… unless you live in an ultra-blue city. They are Creation, about what made Darwin finish “On the Origin of Species”, and Agora, about the tragic end of the one of the last great intellectuals of the Classical era, Hypatia of Alexandria.
According to Variety, Creation opened on 1/22/2010 in the US, played at a peak of 9 theaters and had a cumulative box office of $340,000. Agora opened on 5/21/2010, peaked at 6 theaters and did hardly better at $577,000.
That’s pathetic. Yet both movies had fairly well-known Anglo-American stars (Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly for Creation, and Rachel Weisz for Agora), solid period production values, and engaging stories.
Creation follows Darwin as he agonizes over whether to finish his masterwork. He knows that it will be a bombshell, and that it will cause his devout wife particular pain, and so dallies for years. The spur is the death at age 10 of his beloved daughter Annie from one of those random childhood diseases. After that he no longer cares what God thinks.
In Agora, the brilliant and virginal Hypatia is the daughter of the last Librarian of Alexandria in about 400 CE. She advances the work of Ptolemy and Euclid, but she is a pagan in a city that is being taken over by Christians. Just as she is coming up on an astounding discovery, a Christian mob literally tears her apart.
The movies did well overseas. Agora comes from a Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, and was actually the biggest movie in Spain in 2009, grossing about $35M there. Creation was popular in the UK and Europe.
So what went wrong in the US? In the main, Christianist animus. Darwin’s theory contradicted what most people believed then, and what a lot still do. Any movie that implicitly endorses evolution is going to raise hackles among some, and that was enough to scare the movie’s distributors. It didn’t help that no one was killed and nothing blew up.
There is lots of murder and explosions (well, fires) in Agora, but the Christianists would have taken an even dimmer view of it. The main villain is Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, who was later sainted. He incites mobs to kill or deport first the pagans, then the Jews, then the Roman governor himself. He has no use for the incalculable treasure that was the Library of Alexandria, because part of his creed is that all truth is in the Gospels. The governor, Orestes, had long been a friend and admirer of Hypatia, so he had her killed as a way to get at him. This is all well-established history, and even the Vatican signed off on it.
Weisz is strikingly beautiful as Hypatia, and she maintains a serene detachment and devotion to her discipline as the city burns around her. The actual Hypatia was also described as beautiful by her contemporaries (no likenesses survive), but it’s likely that she was actually in her 60s at the time of her death, rather than the 40-ish Weisz. It’s also likely that no one in the classical world had the mathematical tools to come up with the crowning insight that she’s given in the movie, but both of these are reasonable dramatic license.
So a film that takes the side of reason against fundamentalist dogma disappears almost without a trace in the US. I saw it at a theater in Cambridge, where it actually played for about two months. But Cambridge, Berkeley, Manhattan, Santa Monica, Boulder, and other such ultraviolet towns aren’t enough of a market to support films like this. Or the politics that go with them.