Only a select few send you running to the dictionary to check the spelling of "execrable."
"What the Bleep Do We Know?" is a trendy new movie that combines the worst elements of a snooze-worthy PBS documentary, a "change your mind, change your life" self-help book, and a Bugs Bunny cartoon on acid. The result is an embarrassment to science, spirituality, and the craft of filmmaking itself. Those who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" should be appalled that their name is being taken in vain by the directors.
Now I don't have an automatic prejudice against 35,000-year-old warriors from Atlantis or the women who channel them. I'm always up for a good New Age flick, even one masquerading as a documentary. The film's central point--that reality is a construct of our own brains--seems rife with intriguing cinematic possibilities. But I start to choke on my $8 popcorn when science is manipulated to make a cult leader's claims sound more plausible.
"What the Bleep" begins in NOVA-like fashion: galaxies swirl and scientists--we aren't told who they are until the end--expound on quantum mechanics and the nature of the universe. So far, so good. Then comes "Carl Sagan Meets Madame Blavatsky." The experts start "proving" that humans create their own reality by getting too attached to certain brain chemicals. We hear more and more from JZ Knight, a woman channeling the ancient warrior Ramtha, a chap who (through Knight) incidentally leads the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Then we segue to a narrative starring Amanda (Marlee Maitlin), a wedding photographer who's bummed because her slimy husband cheated on her. She's averse to churches (she married her husband in one, so they must be bad!), is hooked on prescription pills, and mopes about while her chirpy roommate spatters paint around their apartment.
As the Amanda plot zooms here and there, a host of dubious evidence is marshaled to convince us that life is all about mind over matter. Some credible researchers appear, including neurologist Andrew Newberg and physicist David Albert (Albert has since disassociated himself from the film, saying his views were misrepresented). But most of the talking heads' quotes seem either to have a hidden agenda, or to be sliced and diced to buttress Ramtha's ideas.
While Amanda waits for a commuter train, she (and we) are shown the work of Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto, who has photographed water after exposing it to different emotions. Water beamed messages of love or gratitude formed itself into lovely snowflake-like crystals; water exposed to the words "You make me sick" looks like the surface of a toxic waste pond. And wait-the human body is mostly water! Has this experiment been replicated or verified? We'll never know. Next factoid: Crime in Washington, D.C. was reduced 25 percent by prayer--and made believers of the D.C. cops! "I create my own reality, says quantum physics," intones one expert, and the viewer could be lured to accept this as proof.
Interspersed with Amanda's woes and the pseudoscience are random attacks on organized religion. We must shake off the "ugly, superstitious, backwater concept of God" we learned as children, chides JZ Knight--uh, Ramtha. In fact, "you are God in the making," which explains why Shirley MacLaine is a Ramtha fan. There are also phrases plagiarized entire from "The Matrix," a far superior film treatment of the notion that reality isn't what it seems.
The idea that our own perceptions can't be trusted is not new, of course. Many religions and spiritual paths--from Hinduism, with its concept of maya, to Christian Science--teach that appearance is illusion. Certainly, our attitudes and brain chemistry affect how we see the world and get through life. Even skeptics concede that we humans can fall into destructive thought patterns and need to cleanse our vision of what's real. There's also much to be said for the idea that divine is not so much a separate entity but is found in the interconnectedness of the universe, something both traditional religious believers and "spiritual but not" people often agree on, though semantics can get in the way.
But to insist, as one on-screen interviewee does, that the material world around us is just one "possible movement of consciousness" undermines the possibility of any objective, external reality--something fundamental to many religions and to science. For traditional Christians, God is God not because your brain is making him up, but because he is. And most thoughtful members of the "spiritual but not religious" camp would take issue if you chopped off their big toes and then responded to their complaints with a lofty "it's all in your mind." (Refugees in Sudan or people in Baghdad would have an even tougher time accepting the film's premise.)
Even followers of spiritual traditions that believe in worldly illusion will have problems with "Bleep." They may applaud the central tenets of the movie, but not its disjointed narrative, clunky acting, bizarre thematic segues, and faux "facts." Whether you're religious, spiritual, or none of the above, you can say one thing for this movie: it's an equal-opportunity offender.
The pity of it is that there are fascinating conversations going on in the science-and-religion sphere. Supported by groups like the Templeton Foundation, legitimate or more creative scientists are exploring the mind-body connection, or the similarities between particle-and-wave physics and certain religious concepts like the Trinity. There are also controlled, double-blind prayer studies out there much more interesting than the D.C. crime study cited in the film, though not necessarily more convincing. "What the Bleep" misses opportunities to focus credibly on the fascinating work people like Newberg have been doing, and makes the science-and-faith field seem like quackery. Having watched this travesty of a movie, any real scientist worth his quarks might be gun-shy about joining the debate.
You may or may not believe that there's an external reality beyond what your brain creates; the topic will be a perennial and fertile source of discussion. But when animated, jive-talkin' human cells start dancing around in what appears to be the heroine's frontal lobe, all questions of spirituality pale before the sheer dreadfulness of this movie. Whether or not you buy into its "you are God in the making" philosophy, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" is god-awful.