The summer blockbuster season has been dominated by an evil galactic ruler who, 75 million years ago, blew up 178 billion abducted alien souls with hydrogen bombs planted in earth's volcanoes and bundled them into clusters that now cling to every human being, wreaking havoc with our bodies and minds.
This is not the plot of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. It is central to the philosophy of the Church of Scientology, a sect created in Los Angeles in 1953 by the sci-fi writer Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.
"Scientology," say its spokespeople, "is a religion which addres-ses people as immortal spiritual beings." A more cynical viewpoint is that of Time magazine, which on 6 May 1991 ran "Scientology: the cult of greed" as a cover story, calling it a ruthless global scam that ruins lives and destroys fortunes. A libel suit against Time was dismissed, and the ruling was upheld by a United States federal appeal panel.
Over the past few weeks, Scientology's profile has been raised significantly by its most famous advocate - and the world's big-gest movie star - Tom Cruise. In the week the actor "went wide" (to use film-biz parlance) with his cheerleading for the sect, Google listed "Scientology" as its tenth-fastest-gaining query.
Since being recruited in the mid-1980s by Philip J Spickler, one of Hubbard's original disciples and the father of Cruise's first wife, Mimi Rogers (Spickler and Rogers have since left Scientology), Cruise had not been evangelical about his beliefs. He almost never discussed his membership publicly. Nicole Kidman, his second wife, was not a follower. Moreover, since 1991, Cruise has made three films for Warner Brothers and two for New Line Cinema, both Time stablemates within the Time Warner empire.
However, Cruise's sudden zeal for all things Hubbard overshadowed the publicity campaign for War of the Worlds, his latest blockbuster for Paramount. This was partly a consequence of Cruise appointing a new publicist - his sister and fellow Scientologist Lee Anne de Vette. To the bemusement of the US media, Cruise set up a Scientology tent on the film set, with "volunteer Scientology ministers". He also insisted that Paramount executives tour the sect's "celebrity centre" in Hollywood, allegedly spent six hours taking a reporter around three of the Church's facilities, blasted other stars for using antidepressants, and aggressively rubbished all forms of psychiatry and psychology. Few were surprised when Cruise's latest fiancee, Katie Holmes, announced that she'd begun taking Scientology courses. A senior Scientology wrangler has joined her entourage.
Some observers of the sect attribute Cruise's sudden outspokenness to his attainment of one of the most advanced grades along the "Bridge to Total Freedom", invented by Hubbard. Scientologists become "clear" (after it has been proved to them that their personal flaws result from trauma built up over trillions of years of reincarnation) by taking multiple courses, and through "auditing" via an "E-Meter", a Scientology brain-monitoring gadget. Church members past and present say reaching the highest levels usually takes between ten and 30 years. Conservative estimates for the cost of this are roughly $30,000, but some people claim to have spent $250,000 on the "journey".
Clearly, this is small change if you are Cruise or another of the big names affiliated with Scientology: John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston; Kirstie Alley; Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart Simpson); or, in the music world, Beck and Lisa Marie Presley. However, investing in celebrities is crucial to the Church, which, observers estimate, makes $300m a year from sales of Hubbard's books and from fixed-price "donations" by followers attending "enlightenment courses". The organisation, which is based in Clearwater, Florida, owns assets worldwide worth an estimated $2bn, including Freewinds, the ship that houses its upper management and treats the Caribbean island of Curacao as its home port. Such wealth makes Kabbalah, Hollywood's most fashionable cult - which hawks diamond necklaces bearing symbols for healing, happiness, love and prosperity - look almost neglected.
Scientology has always been keen to seduce Hollywood, that great entertainer of the masses, to endorse L Ron Hubbard's teachings. Big-budget films can endow Scientology with greater acceptability in mainstream America, which equates fame with credibility. "Celebrities are very Special people and have a very distinct line of dissemination. They have comm[unication] lines that others do not have and many medias [sic] to get their dissemination through," Hubbard sagely suggested in 1973. Indeed, as far back as 1955, he had already inaugurated "Project Celebrity", which aimed to target prominent individuals. According to a 1990 investigation in the Los Angeles Times, Hubbard had named several people of that era as suitable. The list Hubbard wanted in his team included Walt Disney, Marlene Dietrich, Ernest Hemingway, Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and Groucho Marx. "If you bring one of them home you will get a small plaque as a reward," he wrote in the Church's in-house magazine.
After Hubbard's fatal stroke in 1986, the idea of using celebrities to promote and defend Scientology was expanded by his successor, David Miscavige, then aged just 25. The Church runs a special office to guide famous Scientologists' careers and ensure the "correct utilisation" of such links with celebs. It has also created a special pampering building, the Celebrity Centre International, on Frank-lin Avenue in Hollywood. "These days," says Scott Bartchy, director of the Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of California, Los Angeles, "they're looking for high-profile people to say positive things about them, because they are so eager to be considered a legitimate religion, and because of all the problems they are having abroad."
Europe is far more wary than the US of Scientology: the Church has been under federal surveillance in Germany, where it is considered an exploitative cult with totalitarian tendencies. Only last month in Paris, where Cruise became engaged to Holmes, Gilles Alayrac of France's Parti Radical de Gauche referred to the star as a "sect symbol" at a municipal meeting to discuss aid to cult victims and their families.
Cruise's recent outspokenness has certainly galvanised the movement. In July, Alley and Preston put their names to an open letter to the Food and Drug Administration complaining about the availability of psychotropic drugs. The sect runs its own drug rehabilitation programme, Narconon. But can celebrity endorsements do the trick? When Cruise's word-spreading went into overdrive back in May, visits to the Church's official website shot up by 263 per cent, peaking at 375,000 unique visitors per day, according to the website traffic tracker Alexa. One can safely assume that many of those visitors came through Google and most were simply curious - but it is surely possible that some will sign up. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble reports that sales of Hubbard's manual Dianetics more than doubled in June.
Scientology is actually keen to play down the Cruise influence. John Carmichael, a spokesman for the sect, insists that "the uptrend was already there", and claims that "Scientology is the largest-growing religion in the world". In other words, although Scientologists are encouraged to sign covenants of faith with a duration of a billion years, movie-star celebrity is fleeting. Maybe Carmichael has seen the rushes for Cruise's next picture.