Think of it as a rock ’n’ roll documentary. Like maybe, “Don’t Look Back” without Dylan, or “Gimme Shelter” without Mick and Keith, or “Spinal Tap” without the succession of unfortunate drummers.
This documentary is called “The Unbelievers,” and it chronicles a 2012 tour by Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss — who certainly qualify as whatever the equivalent of a “rock star” is in the science world — as they travel the world discussing with audiences, interviewers and each other atheism, reason, science and, well, the whole universe.
Dawkins and Krauss will be in Las Vegas today to attend a screening of the film at Cox Pavilion at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and then participate in a question-and-answer session after the film hosted by Penn Jillette. The event will begin at 7:30 p.m.
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and best-selling author whose books include “The God Delusion” and “The Selfish Gene.” Krauss is a theoretical physicist and author who serves as director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and whose books include “A Universe from Nothing.”
The trailer for “The Unbelievers” hints at a sort of a rock doc-meets-“My Dinner with Andre,” capturing the scientists’ appearances at venues around the world, as well as their offstage conversations. In addition, the movie features celebrities — from Stephen Hawking to Woody Allen and Cameron Diaz — who offer their perspectives on reason and science.
Filmmakers Gus and Luke Holwerda also will attend this evening’s program, and Gus Holwerda says viewers who walk in expecting to see a very serious, highly technical film about science or reason or atheism will be surprised.
“It’s not that at all. It’s a rock ’n’ roll tour film following these guys around the world and seeing what it’s like to be them,” Holwerda says.
In fact, Holwerda estimates that the scientists’ views about atheism make up only half of the film.
“The other half is, they’re out there promoting science,” he says. “That’s how it really started. We wanted to capture what it’s like to be a science celebrity and to be out there on the road, and see what those similarities were to being a rock ’n’ roll star or a celebrity.”
“Like Lawrence has said, ‘When somebody has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,’ ” adds Holwerda, who directed the film while Luke served as director of photography. “But that was where we were coming from when we were making this movie. It’s weird to say how similar this is to rock ’n’ roll. Do they have groupies? How crazy does it get out on the road?”
And do they? Have groupies? Holwerda laughs.
“I’ll admit to you they have, for two guys of the age they are, a surprising number of extremely young and attractive fans who are extremely interested,” he answers. “But both men are complete gentlemen.”
As the title suggests, much of the movie focuses on religious belief and atheism. However, Krauss says during a separate phone interview that “I don’t define myself as an atheist.”
“First of all, I try not to define myself with any label. Maybe ‘scientist’ he says. “But any labels, I dislike. I don’t define myself by things I don’t believe in.
“Atheism is not a belief system. It’s just saying, ‘I will use empirical evidence and reason to try to assess what most likely happened in the universe, and to me this construct of God is highly unlikely.’ But I don’t define myself by that.”
The film may prompt viewers to put aside a few preconceptions they might hold, be they assumptions about “atheists” or “scientists” or about just these two men specifically.
“I mean, Lawrence is a character. He’s a hard guy to explain,” Holwerda says. “He’s been called the Woody Allen of physics. Until you’ve hung out with him, you don’t understand why. But he’s (like) a stand-up comic, he’s got an amazing wit and comic timing, and the fact that he uses that to help people understand physics, that’s really quite amazing.”
Dawkins “really surprised us a lot,” Holwerda adds. “One thing that doesn’t appear on film but does appear in the DVD extras is … he would recite poetry for the sound checks. So we’d be at the venue — like, the Sydney Opera House — and Richard would be sitting there, getting all mic’d up and reciting poetry for five minutes. And you’d look around the room and see everyone has stopped what they’re doing and is just listening to Richard delivering a poem. That became something to look forward to.”
Like the best rock docs, “The Unbelievers” also captures the not-so-glamorous side of touring. Book tours are “only half of their life,” Holwerda notes. “They have half their life doing hard science, but the other half they’re out there promoting their books, and it’s literally wake up, check out of the hotel, get on a plane, go to the next town, go to the venue, do the event, maybe get a drink at the bar, eat a quick bite, go back to the room and the next day do it all over again.”
But the scientists’ passion for science comes through, too. It was fascinating, Holwerda says, “just to be a fly on the wall while they talk about science. When it comes to not even religion and not being on stage, they still talk about science all day long.”
Krauss says the documentary “does capture a sense of what we’re trying to do.” He hopes audiences, first, will be entertained and, then, be moved to talk openly about religion, nonbelief and reason.
“One of the things we try to stress in the movie, I think, is that talking about religion shouldn’t be different than anything else and shouldn’t be treated differently in a democratic society,” he said. “Everything should be open to question.
“What surprised me is, when we had a test screening in Phoenix before a large audience, we polled them and did a survey, and people who said they were religious amazingly, overwhelmingly — 90 percent or something like that — said they would recommend the movie to a friend.
“I’m not trying to preach or have people join some movement. I just want people to think about things.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.