Odds are, you don’t have a clue who Ken Ham is. The short answer, as presented in the new documentary, “We Believe in Dinosaurs,” is he’s the founder of creationist group Answers in Genesis, the driving force behind the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter theme parks in rural Kentucky, and someone with questionable taste in sunglasses and facial hair. But how did Ham become a leading figure in a seemingly outdated Christian philosophy? Where did he get the money to fund museums that cost $100 million apiece? Sadly, “We Believe in Dinosaurs” won’t explain that to you, and that’s a real problem.
Directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, “We Believe in Dinosaurs” chronicles the building of the Ark Encounter theme park in rural Kentucky from 2014 to its grand opening in 2016. What sets Ark Encounter apart from other Christian destinations is the life-size Noah’s Ark and Disneyland-esque charm, all there to fill your brain with scientifically-dubious “facts” about creationism. You know, the idea that God created the Earth in six days about 6,000 years ago.
And while the film checks all the boxes you expect from a documentary about this issue, with interviews with believers and non-believers alike, by trying to cover such a massive story (both figuratively and literally) ‘Dinosaurs’ spreads itself so thin and loses its grip on the basics of storytelling.
If “We Believe in Dinosaurs” has one saving grace, it’s the subjects that are interviewed. From artists that sculpt the titular beasts that will populate the 510-foot long, 51-foot high Ark to a former creationist that is struggling with his own personal beliefs to a lonely, non-believing paleontologist that makes it his life’s mission to be the thorn in Ken Ham’s side, Brown and Ross have culled together a group of characters that are sincere, open, and above all, fascinating.
The best of the group, without a doubt, is Dan Phelps, the aforementioned paleontologist and one-man army against the Ark Encounter exhibit. ‘Dinosaurs’ paints a portrait of a man who loves science from an early age and illustrates his day-to-day life, foraging for interesting specimens on the side of the highway. ‘Dinosaurs’ helps you get to know Phelps on a very deep level through his actions and his own words, and it’s an utter joy to behold.
Unfortunately, ‘Dinosaurs’ doesn’t give the same amount of attention to some of the more obvious, lingering questions about Ken Ham and the utterly confounding religious beliefs that he and his followers share.
It’s not that ‘Dinosaurs’ cut corners, it’s the opposite of light on information. It’s just that there’s just too much meat on these dinosaur bones. Err, I mean missionary lizard bones. Sorry, Mr. Ham.
“We Believe in Dinosaurs” often veers off course, losing track of the best part of the film—the people involved with the creation of the park and those that oppose it—by trying to cover various B-plots involving tax incentives, government corruption, tourism, and the economy of a sparsely populated Kentucky town. Admittedly, these are all interesting diversions, but the time spent with these ancillary storylines takes away from what the film really should focus on, such as “Why do people believe in this stuff?” and “Who the hell is Ken Ham?”
Without a doubt, Ham is the most important person in the entire documentary. This is the man that is schmoozing politicians, writing blog posts (so, so many blog posts), spending millions upon millions of dollars to prove that dinosaurs coexisted peacefully with Adam and Eve, and running the single biggest creationist group on the planet. Yet, he remains a mystery. ‘Dinosaurs’ never communicates how he became involved with the cause, where his money comes from, and how he became such a shrewd businessman. Even his accent (Australian?) and origin, is never clear.
The same could be said about creationism, itself. While the film does spend time explaining that creationism exists and that seemingly intelligent people believe in it, there’s still plenty of information that’s presented in the film that never gets expanded upon beyond a mere mention. Did you know there are various types of creationism? Well, there are, but the film doesn’t spend any time explaining the differences. Worst of all, the film even ends with a sobering fact that 38% of American believe in the classic creationism story. Startling, right? But again, not mentioned in the film, until literally the very last second.
Ultimately, the film struggles with its ambition. Brown and Ross attempt to tell the entire story of the Ark Encounter, down to every nail used to build the boat and every legal battle fought to ensure specific tax incentives. When the credits finally roll, and there is even more information being fed into your eyeballs—it’s just too much.
What you’re left with is a film that has incredible characters, a fascinating story, and tons of aspiration, but attempts to cram every ounce possible in its limited space. However, unlike Noah, the filmmakers aren’t able to build a structure that is able to withstand the flood. Now, please excuse me, I need to google Ken Ham. [C]