It may not surprise you to learn that Unplanned, a bizarre anti-abortion propaganda film released last week in select theaters throughout the U.S., has not gotten great reviews. The Guardian called it “ridiculous,” “ham-handed” and “a gory mess;” The Hollywood Reporter wrote that it “resembles a basic cable television movie in its mediocre production values and subpar performances.” Still, the film has become a hit, among faith-based and conservative groups in particular, earning more than $6 million in its opening weekend and expanding to over 1,500 screens in its second week.
The movie was adapted from a dubious memoir by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood employee turned anti-abortion activist, and is the latest film from the the writing team behind the 2014 Christian drama God’s Not Dead. It has come under fire for the grotesque way it depicts abortion procedures and those who provide them — in perhaps the most visceral example of this, the film opens with a scene described in promotional materials as “the moment that changed everything”: a gory and inaccurate portrayal of an abortion at 13 weeks, which contributed to the film’s R rating for “some disturbing/bloody images,” per the New York Times.
In the scene, a 13-week-old fetus is shown “twisting and fighting for its life,” as Abby later explains through tears, frantically trying to squirm away from a doctor’s probe during a surgical abortion. Medical experts say this is misleading, to put it mildly; as Jennifer Villavicencio, a fellow with the nonpartisan American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told the Times, the broad scientific consensus is that a fetus cannot feel pain or sense danger that early on in a pregnancy. “There is no neurological capability for awareness of danger,” she said. “That part of the brain is simply not there yet.”
Critics have noted a slew of other inaccuracies, pointing out that the film erroneously portrays Planned Parenthood as a “billion-dollar corporation” dead set on profiting off abortion — the organization, which is a nonprofit, says that only 3 percent of its services are abortion-related — and consistently and graphically depicts the terminating a pregnancy as “painful assault and monstrous homicide,” as the Daily Beast put it.
This heavy-handed message has made it difficult for Unplanned to advertise to a larger audience; as the Times notes, many TV networks rejected the film trailer on the grounds that it was “too political to touch.” But it’s enjoyed high-profile support from slew of influential right-wingers, including Vice President Mike Pence, who tweeted effusively about it from his official vice-presidential Twitter account.
Donald Trump Jr. and Ted Cruz, too, have both expressed their support of the film, with both accusing “the Left” of “attempted censorship” after the Unplanned Twitter account was briefly suspended. (Twitter says this was done in error, as the account was linked to another that had violated the platform’s rules.) This is a narrative they’ve been all do happy to run with — on Tuesday, Cruz announced a Senate hearing into the matter.
But despite the insistence from Cruz and the rest that Unplanned has been victim of some sort of media conspiracy, the movie has achieved box office success: anti-abortion groups are continuing to flock to see the film en masse, and certain screenings have completely sold out. This no doubt lays groundwork for additional propaganda films to follow.