Some thoughts on Collision

06 Nov

A couple of days ago, I received my copy of the new movie Collision from Amazon. I’ve had a chance now to watch it through twice, and thought I’d offer a few observations.

I must acknowledge at the outset that I know almost nothing about the art of film making; my thoughts about the form of the film, then, are simply my opinion. And, in my opinion, some parts of the production are simply laughable. One reviewer on Amazon said it well:

The real problem of this documentary is not the subject matter or the debaters themselves, but rather the directing and editing. I was fantastically annoyed by the insane cuts, extreme camera angles, and amateur effects added to this film. Everything from grayscale to film grain effects are added as if to jazz it all up. As if the filmmaker thought that people just weren’t going to be entertained enough by the debates.

Picture a professional and respectful debate filmed like a motocross race.

The most preposterous moment in the whole film was near the end, where Hitchens and Wilson depart a plane, and the scene is filmed like one of the thousands of rap music videos circulating out there. Slow motion. Black and white. Hip hop music playing in the background. Modern editing. It was absolutely absurd. It was as if the creators had no real respect for the subject matter. The director and editor should never be allowed near a studio ever again. Never. Ever.

I suppose the hip hop and the rough edits and such are intended to highlight the “collision” of worldviews taking place in the debates; of the few words that I could pick out of the rap song accompanying one montage, most were about .38s and bazookas and such. Whatever.

Other editorial choices are equally pointless: during the Westminster debate, one of Wilson’s replies is set over some sort of twangy folk/country music, which tends to trivialize his point (if not his person). There’s also a sequence in which the monks begin chanting (actually, I listen to a lot of music like that); the effect (what with the accompanying out-of-focus flashbacks) is a sort of dream sequence. I don’t get it.

The overuse of subtitles is also an irritant; I guess it makes sense on some occasions when Wilson and Hitchens are in a bar and the ambient noise makes understanding them difficult. But on the whole, it seems that far too much of Hitchens’s dialog is transcribed for us; I understand that he’s British and all, but if I were Hitchens, I would likely be insulted by the suggestion that my speech is incomprehensible.

But maybe I’m being nitpicky now.

One last comment before getting to the substance of the debate itself: for those believers who are interested in watching this for edification, you will encounter a handful of profanities, one uttered each by Wilson and by Hitchens (and both of the stronger variety), as well as a few more in the lyrics of the rap. Wilson gives an explanation for his employment of the expletive here; I get what he’s done and why he did it, and I think his comment is a very fair summary of a consistently unbelieving worldview. I still wouldn’t have said it, but that is an issue for another series of posts (or just go read Phil Johnson).

In my estimation, the nature of a consistently unbelieving worldview is the heart of the whole movie. While some other issues arise throughout the debates, the central question that Wilson asks Hitchens is this: given an atheistic universe, what is the basis for any moral judgments whatsoever? In my understanding of the apologetics, something like this question is the apologetic point; an unbelieving worldview does not provide justification for any ought (and there are epistemic, moral, and aesthetic oughts).

However, it seems to me that, at least in the movie, Hitchens and Wilson never really have this conversation in such a way that I was convinced that they are talking about the same issue. Wilson does his best to assure Hitchens that the atheist is completely capable of two things: seeing a difference between good and evil, and doing good things. In fact, Wilson (rightly) concedes that in some cases, the atheist trumps the Christian in both categories. What Wilson wants Hitchens to do, however, is to explain how such moral standards actually obtain the force of being standards, moral obligations, in an atheistic universe.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the movie (including the climax in the bar in Washington, D.C.), it doesn’t seem that Hitchens gets Wilson’s point. Hitchens continues to assert that the atheist is perfectly able to determine, for instance, that kicking a pregnant women is repugnant, and that he can do so without recourse to religion. (Wilson is dead right, at this point, to turn the discussion to abortion.) But Hitchens’s protest is an exercise in missing the point; the atheist can assert that such an action is wrong, and can feel deeply troubled about it, but if the universe ultimately doesn’t care, neither that action nor any other action have any meaning or significance whatsoever.

When Hitchens is on topic, his only answer is that “human solidarity” provides the basis for ethics. He would draw parallels to other advanced species, who have adapted to living in some form of communities; such species also develop “rules” for living together, for the good of the herd. Even granting Hitchens the evolutionary premise of his argument here, I find his answer ultimately futile; the animal that attacks and kills one of his own clan, is he rightly considered evil? If not, it doesn’t seem that the evolutionary model of morality shows much promise.

For Christians, I think the movie is instructive and useful; it is more attention-grabbing (but less useful pedagogically) than the justly-famed Bahnsen/Stein debate. For those interested in apologetics, it is worth a few viewings, if for no other reason than to increase one’s copiousness (a great concept from Wilson).

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Posted by on November 6, 2009 in Apologetics, Theology


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