"The question is, is this movie promoting a cult? The only thing we're interested in from a marketing perspective is creating a cult status for the film."
- Meyer Gottlieb, Samuel Goldwyn Films 1

Major Release: September 8, 2004 (US)
Directed by: William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Mark Vicente
Distributed by: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Running length: 111 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

A quick review, for the impatient:

What the #$*! Do We Know?! is a two-hour New Age cult infomercial disguised as an instructive documentary on physics. 0 stars. AVOID IT LIKE AMWAY.

A longer review, for the curious:

THIS JUST IN: Reality and Perception involved in horrible collision. Film at 11... I caught a late night showing of this film on Friday, after hearing a fairly glowing review on a local NPR program called Stateside with Charity Nebbe. The guest critic described the movie as "a Quantum Parable", an indie documentary attempting to explain Quantum Physics in a way that relates to everyday life, apparently by interweaving a traditional "talking heads" documentary with a narrative illustrating the phenomena being described. It even had good actors, special effects, the whole bit.

Sounds neat, eh? I thought so too. But trust me, when I've said in the past that I'm a fan of cult cinema, this is not what I had in mind. What I was expecting was The Matrix meets Michael Moore. What I got was an episode of Bill Nye The Science Guy tacked on to a framework of wacked-out utter lunacy.

The trouble with the film is that it's very slickly presented. Marlee Matlin is an Oscar-winning actress. The quirky visual effects and animation are first-rate and engaging. The commentators are charismatic and at some points even genuinely funny. So at first blush it might not occur to you that anything fishy is going on.

If you've seen a lot of documentaries, though, one thing you might notice right off is that none of these expert speakers are being properly identified, leaving you to wonder: Who the hell are these people? What are their credentials? In most documentaries, these basic questions are set aside within seconds of a person appearing on the screen. In What the Bleep, we are left hanging until the very end, where everyone is introduced all at once in an overwhelming jumble of names, degrees and universities.

Suspicious? Yes, you should be. The worst part about films like this, and strange cults in general, is that they're specifically designed to repulse any attempt at criticism. When the message is "Create your own reality and improve your life through positive thinking!", calling them out is bound to make you look like a jerk. But still, somebody has to say something.

So here it is straight: The movie starts off with a few so-so explanations of quantum theory. Then, somewhere around the halfway point, it slowly abandons all pretext of being about physics at all and wanders off into the high grass of pure mysticism, assuming (perhaps rightly) that most in the audience can't tell the difference. And since the filmmakers make no attempt to differentiate the serious scientists from the loonies, allow me to provide this handy reference guide.

None of this is disclosed anywhere in the movie.

The sad thing is that some of the people interviewed for the film are actually reputable scientists, and you get the feeling that most of them had no idea what they were really signing on for. At least one of them, Dr. David Albert of Columbia University, has spoken out publicly against the film and the way his footage had been edited, saying "Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed... I certainly do not subscribe to the 'Ramtha School on Enlightenment,' whatever that is!"

What the Bleep was originally released in a few select cities, all of them world-renowned lefty hotspots like Portland, Oregon (where the movie was filmed) and Berkeley, California, where the film was met with high praise and sold-out showings. Interest in the film rapidly spread nationwide, fueled in no small part by the astroturfing efforts of "Bleep Teams", street teams organized by Captured Light Industries (the film's producers) to host events and spread the word. In September 2004, the film gained a wider distribution deal, and was released in 60 art house theaters all over the USA.

Word of mouth seems to be travelling faster on this one than any kind of critical skepticism or reason. So, at the very least, let me be the first to heartily advise you not to see What the #$*! Do We Know?. Otherwise you may end up like I did, two hours and seven dollars later, asking yourself "What the #$*! was I thinking?"

1 - source: "'Bleep' of faith", an article by John Gorenfeld for Salon.com (http://www.salon.com/ent/feature/2004/09/16/bleep/)

See also the 1999 article in Wired Magazine that Gorenfeld references in his story:

Additional sources: whatthebleep.com (the official website) and imdb