Ann Hornaday reviews new movies 'Creation' and 'Extraordinary Measures'

HEROISM ON A SCIENTIFIC SCALE: Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford as two men desperately seeking a medical breakthrough in "Extraordinary Measures."
HEROISM ON A SCIENTIFIC SCALE: Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford as two men desperately seeking a medical breakthrough in "Extraordinary Measures." (Merie Wesimiller Wallace - AP/CBS Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

At one point in "Creation," starring Paul Bettany as the naturalist and author Charles Darwin, a colleague of Darwin's delightedly observes that his friend's groundbreaking research in natural selection has made God "utterly redundant" -- akin, he adds, to "the appendix and the male nipple." The delighted secularist crows: "You've killed God, sir!"

And thus does the Hundred Years Culture War begin in "Creation," an ambitious but uneven portrait of Darwin as he agonizes over whether to publish the revolutionary "On the Origin of Species." Directed by Jon Amiel, "Creation" is a movie crammed with mini-plots and motivations, with Darwin being routinely visited by the ghost of his beloved daughter Annie (Martha West), who by 1858, when he was on the cusp of writing his book, had been dead seven years. The film also flips back and forth in time and setting while Darwin regales her with far-flung stories of his travels.

For all its detail and reach, "Creation" ultimately drowns in its own melodrama. But for those who crave a good cry, or who are willing to slog through the highly pitched emotion, there are things to value in "Creation." Chief among them is Bettany's sensitive, convincing portrayal of Darwin, not as the august bearded figure most of us know, but as a vibrant husband and father driven to the psychological and physical brink by his pained -- and, as it turned out, prescient -- awareness of the cataclysmic implications of his work, which still reverberate today.

In "Creation," Darwin has long returned from his research trips on the HMS Beagle, keeping his notes in a box tucked away in his study. Having teased out the principles of natural selection -- that species survive and evolve according to natural laws rather than an unseen Godly hand -- he nonetheless has sat on them for 20 years, in part because he knew they would challenge and perhaps even upend Biblical and creationist beliefs.

In the film, Darwin is quietly challenged by his devout wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), whose disapproval is most often expressed through her fiery performances on the family piano. The scientist's faith has already been shaken by Annie's death and his own findings, and he's estranged from his best friend, the Rev. Innes (Jeremy Northam). Nevertheless, he's reluctant, not just to break his wife's heart but to be accused of suggesting that such Judeo-Christian values as love, faith, trust and honor should be trumped by the coarse "struggle for brute survival."

We know how this story ends: "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" was published in 1859. But Amiel and Bettany still manage to inject a genuine note of suspense in whether Darwin will overcome his reservations. And in a very subtle way, "Creation" winds up presenting the man himself as embodying the complexity of his own principles. It's competition -- with naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who was nipping at Darwin's heels with his own version of evolutionary theory -- that spurs Darwin finally to set pen to paper. But it's also cooperation -- the emotional and intellectual support of family, friends and his colleagues in the scientific community -- that gives him the guts to do it.

The final image of Darwin is that of a man who most likely wouldn't be surprised that, 150 years later, educated people argue about creationism, intelligent design or whether dinosaurs roamed the Earth with humans 6,000 years ago. But one does get the sense that he might quibble with the argument between God and science as an either/or proposition.

By the time Darwin puts his manuscript on a carriage bound for London, he has emerged as someone who inhabits, perhaps uncomfortably, a world animated by both impassive physical forces and deep mystical meaning. At its best, and thanks to a fine performance by Bettany, "Creation" brings to life that well-trod observation that the mark of a sophisticated mind is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.

* * *

A similarly sympathetic protagonist grapples with illness, death and his own contradictions in "Extraordinary Measures." Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, whose young son and daughter have a rare genetic disorder called Pompe disease. As the film begins, Crowley's daughter, Megan, is celebrating her eighth birthday; it's made clear in a few opening scenes that she's not expected to live past her ninth.

Although inspired by Crowley's true -- and truly amazing -- story of perseverance and courage, "Extraordinary Measures" takes its share of fictionalizing liberties, including with kids' ages, chronology and locations. A crusty scientist played with get-off-my-lawn gruffness by Harrison Ford is a composite of the many doctors who helped Crowley on his search for a cure for the disease.

But by Crowley's own account, "Extraordinary Measures" gets his family's story right. (The movie is based on Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand's book "The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million--and Bucked the Medical Establishment -- in a Quest to Save His Children.") And it's impossible not to be touched and inspired by the film, in which Crowley quits his job and takes a flying leap into the unknown, helping to finance research into finding a life-sustaining enzyme and finally entering his own children into the drug's trials. As a portrait of passion, ingenuity and entrepreneurial drive, "Extraordinary Measures" becomes less a "disease of the week" medical melodrama than a capitalist procedural on the order of Horatio Alger. Less "My Sister's Keeper," more "The Pursuit of Happyness."

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