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

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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 II – Revelation (1999)

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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