The Late, Great Planet Mirth IV: Judgment (2001)

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fourstar

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Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Fear not, Leigh Lewis fans! Despite all appearances, Helen Hannah did not, in fact, die at the end of Tribulation. I mean, she did; she really, really did. The descending blade of that guillotine in V-World was no joke, but the plot of this film required her to be alive, so here she is, back from the dead for the second time (given that she was pretty obviously about to be executed at the end of Apocalypse as well), which is especially impressive given that the Son of Man himself has only done it the once. I’m not about to go all Annie Wilkes here about how she didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie guillotine, though, because this film is where Lewis really gets to shine.The LaLondes could kill her at the end of every film and bring her right back like Aeon Flux and I would still be on board. She’s joined here by some real talent, too, which helps carry the film.

The tagline for Judgment is as succinct as it is hilarious: “The Supreme Court versus The Supreme Being…. Let the trial begin.” Of course, the Supreme Court doesn’t factor into this film at all. Instead, the plot focuses on the attempts of O.N.E.’s World Court to charge Helen Hannah with the worst crime of all: hatred of humanity. Mitch Kendrick (Corbin Bernsen) is a lawyer who is reluctantly drafted into acting has Helen’s defense. Kendrick, who previously lost the case that saw his “Hater” (i.e. Christian) father vilified and executed, is being blackmailed by his ex, the ambitious Victoria Thorne (Jessica Steen). Thorne knows that Mitch never actually took the Mark, and that his is a black market fake; she calls him weak and denigrates him for failing to choose a side. Thorne and Judge Wells (Michael Copeman) provide Mitch with a script to follow for the televised trial, one that will ultimately lead to Helen inevitably being found guilty, but  Kendrick latches onto the idea of prosecuting not Helen, but God himself. Franco Macalusso, AKA the Antichrist, AKA Lucifer (Nick Mancuso) finds this idea fascinating, and he tells Wells and Thorne to throw out their script and let this play out.

It’s as goofy as it sounds, but in a oddly compelling way. Whereas Tribulation  featured both silly Charmed warlocks going around and Force-choking random schizophrenics for knowing too much and a scene where the same Satanist characters chillingly murder an alley full of homeless people in cold blood, Judgment is consistent in its absurdity. The court of law that’s depicted herein is completely bonkers. There’s no disclosure of evidence or witness lists pre-trial, and there’s also no jury, just a single judge who both presides and acts as arbiter. The witnesses that we do see aren’t even there to talk about the forensics of the explosion that destroyed a school bus (as seen in Revelation and mentioned here as evidence of Hater terrorism) or anything that would reasonably appear in a case about one woman’s devotion to a “dangerous” cult (or the culpability of a deity). Instead, we see a five-star general testify as an expert witness about how much less dangerous the world is now that Lucifer has taken dominion, and how many parties the Department of Defense has to plan now that war has become a thing of the past. We also get to see the all-too-brief return of now-soulless Willie Spino (Tony Nappo) as he testifies against his sister. None of the court proceedings reflect the real world at all; the legal system of this world as scripted may as well be predicated on a child’s understanding of how the law works based on seeing a few episodes of Law & Order on a fuzzy, muted television at the laundromat. Somehow, though, it has its own dizzying internal logic, and if you can just accept that and go with it, the film is a lot of fun.

There’s also a secondary plot woven throughout that is virtually irrelevant, although it contains some elements that are genuinely novel within Christian cinema. Selma (Mirium Carvell), the leader of the Hater cell who escaped from the fiery furnace in Revelation, is hiding out with several other secret Christians, including J.T. Quincy (the one and only fool-pitier himself, Mr. T) and his wife. Although this plot is pointless, Mr. T gets a black market Mark of the Beast like Kendrick and enlists a young couple named Danny and Dawn to help them break into the detention facility and rescue Helen. The unique thing about these two is that they are neither Christians nor Antichristians, but unbelievers. And not unbelievers like Stone and Kendrick, whose entire narrative arc is to become a believer, but real people in this world who aren’t sure what the truth is. It’s a real problem in our world that Christians (and people of other faiths, I’m sure, but I’m specifically talking about the PMD Christianity that I was raised in and which birthed this series of films) see those with other beliefs and philosophies not merely as misguided, but as people who surely know the truth (as the PMDs perceive it) and are in constant, intentional denial of it. It’s exactly as patronizing as it sounds, and it’s a genuine surprise that Danny and Dawn are as well rounded as those characters on either side of the Christ/Antichrist debate. Dawn isn’t sure that the stories she’s heard about Hater terrorism are false, and Danny’s starving; neither wants to take the Mark because they’ve seen how it changes people, but without it they have no way of getting food or shelter. Neither Dawn nor Danny gets preached to or is harangued about the need to accept Christ before it’s too late, they’re just accepted by the Christians and housed without the thought of proselytization.

Which isn’t to say that this film passes without a little preaching, but at least it’s presented in a dynamic way. In all three previous films in the Apocalypse series, most of the scenes where you as an audience member are supposed to consider your sins and ponder following Jesus were people sitting in a room and dialoguing at each other; here, the Christian safe house is raided (Thorne planted a tracking device on Kendrick in order to find it) and Selma ends up in the same building as the trial, so she stands and testifies on Helen’s behalf and goes on a diatribe about the evidence for a historical resurrection. It’s a nice scene, not least of all because it gives Jessica Steen the chance to do something other than portray a Powerful Female Attorney as envisioned by the repressed, more misogynistic Christian version of David E. Kelley. That’s spot on for how empowered women are usually portrayed in this genre, but I digress. Mr. T ends up breaking Helen and Selma out after all, and they escape.

There are a few other things going on here that are different from standard Christian movies. For one, our main character is a liar. He lies to his ex, he lies to the judge, he lies to society. The only time he ever seems to be telling the truth is when he and Helen are alone, and he spends most of that time yelling at her about how meaningless her faith is. Corbin Bernsen is the closest thing to a movie star that has graced this series (all deference and love to Margot Kidder, but get real). The man was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe! He was in 171 episodes of L.A. Law, and the Major League film series was very popular in its day. Obviously, he brings the things he learned in the former to this role, so much so that even though I have never seen a single episode of L.A. Law, I could still feel the conviction in his voice every time the word “Objection!” came flying out of his mouth. As a result, he brings a lot of dignity to a role that could otherwise be an exercise in ham-fisted moralizing.

Overall, that’s the best way to think about this film: a surprisingly dignified story about one woman struggling with her faith in the face of certain death, and the way that this faith helps her to move metaphorical mountains. It’s full of continuity issues and plot holes, but it still works, for the most part. Of all the films that I have seen that were created explicitly as propaganda, this is one that actually works (mostly) outside of that context.

Stray observations:

● Steen had previously appeared in Michael Bay’s Armageddon and would later appear in Left Behind: World at War, meaning that she has appeared in three separate franchises about the end of the world (four, if you count early nineties sci-fi TV series Earth 2). She also gives a strong performance here, although a lot of characters talk about her and her ambition with lines dripping with misogyny.

● Nick Mancuso gets to give his best performance yet in this series, as he appears as a character interacting with others throughout. I did laugh when Kendrick called him to the stand and he appeared from around the corner instantaneously, though. His sudden appearance, along with the way that Selma appears in the courtroom, contributes to the stage-like feel of the movie, for better or worse; I found it more amusing than distracting, however, so it was a positive for me.

● There are some continuity errors surrounding how the Mark works; previously it seemed to have a Yeerk-like effect where the bearer of the Mark essentially became a different person with no free will. This time around, bearers of the Mark act outside of (and even contrary to) the will of the Antichrist. Thorne is aware that Kendrick’s Mark is fake, but she uses this to blackmail him instead of just turning him in. When she explains this to Judge Wells, she even mentions that his entry on the Mark-bearer registry is forged; previously, the Mark automatically made you part of the telekinetic hivemind and made you turn on anyone you knew. What makes the least sense, though, is when Kendrick peels off his fake Mark in the courtroom, and Lucifer is surprised. Like, really, Satan? You were fooled by this guy’s fake Mark, a fake Mark of You?

● It’s pretty apparent that this film went through more than one draft, which isn’t always the case in productions like this. The subplot about Mr. T and his friends was obviously a vestigial leftover from an earlier version of the plot, especially given how a scene in their bunker and a scene between Kendrick and Helen is intercut awkwardly, as if trying to break up the bunker plot. The only real impact that they have is presenting Kendrick with evidence, which could have been demonstrated by Selma performing a dead drop somewhere for Kendrick to find. Given that the movie ends with Kendrick’s sacrifice and Helen escaping, it would have been more moving if the subplot was cut completely and Selma had been caught trying to get Kendrick this info. She and Helen could have made their own heroic sacrifices to end the film, instead of them getting out of their cell and the film immediately cutting to credits.

● There are no films in this series that follow Judgment. I have to admit that I’m pretty disappointed in this anticlimactic ending. Of all the films to leave Helen Hannah alive at the end of, why the finale? Part of this might be because Cloud Ten was gearing up production on the film adaptations of Left Behind around this time and were concerned about diluting the brand (such as it is), but creating a film series that is leading up to the reappearance of Jesus but doesn’t even include an inkling of resolution is a horrible choice. Oh well.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late Great Planet Mirth III – Tribulation (2000)

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twohalfstar

Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Hoo boy, this is a weird one. The back of the box for Tribulation, the third film in the Apocalypse series, claims that the film is roughly 101 minutes long, but the movie really clocks in at less than 90, in the low eighties if you discount the overlong opening credits. Revelation also had a similar problem, as that film started with a long pan through Thorold Stone’s house while a cover of Rapture anthem “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The difference is that Revelation picks up from there and goes the distance (…mostly), while Tribulation is too down to earth, despite paradoxically also being absolutely bonkers. It takes a risk by crafting (for lack of a better word) a Rapture story that includes elements from sources other than Hal Lindsay’s Premillenial Dispensationalism™, but the more ostentatious features of the movie are at odds tonally with the previous films. It also feels like something you’ve seen in any DTV conspiracy thriller because, despite taking place in the world created by the first two films, Tribulation barely bothers to include the Antichrist, instead playing out like a bargain basement pod people movie interspersed with televangelical talking heads.

Tom Canboro (Gary Busey; yes, that Gary Busey) is a cop in Anytown, USA. His lovely wife Susie (Sherri Miller) is some kind of television producer. Busey says at one point that life isn’t like her show, where she finds “the most romantic angle” for a story; this, combined with the fact that she is friends pre-Rapture with Helen Hannah (returning champ Leigh Lewis), is all the information that we really get about her. Tom has remained close in adulthood with kid brother Calvin and their older sister Eileen (Lois Lane herself Margot Kidder), who’s a bit of an overbearing Bible-thumper. The Canboros also share their home with Susie’s younger brother Jason (Howie Mandel), who is interested in the philosophy of rising European Union figurehead Franco Macalusso (Nick Mancuso).

That’s right! Macalusso is just a minor politician at this point. Tribulation doesn’t start during the Tribulation at all; half of this movie’s runtime takes place pre-Rapture, spending nearly 45 minutes establishing character relationships that won’t matter in the back half. In fact, this film doesn’t feel like it has multiple acts, instead feeling like two parts of a TV two-parter. It is established that Jason is mentally unstable, although it’s apparent that he’s written by someone who has no concept of how mental illness works. Jason is frequently manic, excitedly telling the small family gathering about Macalusso’s idea that if all the people on earth were united in their ideas, man could essentially become like unto a god. Jason is also stated to have a past history of psychological hospitalization and an interest in the occult, which are explicitly linked. He uses a non-copyrighted ouija board, which somehow gives him the clue that Macalusso’s ideas are related to Genesis 11:6, which is in the middle of the story the Tower of Babel. You can look that up in whichever translation suits you, but they’re all essentially a variation on the idea that the builders of the tower could perform any feat they imagined because of their unified language and intention. Don’t let it surprise you that the film ends up having the villains treat this verse like the loophole in a contract with God, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Jason ends up wreaking havoc in the family kitchen while explaining how one group of monkeys spontaneously learned a skill that another monkey group (from which they were isolated) learned independently; this is definitive proof, he says, that Macalusso is right about the boundlessness of human potential. Jason and Eileen argue about their perspective worldviews. I wouldn’t even mention it, but it leads Busey to utter one of the greatest lines ever committed to film while he puts on his badge and gun (I gave the movie an extra star for this alone):

“I gotta go. There’s a whole lotta people in this city who don’t take much comfort in God or a clean banana.”

Elsewhere, a group of Satanists (led by a guy who intentionally looks like Anton LaVey) are standing around under a pentagram, focusing on a model of the Tower of Babel and, well, babbling about how God himself admitted in Genesis 11:6 that mankind is capable of overpowering him. Because the movie needs a scene to drive home how dangerous they are, they possess the sleeping body of a guy who teaches a night course in parapsychology,which is hilarious for a few reasons. First, the fact that the screenwriter specified that this was night school in order to capitalize on the creep factor is adorable. Secondly, after revealing this fact, one of the Laveys hilariously says “This guy’s mind is wiiiide open,” because the Laveys share the same ironically dismissive attitude about New Age concepts that Evangelicals do. The possessed man starts attacking his Christian wife, screaming that she is a “Hater” (thereby establishing that this term for Christians predates the Rapture in this world, answering a question that nobody asked). Tom responds to the domestic disturbance call and confronts the possessed man, who threatens his wife and then leaps through the window of their 14th floor apartment. Intercut (although that word implies a mastery of editing that is not on display here, which I’ll get to in a bit) with this are a couple of scenes showing Jason confronting Susie and demanding to see Eileen, calling her a “hater.” Although we only see the aftermath, Tom is called away to the hospital because Jason also jumped out of a window, but was luckily only on the first floor.

At the hospital, the Canboros learn that Jason will likely be remitted to a psychiatric facility, much to his distress. Lavey Prime astral projects into the room and uses Force Choke on Jason, as he had picked up on broadcasts that weren’t meant for him. Lavey Prime is repelled by the presence of Eileen, like a vampire with the weirdest weakness of all time. While Tom goes to check on the body of the man from the domestic disturbance in the morgue, Susie decides she’s just going to kidnap her brother from the hospital. Eileen is on board because she totally believes his ramblings about the cabal of Laveys and their murderous ways, despite the fact that a psychic Babel cult plays no role in the Hal Lindsey PMD™ beliefs that she is seen to espouse. A couple of minor Laveys brag to each other about having killed the night school instructor, and Tom overhears; he flees the hospital right behind Susie and the others, but the Laveys cause him to crash his car. If this really were a TV two-parter, this is where the ominous “To be continued…” would appear.

We flash-forward to the post-Rapture world established in Revelation, where Tom wakes from a coma in a world he doesn’t understand, presaging similar plot developments from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, except that those narratives don’t spend an inordinate amount of time in the pre-crisis world. The hospital room in which he awakes is shared with an amputee, who warns him not to let anyone know that he is awake, as he will then have to put on the VR glasses and choose death or Macalusso’s Mark. Tribulation doubles down on Revelation’s weird ableism (the amputee seems genuinely panicked that he will be forced to don the goggles but acquiesces to take the Mark almost immediately after realizing that doing so will restore his missing arm), and Tom barely escapes detection before taking heart when he sees that one of Macalusso’s broadcasts is interrupted by archive footage from Jack van Impe’s TV show. We learn that these hacks are being perpetrated by Helen and Susie, along with Jake (Patrick Gallagher, who was also a member of Helen’s underground in Revelation), operating out of a broadcast van and staying on the run. We also learn that Thorold Stone was captured and executed between the previous film and this one.

Tom struggles to comprehend the Tribulation in which he has awoken and seeks out Eileen. Every person he encounters turns on him after learning he is not Marked, and the Laveys almost capture him in a disturbing scene in which they murder a group of homeless people hanging out in an alley through which he escapes. Eventually, he makes his way to his and Susie’s old house, where he encounters Calvin, who has taken the Mark and does not remember Eileen; she no longer even appears in photos from their childhood. Calvin attempts to force Tom to take the Mark, but Tom bests him and flees to a sentimental place: a tree that Eileen had designated as a meeting place for them as children should they ever get lost in the woods. There, he finds Jason, who has successfully avoided taking the Mark but still refuses to accept that Eileen’s warnings are playing out exactly as she predicted. Meanwhile, Helen is captured by the Antichrist’s forces after the latest broadcast. Tom sets out to find Susie, hoping that they can reunite before the end of the world.

Tribulation is by far the most bizarre entry in the canon of Rapture flicks, using decidedly non-PMD ideas like the concept that humanity might be capable of defeating God if united in one purpose in an attempt to build a conspiracy thriller. Ultimately, however, it fails to be as engaging as Revelation, which hit the ground running relatively quickly. There’s also a step backward in regards to production value this time around, as the editing in this film is utter garbage. There are splices that are so random that at first I wondered if the DVD was skipping before remembering that I was watching a VHS; in the kitchen scene that establishes character relationships, there is a sudden jump to Jason’s upstairs room, where he is accidentally tapping into the Laveys’ transmissions, a shot that lasts ten seconds before jumping back to the kitchen below. Later, when Tom is confronting the possessed night school instructor, there are similar splices to a seemingly random scene in which Jason is screaming at Susie about his need to find and kill Eileen; we cut back to the domestic disturbance site, see the possessed man leap to his death, and then a quick cut back to the Canboro house, where Jason is lying on the ground outside, seemingly with no cause. It’s only in retrospect that the audience is led to the realization that Jason was receiving the same psychic orders as the dead man. This happens again and again throughout the plot, and it makes for a distinctly disorienting viewing experience. This could be forgiven if it seemed at all to be an intentional ploy to put the audience in the same headspace as Tom, but the only way that could work is if these scenes started after his awakening, which they don’t.

There’s another issue with the narrative, which is what we could call the Problem of Eileen. After Tribulation was released, Margot Kidder famously claimed that she had no idea that the film was meant to be a Christian propaganda piece, and Howie Mandel has made similar statements. Viewing their contributions to the film in isolation, Mandel’s statement is more difficult to believe, given that his character endures the Tribulation and ends up becoming a believer by the end. I’m more inclined to give Kidder some credit, though, for a few reasons. Firstly, her character is taken in the Rapture, meaning that she only appears in the first half of the film and may not have been given a complete script, which lends some credibility to her claims. Secondly, Eileen as presented in the film isn’t the best representation of Christianity; she comes across as obsessive and overbearing, and although these are not uncommon character traits among some believers, Kidder seems to be playing Eileen that way intentionally, as if the viewer is supposed to find her at least somewhat disagreeable. Although her drug use problems have rendered her the butt of insensitive jokes, Kidder’s not a bad actress, and I think that if she had known that Eileen was supposed to be the voice of reason (rather than a fundamentalist with kooky views that she won’t shut up about, the way Kidder plays her), she would have given a more nuanced performance. Finally, given Kidder’s own troubles with mental illness, I doubt she would have agreed to play a character who treats Jason’s instability as something that can be prayed away if she had realized that the filmmakers intended her to be right. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in Christian families in the real world who do not get the professional help they desperately need for this same reason.

There are myriad problems here above and beyond those noted in the plot synopsis. All of the Laveys dress like Charmed warlocks, which severely undercuts the menace of their presence. Their wanton murder of a dozen homeless people adds some of that villainy back in, but the tone deafness of that scene (which follows the shooting of an unarmed black Christian man named Ronnie by the police) and the film’s apparent lack of consideration for the real world implications lacks social awareness. The film would have been better served to illustrate the parallel between the Tribulation and our present and how both worlds are in need of redemption, but blind support of police and blanket privileging of Christianity in our society are both tools that support and reinforce the status quo, so no criticism of the violence and fascism of contemporary America can be made. As a result, this sequence is nearly as offensive in what it doesn’t say as Apocalypse was in its appropriation of footage of real world violence, just in reverse.

As always, this film is not without redeeming features. Busey gives a good performance here as well. Not for an actor, mind you, but for a Busey, he’s quite good. It’s too bad that what could have been a decent outing for him in the twilight of his career takes place in such a shoddily constructed movie. Lewis continues to outshine the material she is given to work with. The sequence that works best is when, post-capture, she is taken into the VR world to confront Macalusso. Lewis plays the internal war between faith and fear admirably, giving a powerhouse performance, and Mancuso’s Macalusso shines more brightly here than in Apocalypse, despite that he never actually appears, being seen only in the VR world and giving addresses on television. Still, there’s not enough here to make up for the poor scripting, inconsistent performances, and overall feeling of cheapness. This movie is only marginally better than Apocalypse in the end, even once you factor in Lewis’s performance. Skip this one.

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Final Thoughts

  •  It’s inconceivable that the Laveys have nothing better to do in this film than spend the entire second half trying to track down one wayward Busey, who isn’t much of a threat. If anything, it only further serves to highlight Tom’s irrelevance to the plot. In Apocalypse, Stone actually had a purpose in the narrative other than to find salvation, since he had the disc that was smuggled to him by the underground; here, it’s Helen who makes the ultimate sacrifice (although she will reappear in Judgment, the final film in the series) in order to get Macalusso’s confession on tape and expose his lies. Tom does nothing to contribute to this plot, as Helen is captured before he even makes contact with the resistance
  • This introduces yet another problem, which is that the ending implies that those with the Mark can somehow overcome their brainwashing, as Macalusso’s television address following the broadcast of his Engineered Public Confession finds him angrily demanding that his flock return to him. Up to this point, those who take the Mark are treated like vampires from Buffy: you are no longer yourself, instead surrendering wholly to a new being that inhabits your body and has your memories but isn’t you. This further cements the fact that this is a body snatcher film, not one about possession.
  • It’s also worth noting that Tom’s escape from the O.N.E.-controlled hospital takes so long that Lavey Prime is notified he has awoken and disappeared but still has time to get to that location before Tom even makes it outside. It’s just one more plotting problem on top of so many that have come before.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late Great Planet Mirth II – Revelation (1999)

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threehalfstar

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Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Revelation, sometimes stylized as Apocalypse II: Revelation, is the first of three sequels to 1998 PPI release Apocalypse, and it is a massive improvement on the previous installment. Gone are the bargain basement community theatre actors who clogged up the works in the first flick, replaced by people you may have actually heard of before; gone is the soundtrack that consists almost entirely of Contemporary Christian Music artists, replaced by music that was actually scored for the film rather than haphazardly arranged behind it. Furthermore, the production value on Revelation is exponentially higher than that of Apocalypse, as this movie succeeds in actually looking like a movie and not a poorly produced television pilot shot on VHS. Although the proselytizing elements are still present in this film, they’re toned down significantly, and Revelation feels like it was conceived as a movie with the soapbox added as an afterthought, rather than the other way around.

The film opens on Thorold Stone, a counter-terrorism specialist whose wife and young daughter were among those who vanished three months prior; he spends his evenings reminiscing and watching old home films while flashing back to all the times his wife tried to convince him to join her in church. He is awoken from his reverie by news of a schoolbus bombing (which is a bit of a continuity problem, as all children were supposedly raptured, although this could have been a bus for teenagers), and he meets his partner at the scene of the crime. They trace the detonation signal to an underground church  meeting of “haters,” Christians who oppose the apparently benevolent Antichrist Franco Macalusso (recast and now played by Nick Mancuso, who would portray him for the rest of the quadrilogy). Although their orders are to kill all the Haters on sight, Stone and his partner arrest the group instead, allowing the Hater sect leader (Marium Carvell) to plant the seeds of doubt in Stone’s mind and pass him a CD-ROM that she says will show him the truth. Macalusso sends Len Parker (David Roddis, previously seen as the new head of WNN last time) to kill Stone and his partner, fearing they may have learned too much. Stone’s partner is killed, but Stone survives while the captured Haters are imprisoned and prepared for re-education.

The disc leads Stone to Willie Spino (Tony Nappo), a wheelchair-bound computer programmer who has been working on an incredibly advanced virtual reality program for Macalusso’s upcoming “Day of Wonders.” Spino is unable to access the disc despite it being part of his design, and his attempts to access the O.N.E. network reveal his location to the Antichrist’s forces; the two escape and make their way to the Christian underground, where Nappo reunites with his stepsister, who is revealed to be Apocalypse MVP Leigh Lewis, reprising her role as Helen Hannah. While the incarcerated Haters continue to persevere throughout their torture, blind cynic Cindy (supermodel Carol Alt), a member of Helen’s underground, voices her increasing frustration at having to live in hiding. When Willie manages to crack the final line of code, he learns what the Day of Wonders actually is: in the virtual world, everyone will face the choice of accepting the Mark of the Beast or death.

As noted above, Revelation is a departure from Apocalypse in quality across the board. Whereas Apocalypse featured a lot of montages in which the members of the audience are meant to meditate upon the ideas presented, this film finds its footing quickly and stays strong through the end. There’s a great sequence that follows Thorold’s introduction to Helen in which the two have a conversation about faith, which includes Thorold begging that God show him a sign as small as knocking over a water glass; Helen tells him that God doesn’t work that way, and even if he did make himself evident by causing the glass to tumble, Thorold’s mind would find another explanation for the event. After their discussion, Thorold stands and bumps the table on which the glass is standing, causing it to fall to the floor; still later, when their safehouse is raided by the Antichrist’s forces, the group is able to make their escape because Len Parker trips on the glass. It’s not the most elegantly composed chain of events, but it reflects an understanding of irony and foreshadowing that wasn’t present in Apocalypse, and the scene demonstrates a real understanding of how many people approach the question of the existence of a higher power. It’s surprisingly subtle and well-composed, and the film deserves credit for that.

On the other hand, there are problems with the script. Although the film’s intentional diversity is admirable in its inclusion not just of people of color but also the differently abled, the end of the film is arguably ableist in its approach to physical handicaps. Willie is the most fleshed-out character in the movie, and Nappo is obviously a talented actor, but his turn from reluctant ally to outright antagonist is abrupt. Further, the fact that only Willie and the blind Cindy are so quick to accept the Antichrist’s offer (which restores his ability to walk and her ability to see), and that they are the only two main characters to do so, is problematic in its implications; both are so desperate to be “whole” that they sacrifice their souls to do so, with the influence of the Antichrist turning them into cackling villains in the final act. It’s not a great message.

The film’s major issue, however, is also its greatest strength. Whereas Apocalypse was made with the intention of being an evangelical tool, Revelation has elements of that but is largely focused on telling a compelling story first, and it mostly succeeds. The problem with this is that the series has moved past the “world-building” stage and now expects the audience to be well-versed in the premillenialist dispensationalism that forms the narrative background. We learn in the opening moments that Thorold works for the O.N.E., which is never defined or explained. Readers of Left Behind and the works of Hal Lindsey will recognize that this is the “foretold” one-world government that the Antichrist will supposedly set up on the earth, and will likely assume that the O.N.E. is the One Nation Empire or One Nation Earth, but the casual viewer without a background in this particular eschatological concept is asked to accept a lot about this world that is not clearly explicated, which hurts the film overall. It may have been the intent of the filmmakers that non-specialized viewers then ask the PMD Christian friend who loaned the film to them to explain, but that’s asking a lot of a casual audience member. Still, this is a much more thoughtful approach to the subject matter than we got last time, and it manages to be genuinely compelling for most of its runtime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Late Great Planet Mirth I – Introduction & Apocalypse (1998)

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Before we get started, let’s get this out of the way: the opinions contained herein are strictly those of the author and do not reflect upon Swampflix or its editors. These opinions are born out of a lifetime spent being reared in a particular theological worldview and its intersection with academic and scholarly studies of religious doctrine and eschatology. The introduction below is provided solely to present the ideologies that serve to make up the mindset from which the film(s) reviewed were created. No harm is intended, and this should not be interpreted as an invitation to discuss religion, positively or negatively.

I have a real fondness for media pertaining to that particular brand of Christian eschatology that centers around The Rapture. I was raised in a church that was highly obsessed with Christ’s ever-nearer return, and being born into and reared in that environment had an intense effect on me, as we were always preparing for the Second Coming and expecting it to happen any day now. From the outside, it’s impossible to understand just how deeply the conviction that the Glorious Return will play out exactly as depicted in the Left Behind series of books runs, but suffice it to say that the true believers of this worldview are true believers, and there’s not a lot of room for discussion or alternate opinions/interpretations on/of the subject.

Speaking of Left Behind, theologian Fred Clark over at Patheos has been working on dissecting that novel series for several years now, exploring all the ways in which they can be deemed “the worst books of all time” on both the literary and theological level (not to mention the revelations-no pun intended-he has uncovered about the personality defects of authors Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye). In his ongoing exploration of the series, he gets into all of the ways that the novels are poorly written and center around horribly unlikable protagonists who are terrifyingly self-absorbed as well as the ways that the theological underpinnings of the books revolve around a questionable-at-best reading of Biblical scripture. He’s been writing that blog for a long time, and it’s absolutely brilliant and beautiful, often offering spiritual and moral guidance that is more scripturally sound and moving than anything Jenkins and LaHaye have to offer. Of course, I only know this because young Mark was a huge fan of Left Behind; it combined Biblical “prophecy” (in a very loose sense, which I’ll get to more in a moment) with political intrigue, and I was uneducated and foolish enough to find the plot compelling and intriguing. Only with the benefit of Clark’s insight and my own hindsight is it clear just how bankrupt LB is as a piece of art or theological investigation, and I highly recommend reading his analysis for anyone who is curious, although I must warn you that it’s just as staggering in it’s length as it is in its scholarship and entertainment value.

Of course, LaHaye and Jenkins didn’t create The Rapture out of whole cloth. The concept that Christ’s return will be heralded by the physical disappearance of Christians all over the world is nearly as old as the American nation, if not older, and its popularity as one of the myriad eschatologies is cyclical. One of my favorite stories of awaited Rapture is that of preacher William Miller, who led a congregation of Millerites (naturally) in his belief that the Rapture was definitively going to happen in May of 1844 (google “The Great Disappointment” for more information). Still, the fervor that overtook America in the nineties was born out of a renewed interest in Rapture theology, which first began to rise within evangelical Christianity in the 1970s following the release of several apocalyptic books by Hal Lindsey, with The Late Great Planet Earth being the most noteworthy among them (The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon also holds a special place in my heart). The 1980s brought with it the rebranding of the Republican party, which helped cement Lindsey in the public consciousness and allowed Rapture fever to hit its zenith in the 1990s and early 2000s. Lindsey was a virulent believer in what has become the most commonly believed Rapture theory of modern times, more accurately called Premillennialist Dispensationalism.

The millennium referred to in the name of this approach has nothing to do with the divisions of the gregorian calendar and instead refer to a thousand-year period of earthly peace and prosperity. This period of piece will, they say, come after a period of Tribulation (usually seven years, but there is dissention about that). Premillenialists believe that the Second Coming will come at the beginning of this period and thus it will be ruled over by none other than Jesus himself, while postmillenialists are of the belief that Christ’s return will occur at the end of the millennium. Dispensationalism is the belief that Christ’s “flock” will disappear from the face of the earth in the Rapture before this period of Tribulation, rather than after, which is opposed by those who hold to the tenets of Raptural Historicism, which states that the Rapture will occur after the Tribulation. Still with me? I hope so, because it only gets more complicated from here; for the sake of brevity, I’ll be referring to adherents of this belief as PMDs.

Now, when I was a child, my paternal grandparents were very steeped in this paradigm of scriptural interpretation. They had only a small shelf of books in their home, and all of them were devotionals, hymnals, or books of the Lindsey mold: jeremiads about the rise of insidious cultural evil like tolerance, “Eastern Mysticism,” and (of course) homosexuality, and how these were signs and signifiers of the fact that the Rapture was so close that if Jesus wasn’t already on the threshhold, he was surely coming up the steps. As a voracious reader deprived of other material, I devoured these books when I would stay with my grandparents, and I would be lying if I said that didn’t warp me and my worldview for a very long time. It also put me in a unique position of being intimately familiar with the theological “scholarship” that underlines and supports the presuppositions of Jenkins, LaHaye, and their acolytes. I’ll try to summarize and synthesize as much as I can here, but it’s a big Gordian Knot that I’m trying to map for you, and having lived on the shore doesn’t always mean you’re going to be a great cartographer.

So here’s the deal: the thing that I liked about Left Behind when I was a kid was the way that it looked at lots of disparate pieces and put them together into one big prophecy puzzle, all the verses and chapters coming together into what seemed like an intuitive map of the near future. The problem, however, is that the methodology that led to the explosion of Rapture believers in the past few decades is that, to the layman, it looks like a brilliant decryption of arcane text. In reality, however, it’s more of an exercise in practiced self-deception and selective reading, itself colored by the political environs from which it was birthed. For instance, the Left Behind branch of Rapture belief is heavily influenced by Lindsey’s prophecies, which were in turn highly affected by the international political climate of the 1980s; Lindsey and his followers identified the nations of Gog and Magog in John’s Revelation as obvious references to the U.S.S.R., and used that assumption as a metaphorical weight-bearing cornerstone in their philosophy. With the dissolution of that federation, successive additions to this unusual canon have had to deal with the fact that no-longer-relevant nations, rulers, and ideologies played a pivotal role in the development of Lindsey’s eschatology, with each pulled thread threatening to destroy the entire tapestry.

And that’s just in the application of Biblical archetypes to the contemporary modern world; there’s a slew of other issues with the basis of this ideology. Lindsey, like William Miller before him, has a bit of an obsession with numerology and drawing lines between dots that probably weren’t meant to be connected on anything other than a thematic level. As such, Lindsey’s underlying conceits often rely upon an equation that involves several erratically chosen numerical references, divided by seven, or maybe twelve, and then assigning to the solution a number of years or days or other delineation of time. Then, once you factor in the year of an event of Biblical or historical relevance; 1948 is a favorite year of significance as adherents to this methodology are obsessed with the reestablishment of the nation of Israel and the way that it seems to echo the repeated diaspora and reunification of the Israelites in the Bible. And once you factor in that one such iteration of that cycle took place during the Babylonian Exile, and Babylon is mentioned in John’s Revelation, well, baby you got a stew goin’! Just ignore the fact that John was also writing in exile and drawing upon imagery with which his contemporary audience would have been familiar (“It’s a little thing called the Book of Daniel; you’ve probably never heard of it.” –Early Christian Hipsters, probably). Does this seem like an erratic train of thought? Are you picturing Lindsey standing in front of a corkboard full of Bible pages with red string tied between different pushpins next to highlighted passages, like the conspiracy theorist in every thriller you’ve ever seen? Then you’re starting to get the idea.

And let’s not forget that all of this is based on what the figureheads of the movement would call a “literal” reading of the text, even though this is pretty much the opposite of the meaning of the word. A reference to multi-headed dragons monsters with crowns? Surely, that literally means ten nation states that will make up the one world government that the United Nations will morph into under the advisement of the Antichrist. And, of course, there’s the small matter of nonsensical ideas that have made their way out of esoteric circles into the mainstream, like the very concept of the Antichrist himself; the word is only used in 1 John and 2 John, and an actual literal reading of those texts makes it obvious that the “antichrist” is a term to be used for corrupter or false teacher, not an infernally inspired world leader (for further reading on this topic, I suggest “The Antichrist Hoax,” by Dr. Joel McDurmon). Essentially, what I’m saying is that the genealogy of this branch of Biblical “scholarship” reveals a poisonous tree with its roots in half-understood historical contexts, willful ignorance about current events that do not coincide with their prescribed worldview, and numerology, which most Christians would recognize as an outright heresy were it not so thoroughly ingrained in the makeup of this eschatology.

I’ve given you the basics and the background, so here’s the Left Behind (et al) standard apocalypse gameplan: very soon, we will all be witness to The Rapture, in which the dead in Christ shall rise and living Christians will disappear in the blink of an eye (usually dramatized by showing piles of empty clothing). Included in the Rapture are also children who have not yet reached “The Age of Accountability,” an apocryphal, largely Southern Baptist theological concept that assumes children are inherently innocent and are deserving of Heaven by default.Thus, those who believed the Gospel Truth™ are spared the Tribulation, a seven year period that begins either with the Rapture or when the Antichrist signs a peace treaty with Israel, depending upon your interpretation. The Antichrist is himself a European politician who will assume power over the world by demonstrating great leadership (and perhaps even miracles) in the wake of the disappearances; he will install a global political system with himself at the head, and citizens will be forced to take his Mark or face persecution. The first three and a half years of this period will be marked by prosperity, while the last three and a half will be full of death, famine, war, plagues, toxic meteors, etc. The end of this period will see the glorious return of Jesus, to banish the Antichrist to the pit and rule for a thousand years, after which it’s all Heaven, all the time.

So that’s the basic premise, which brings us to the reason we’re here today: to discuss PPI Films’ 1998 DTV film Apocalypse. Apocalypse is not the first film about the Rapture. Actually, it’s not even the instigator of the first series of films about the Rapture; that honor belongs to 1973’s superior A Thief in the Night, which was followed by three sequels: A Distant Thunder (1978), The Image of the Beast (1981), and The Prodigal Planet (1983). The Thief series was so popular, in fact, that LaHaye and Jenkins have even admitted that it helped inspire them to draft Left Behind. Left Behind, in turn, influenced the Apocalypse series, so overtly that the first film’s protagonist has a great deal is essentially an even more bargain-basement version of Left Behind’s Cameron “Buck” Williams. Still, all of these films are part of an esoteric canon of movies that are long overdue for an investigation, and Apocalypse was the big one of the nineties.

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Let’s get this out of the way: Apocalypse is a terrible movie. This is a film in which millions of people disappear from the face of the earth, nuclear war nearly breaks out in the Middle East and is only averted by divine intervention, Christians are herded into camps for execution and/or reeducation, and the President of the European Union announces that he is the Messiah. Yet, somehow, all of these situations feel as if the stakes are no higher than they would be if the main characters’ arcs revolved entirely around dealing with poor customer service. Never before or since has the apocalypse been presented in such a blasé and uninvolved manner. A lot of that has to do with the visual presentation of the film; it looks like it was shot using a video camera borrowed from the set of Passions and no one bothered to clean the Vaseline caked onto the lens. It creates a rhetorical space with which the audience is mostly familiar as reminiscent of daytime television, which is hardly the effect one would want when presenting the literal rise of Satan on Earth.

The film quality isn’t the only place where the film feels cheap, either. Peter LaLonde (who, along with his brother, created film distribution company PPI, which would later become CloudTen, the name under which the rest of the films in this series were released) was once the host of a Christian television program called This Week in Bible Prophecy, which sought to draw a connection between contemporary events and the End Times as outlined by PMDs. Clips from this series, as well as others hosted by noted PMDs/televangelists like John Hagee and husband/wife duo Jack and Rexella Van Impe, are present throughout the film, filling out running time that would be better served by character or world building. Instead, we watch characters as they watch television screens in silence, which is exactly as exciting as it sounds.

Above and beyond that, this movie feels like it’s about 50% montage, with half of those montages consisting of 1990s Contemporary Christian Music playing over real footage of actual riots and disasters, which is horrifying and offensive. In a perfect encapsulation of many of the bad ideas in this film, there is a scene in which an unseen video journalist is providing voiceover for footage of a protester of some kind immolating himself and lunging at police. The dialogue is just atrocious (“This man who lost his wife and daughter literally went crazy […] here he is literally setting himself on fire…”), and the scene appropriates this real-world footage for its purpose, overtly divorcing this protest from its historical context and the desired impact of the person whose image was used for this presentation. Burning churches, police brutality, freedom fighters: all are just set dressing for the film’s message, which is nauseating.

The plot follows World News Network anchors Bronson Pearl (Richard Nester) and Helen Hannah (Leigh Lewis) and their work leading up to and immediately following The Rapture. Pearl is on-site in the Middle East at the historical site Armageddon, where the Israeli Air Force is assembling against their vaguely defined enemies, and this struggle leads up to a mutually assured nuclear strike. Just as the missiles are ready to fall, they disappear from the skies, along with a particular subset of the population worldwide: Christians and children. Hannah, whose grandmother was one such vanished person and who had previously warned her of the impending return of Christ, struggles to accept that the warnings were real. After watching some John Hagee and Van Impe videos, she returns to work, only to find that EU President Franco Macalusso (Sam Bornstein) has taken credit for the miraculous event and declared himself the new Messiah, stating that he removed all the “haters” (i.e., followers of the false Messiah, Jesus) from the world in order to usher in a new era of peace. Hannah tries desperately to convince Pearl of the truth before it’s too late.

As noted above, the film is mostly padding, but there are some good ideas here. Immediately after Macalusso’s declaration, WNN is taken over by Len Parker (David Roddis), a weaselly man who is to serve as the Antichrist’s mouthpiece, and Roddis is obviously having a lot of fun devouring every bit of scenery in sight. There’s also a nice moment of foreshadowing when one of Pearl and Hannah’s co-workers leans over and instructs a technician to record Pearl’s frontlines exclamation that Macalusso is the Antichrist, saying that the recording “might come in handy;” this same person later barricades himself in the WNN booth to broadcast that same speech as an interruption of Pearl’s televised execution. It’s not a great example of narrative subterfuge, but bears mentioning as one of the few touches of subtlety in the film. The real MVP here is Lewis, however, as she manages to imbue a paper-thin character with a lot of real, earnest emotion. Even though the end of the movie makes it seem as if she, too, is about to face death, I don’t mind that the next film shows her alive and well and leading the resistance, as she’s by far the strongest actor in this first outing and I’m glad she was chosen to be the de facto main character of the series. It’s a shame that her IMDb page is so sparse, as, of all the performers on screen, she was the only one to show actual talent.

Nester easily stands out as the worst actor of the bunch; in fairness, I don’t know that the role as written gave him enough to work with to warrant calling out his particular theatrical failings. Pearl is essentially a carbon copy of the Buck Williams character from the Left Behind series, portrayed by fallen teen heartthrobs Kirk Cameron and Chad Michael Murray in their respective franchises. Unlike Williams, Pearl doesn’t get the chance to be unsuccessfully courted by the Antichrist’s new regime, which is a missed opportunity. There’s a parallel to the aforementioned scene wherein the media comes under the Antichrist’s control in the LB canon: Williams bears witness to the Antichrist performing supernatural mind control over his new cabal but is protected from this misdirection by his newfound faith. It’s a poorly written scene (as is LB in its entirety), but it does effectively build the Antichrist as a threat and gives insight into how he could gain the power that he does. In Apocalypse, Len just shows up and tells everyone he’s the new boss, and virtually all of Macalusso’s appearances are on a TV screen, which really goes to show the extent to which this film is but a shadow of something that wasn’t all that substantial to begin with.

What really sets Apocalypse apart from the later films in the series, aside from poor production value and an obnoxiously meandering narrative and the lack of “name” actors, is how obvious it is that this film was meant as a preaching tool. At the time when this film was made, I remember many pastors making their own post-Rapture videotapes, to be placed prominently in churches so they could be found by those left behind and provide guidance for them in the coming Tribulation (in the Left Behind films, if I remember correctly, the characters watch such a video prepared by Bishop T.D. Jakes). While watching someone struggle to come to terms with the fact that their entire conception of the universe is flawed could make for compelling viewing in theory, in practice these scenes are long and unengaging, as this is obviously the point in the film where the Christian audience is supposed to turn to the unsaved friend they foisted this movie upon and offer to guide them in prayer. Regardless of one’s point of view on that kind of proselytization, it’s inarguably bad film-making. Luckily for viewers, it gets better (and worse) from here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond