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From Sacred to Scientific: Epic Religion, Spectacular Science, and Charlton Heston’s Science Fiction Cinema

Chambers, Amy (2019) From Sacred to Scientific: Epic Religion, Spectacular Science, and Charlton Heston’s Science Fiction Cinema. Science Fiction Film and Television. ISSN 1754-3770 (In Press)

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Abstract

This paper analyses how long-1960s cinema responded to and framed public discourses surrounding religion and science. This approach allows for a discussion that extends beyond a critical study of the scholarly debates that surround the place of religion in science during a transitional period. Charlton Heston was an epic actor who went from literally playing God in The Ten Commandments (1956) to playing “god” as a messianic scientist in The Omega Man (1971). Best known for playing Moses, Heston became an unlikely science-based cinema star during the early 1970s. He was re-imagined as a scientist, but the religiosity of his established persona was inescapable. Heston and the science-based films he starred in capitalized upon the utopian promises of real science, and also the fears of the vocal activist counterculture. Planet of the Apes (1968), Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973), and other science-based films made between 1968-1977 were bleak countercultural warnings about excessive consumerism, uncontrolled science, nuclear armament, irreversible environmental damage, and eventual human extinction. In this paper I argue that Heston’s transition from biblical epic star to science-fiction anti-hero represents the way in which the role and interpretation of science changed in post-classical cinema. Despite the shift from religious epic to science-based spectacle, religion remained a faithful component of Hollywood output indicating the ongoing connection between science and religion in US culture. I will consider the transition from sacred to science-based narratives and how religion was utilised across the production process of films that commented upon scientific advances.

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