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.
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