“A cult’s just a religion you don’t particularly like.” My Western Civ. Professor said something to that effect in college, and I suppose a myth might be considered as just a religion that has fallen out of practice, as well. Let's all keep those definitions in mind for this feature so appropriate to the week’s “religious science fiction” theme. By the strictest definitions, any fantasy involving the supernatural could be interpreted as a myth from some imagined belief system, so we've got a broad selection of cults, churches, orders and cabals to pick from today. Which ones made the cut?
5. "The Church of Russian Roulette" from El Topo
Jodorowsky’s films play on the whole like occult workings performed on the altar of celluloid. The Holy Mountain’s every frame is deeply saturated with mystic symbolism and significance, and Fando y Lis might as well be a morality tale from some arcane grimoire. I never really understood which religions or philosophies the Four Holy Gunfighters in this movie corresponded to, so my mind instead focuses on this loud, grotesque parody of a service. These townies worship the Masonic all-seeing eying and their pastor asserts the power of their doctrine by passing a loaded handgun around which parishioners can taste their luck (or faith) on by bringing it to their temple and pulling the trigger. It’s a nightmarish scenario, sure, but if you’ve got a morbid sense of humor like I do, it’s also wickedly funny.
4. Seele from Neon Genesis Evangelion
Even if you’ve got a gag reflex to anime, you simply must appreciate the Byzantine creepiness of this high-tech cabal who commands a military-industrial complex mighty enough to create walking WMDs. As a Westerner, I had trouble swallowing how the monsters of this mecha show were called “angels.” However, when you delve deeper into the mythos and realize that the alien giants are called angels only because these Gnostic-Apocalyptic conspiracy nutjobs have identified them as such in their deranged prophecy? Then the naming's a bit more sensible and a lot more chilling.
3. Lord Summerisle’s Neo-Pagans from the Wicker Man
Paganism isn’t nearly as cool as Norwegian death metal bands would want you to believe. Look at these dorks above. You think they’re exerting unnatural power and influence over anybody? See past the Nic Cage remake with the dropkicks and the “Not the bees! NOT THE BEEEEEES!” and check out this horror classic that delves into the less pleasant and more unsettling implications of an ideological clash. Seeing a refined elder statesman like Christopher Lee play the far-out leader of communally-living hippies hasn't lost any novelty in the forty odd years since this flick's release, either, let me tell you.
2. The Bene Gesserit from Dune
Frank Herbert crafted the most convincing kind of esoteric with these. Drape David Lynch's blanket of cinematic surrealism on top of them and you've got scenes that are as mystifying as any magik working. This order of concubine witches have their own thorough canon of rituals designed specifically to enter a removed, extreme, even alien head space. And for a monologue that’s almost a paragraph long, the Litany Against Fear is rather easy to quote in full, isn’t it? Their messianic prophecy sounds convincingly like something you’d read about in a Comparative Religions class and their attempts to prevent Paul Atreides’ conception for fear of it fulfilling that prophecy feels like Arrakis’ own Da Vinci Code conspiracy. Also, let's put it this way... other fictional cults have unimaginatively-named "Chosen Ones." These ladies have a Kwisatz Haderach who's sometimes called the Muad'Dib. That's owning it, friends.
1. The Jedi Order from Star Wars
Shaolin monks in space! That’s what the Jedi are at base components (along with a dash of the Lensmen's power and the fashion of samurai and Franciscans.) Having read a lot of the extrapolations presented by the Expanded Universe stuff in the long years between ’84 and ’99, I have to say I prefer the uncompromising ethos the Jedi were eventually given in the prequels. Getting “claimed” as babies and raised in all-inconclusive, ascetic lifestyle that forbids emotions, attachments and basic human relationships? That rings a lot truer to me than the “weekend warrior class” fans imagined for a long time that basically granted knighthood to whomever could pick up a lightsaber. Of course, Rorie makes a sharp counter-argument in his video about Midi-Chlorians, so there's more than one way to see it. Myself, I'm just enthralled with the mythic sweep of a just order undone by their own arrogance and the Sith's perversion of their most sacred prophecy (you know, how Palpatine or his master created Anakin to destroy the Jedi.) While that latter part might draw even more comparisons to Dune, these holy men are simply more kick ass than the Bene Gesserit, and that alone would put them at the top of this list.