In response to Sept. 11, Warner Brothers shelved an action thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a firefighter avenging his murdered family. Similar films and scripts have sunk into project limbo as a somber mood settles over the entertainment industry. The nation's wounds are so raw that even comedies with scenes of bumbling hijackers are being rethought.
Not so for the burgeoning field of Christian apocalypse cinema, where it's full speed ahead. Recent movies like The Omega Code and Left Behind may eschew Hollywood's values toward sex and violence, but they put a new spin on crime by claiming moral high ground: the Bible as script source.
Most recently, Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 opened Sept. 21 in 400 theaters nationwide (and locally at the Palace Theatre 20). That's a big step up from the video-store distribution route that most self-styled Christian films follow toward profits. Like its predecessor, Megiddo stars Michael York as a dictator bent on mastery of the human race. Israel is an embattled front in a war of Biblical proportions.
Plot lines for Christian apocalypse films come from the Book of Revelation, the last chapter of the New Testament, which tells of war between heaven and earth, with Jesus returning on a white horse. "And the great dragon was cast out, that old Serpent, called the Devil," reads chapter 12, verse 9, in the King James version, "which deceiveth the whole world ... and his angels were cast out with him."
To millions of fundamentalist Christians, scriptural predictions of the end times became real with the repeated footage of the World Trade Center towers going down. To some scriptural purists, the end-time scenario is underway, with irreconcilable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as its setting and prelude for greater warfare radiating out from the Holy Land. U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan conform to the scenario.
The budget for Megiddo was $12 million. Producer Matthew Crouch is the son of the CEO of Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian media powerhouse. In a stunning display of hubris, Crouch told Robert Wilonsky of The Dallas Observer: "God is not in the building-destroying business. His breath did not blow those planes off of course and slam them into those buildings. ... But God knows all things, and to think that he took my production company and positioned us to make this movie over the last 24 months and have it finished just in time to have it answer a question we did not know was coming is awesome.
"I am thrilled," he concluded, "to be in the right place at that right time."
As cinema, Megiddo is an awesomely schlocky movie, a piece of Americana as pure as buttered popcorn. The religious dynamics are more complicated.
The title comes from the Hebrew name for the valley in which prophecy holds that the battle of Armageddon will rage. Mount Megiddo overlooks the valley. York plays Alexander Stone, who as a boy is anointed on the forehead with blood smeared by a satanic priest. No doubt, Stone will be the anti-Christ.
Stone's media tycoon-father ships him off to military school in Rome. At graduation, he proposes to the beautiful daughter of the Italian general-headmaster. When his family visits, Stone's brother meets the gaze of the young fiancee. The chasteness of their unrequited love stands in contrast to Stone's ravenous quest to get everything he desires. A few scenes later, he murders dad. Younger brother grows up to become President of the United States and tries to topple his power-maddened sibling. When the President holds his dying sister-in-law in his arms, their eyes glisten.
One recent Sunday afternoon, the film screened to a half-filled theater at the Palace. As the female dies in the President's arms, the audience reacted. "He always loved her," said one woman. "And they could never be together," her girlfriend murmured in reply.
As the film progressed, the women made several other comments, sighing over events based in scripture. When the movie built toward the military blowout, in which York's character transmogrifies into the devil, their discomfort was palpable. As the silver light of heaven beams down, there's no white horse with Jesus, but the satanic beast sinks into a subterranean sea of red lava. "He's the anti-Christ!" one woman exclaimed. "Satan!" said the other. "Look at him."
The only people who lingered to watch the credits were a Southern Baptist couple who admitted they didn't think much of the movie as art, but considered it religiously accurate. The husband, an ordained minister named Henry Alfred McEnery III, works with at-risk youth. He considers scripture the literal word of God. He is also a National Guard reservist who spent time in Yemen in the mid-1990s with an immersion course in Arabic, and who trained as a medic and in military intelligence.
"As I thought of the people dying on September 11, I started crying," recalls McEnery. "[The World Trade Center] was a picture of conflict ... symbolic of the world and all that the world can do of and by itself, without God."
He continues: "Jesus said more about the end time than anything he talked about. He said there would be wars and rumors of war, pestilences and earthquakes. Right now there are more earthquakes than ever before. Jesus described it as birth pangs.
"The world is getting more chaotic and filled with tribulations. I think the end could come in five or ten years. I'm not saying it has to. It's a guess -- make sure you write that. Jesus says, 'No man knows the day or the hour, only my father in heaven knows.'"
As McEnery sees it, Israel's crisis is an ancient drama updated in the media age. "One hundred years ago, critics of Biblical prophecy laughed at the idea of Jews going back to the land and a worldwide conflict catalyzed by Arab-Jewish strife," he says. He considers Israel's rebirth as a nation in 1948 "one of 200 prophecies of end times that have come true."
The Book of Revelation is credited to the apostle John, author of one of the four gospels of the New Testament. "The writer was obviously wrestling in the divisions he saw," says Professor Lou Barbieri, chairman of the Theology Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Barbieri is less literal in his view than McEnery. "Most of Revelation is stuff John saw in a vision. He uses lots of similes because what he was seeing was very spectacular and way beyond his ability to comprehend."
Barbieri cites the image of Christ as the rider on a white horse as an example of this and poses the question as to whether it is a literal or symbolic image of the second coming. "Every generation of the church has lived in the end times -- the expectation that these are the last days," he continues. "All it takes is for the Lord to set in motion things to happen. I'm convinced that the ancient prophetic event is that the church, the body of Jesus Christ, is going to be removed from earth in the event we know as the rapture. I don't think anything else can happen prophetically. Once that happens, it frees the way for a number of other things to transpire."
Such as the Armageddon or final war.
Barbieri has not yet seen Megiddo. Neither has Thomas A. Smith, a historian of theology and associate dean of Arts and Science at Loyola University in New Orleans. Smith takes a dimmer view of Revelation as prophetic.
"The community that lies behind it is a little shadowy," he cautions. "They were a small group of Christians, living in present day Turkey. They spoke Greek, but it's difficult to know their ethnicity. They were a small group of Christians who felt put upon by Roman authorities. Roman emperors were notoriously in favor of imperial cults as a kind of social or patriotic litmus test in certain locales. Depending on which emperor was in power, emperor worship was enforced. For these Christians, that was apostasy. ... There are also hints that they were being persecuted economically.
"Revelation is written in very bad Greek," continues Smith. "The book has generated a good deal of dispute. Many people thought it didn't belong in the Bible. It has a controversial history in making its way into the canon. But some of its images are striking and unforgettable, like God's grapes of wrath. It supplies a vast treasure trove of images of New Jerusalem, New Heaven and New Earth. You don't want to throw away good material."
Smith acknowledges that scripture has a strong psychological appeal. In times of danger, people yearn for order -- and for the idea that God is in control of history. "It's comforting to think that it's all plotted out and someone has the key," he says. "End-time prophecy has always had that allure, however much of a stretch its hermeneutics [theories of interpretation] have been."
Perhaps that allure explains why Christian apocalypse films have found their market niche -- even in mainstream Hollywood. For the more discriminating moviegoer, Chaplain McEnery has a recommendation: "End of Days with Schwarzenegger is very simple, but very interesting. He plays a macho man who doesn't need God. At the end he looks up to Jesus on the cross and he finally breaks. He says, 'Help me,' and gets the strength to resist the devil. He dies in the process.
"The theology isn't too sophisticated, but it works pretty well as a movie."
- Michael York in The Omega Code