound like fiction - instead thy should talk about Bible accounts or similar. This is a film about the value of stories and the way that, whether we believe them to be fact or fiction, they shape the way we understand the world.” – Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (U.K.).

Added 4/26/19, 11:30 a.m.: “Everything I thought I knew about the world and the universe had turned out to be only the title and cover page of a story far deeper and grander than I ever knew. In an instant, I went from thinking I knew most of the history of creation to realizing breathlessly that the world contained far more knowledge than I could ever hope to learn in a dozen lifetimes.

“For the first few months, I was wholly insufferable. I was rediscovering everything I had thought I knew. Everything that had formerly held only a single meaning now carried with it immeasurable mystery. An oak tree was no longer merely a reminder of a onetime miracle of design; it was now the testimony to innumerable generations of adaptation waiting to be discovered, each miraculous in its own way.” – Article in Biologos by David MacMillan, a former creationist and sometime PT author, who is featured in the movie. Thanks to Glenn Branch for the link.

Review added 4/29/19, 1:30 p.m.: “Shot over the course of four years, [We Believe in Dinosaurs] chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter, a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. In addition to interviews with creationists who work for the museum or support its cause, the documentary also follows two outspoken critics. First there is Dan, a pro-science geologist who has had a lifelong fascination with dinosaurs. Then there is David, a former creationist with a lifelong membership to the museum whose Christian beliefs have evolved away from the psuedo-science [sic] of creationism. The events in the documentary lead up to the unveiling of the Ark Encounter and the consequent protest. As a whole the film serves as a portrait of a rural conservative town that has a complicated relationship with the Creation Museum and the economic growth that it promises to bring but ultimately fails to.” – Quelle Movies.

Review added 5/9/19, 4:50 p.m.: “The peculiar brand of pseudoscience utilized to provide supporting ‘evidence’ [for creationism] is controversial, needless to say. So is the ‘separation of church and state’ breach many view in such projects getting de facto governmental approval. Often amusing, but never condescending towards either Ark proponents or their equally vocal opponents, this feature should attract interest from various exhibition channels — perhaps particularly abroad, where admittedly it will not do Americans’ current popular image any favors.

“… Legally a nonprofit, AIG nonetheless runs these businesses (as well as numerous ministerial and educative endeavors worldwide), selling them to local authorities as job-generating investments of a purely commercial ‘entertainment’ nature, while on the other hand telling the faithful that they are very much intended to ‘evangelize.’

“This creates a slippery-slope conflict, in that foes cry foul over taxpayer funds supporting what they view as a clear vehicle for religious propaganda. Such pressure at one point lost the Ark its projected $18 million in state tax incentives, to Ham’s loud consternation. But a higher court reversed that decision, and the current Governor makes no secret of his support. …

“On the other side of the divide are people like paleontologist Dan Phelps (who points out that roadside Kentucky shale offers ample proof of Earth’s great age) and David MacMillan, a teenage evangelical and Creation Museum charter member who now runs an anti-Creationist website. He sees no conflict between his continued Christian beliefs and acquired trust in science, resenting that faulty creationist ‘evidence’ gets shoved down many a gullible schoolchild’s throat. …

“… ‘We Believe in Dinosaurs’ does definitely suggest that this eccentric collision between faith and secularism, commerce and politics — one that might have seemed wholly outlandish not long ago—is kinda-sorta the direction in which our republic is now headed. Politicians increasingly bend to accommodate religious causes, with judiciary right behind them. Science denial is a trend, whether the motivation is Biblical literalism or simple capitalist greed.” – Dennis Harvey in Variety.

Review added 10/12/2020, 3:30 p.m. “Smart and generous, filled with fair and acute observations, this film brilliantly highlights much of what is wrong with the Ark and the Answers in Genesis (AiG) project in general.

“One of the reasons this film works is that it eschews a hostile, “culture wars” tone. Viewers get to see and hear from the earnest and talented designers and artists who created exhibits at Ark Encounter and at the Ark’s sister attraction, the Creation Museum….

“The stars of We Believe in Dinosaurs are David MacMillan, a former young Earth creationist, and Dan Phelps, Kentucky Paleontology Society president. Given his creationist pedigree, MacMillan is a particularly compelling figure in the documentary: he nicely (and painfully) describes how he had been indoctrinated to believe that, if you give up young Earth creationism, you are on your way to undermining the Gospel. Next thing you know, you will be a feminist, communist, atheist.

“It turns out that MacMillan, who has accepted evolution, remains a Christian . . . but he has – quite predictably – been repeatedly labeled as an atheist. (So have we.)

“Then there’s Phelps, who we see in the film collecting rock specimens on a steep slope next to a highway in Kentucky. While Phelps is quite clear that he sees the entire Ham young-Earth-creationist enterprise as a “flim-flam” operation, he is also quite winsome and humble, determined that viewers understand that in science it is okay not to have all the answers, and to change your mind (both of which are absolutely verboten in young Earth creationism). …

“Ham has also attacked us at rightingamerica for pointing out that Williamstown has not benefitted economically, and for making the point that Ham and AiG used the prospect of great economic gains to convince this little town to issue $62m in junk bonds and then loaned the proceeds to help get the Ark project underway – a deal made particularly sweet by the provision that 75% of what Ark Encounter would have paid in property taxes will instead be used to pay off the loan. Ham has repeatedly failed to own up to this sweet deal, instead claiming again and again that the Ark has received no significant governmental assistance.

“David MacMillan has it right: Ham fleeced a town that gave him his Ark Encounter.

“Whatever Ken Ham and his fundamentalist acolytes have to say, We Believe in Dinosaurs is a terrific documentary that is very much worth watching.” – Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger, review in Righting America.