Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s science fiction summa, is out on 1st June and most people are pretty excited about it; Galileo Galilei isn’t though. Magazine covers, billboards, even a fake TED lecture have all been building the hype surrounding Scott’s return to the genre he helped define. However, our man with the 16th century telescope would be raging rather than pre-booking tickets. Sure, Galileo may have died 370 years ago but his debate with the Catholic Church over the role of science continues to be relevant to Hollywood today.
Apparently the Catholics have been taking a closer interest in films lately. The Devil Inside, a successful if unremarkable found-footage horror flick from earlier this year, gleefully advertised itself as ‘the film the Vatican doesn’t want you to see!’ Though on a more serious, and factually based, note, the Vatican did heap praise on the work of William Blatty, writer of The Exorcist. At least they have good taste.
Aside from forays into cinema, this religious body are also, oddly enough, interested in the nature of the universe. In 1633 Galileo stood trial before the Church for defending and supporting Copernicus’ idea of a heliocentric solar system. The Church found him guilty and sentenced him to house arrest for the rest of his life. The Church had told Galileo to accept the divine ‘truth’ that ‘the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.’ – Psalm 104:5 – they told him some things were not meant for investigation. Galileo had adhered to Her ban on the subject since 1616 but his belief that there is no limit to scientific enquiry led him into trouble in the trial—– despite it being essentially the attitude of modern science. Galileo’s story of persecution should be the subject of its own Hollywood movie (perhaps with Michael Fassbender in the lead?) yet Hollywood has been taking the side of the Church in this debate for years.
Before Christmas John Landis published Monsters in the Movies. In it he played the game; name the monster name the metaphor. If Godzilla ravaging post-war Japan with fire and destruction was the Atomic bomb and Dracula in his castle was the aristocrat sucking the blood of the peasants, then the category of the Mad Scientist must surely be filled by Galileo. From the earliest incarnations of Dr. Frankenstein to Rise of the Planet of the Apes there is an underlying assumption in many horror/disaster/science-fiction movies that meddling scientists will get us all into trouble. As so many of these films end in wanton destruction, Hollywood projects a very conservative, pro-church, attitude. Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park sums it up concisely when he seethes ‘your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should’.
Good old Galileo has his cinematic supporters too but they’re not of quite the same calibre as Dr Strangelove, 28 Day Later or The Fly (which also stars Goldblum). When science wins in the movies its usually coupled with the power of the U.S. military: in Armageddon nuclear bombs destroy a threatening asteroid; in The Core nuclear bombs start the earth’s core rotating again; in Independence Day nuclear bombs destroy the alien threat once Jeff Goldblum’s (again!) cable repair man has made them vulnerable to attack. Starting to see a positive nuclear bomb narrative yet? The thunder of the lab-coat hero is being stolen by those chaps in khaki.
With its tag-line of ‘They went looking for our beginning, what they found could be our end’ Prometheus looks set to fall neatly into the anti-science camp, an interesting quirk for a science-fiction film condoned by real life scientists at TED. So as you’re sat in the dark enjoying Ridley’s latest masterpiece, remember you’re inadvertently supporting the 17th century Catholic Church and spare a thought for poor Galileo, who doesn’t even know if Jeff Goldblum is for or against a heliocentric universe, and only has Deep Impact to support him.