TFTM: The Antichrist’s inbox

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Part 6

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Morning dawns at New Hope Village Church and the establishing shot reminds us of the wanton chaos of a world unleavened by the civilizing presence of real, true Christians.

Trash, furniture and yet more bicycles are strewn across the lawn of the church. (What is it with abandoned bicycles lying all over everywhere in this movie? I’m the sort of liberal Christian that this story insists will be among those left behind, but I’ve never been secretly inclined to toss bicycles about the sidewalk or onto the the lawns of fundamentalist churches. I don’t know for sure how I’d respond if I awoke tomorrow to learn that every RTC had been whisked away by the Rapture, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be thinking, “At last, those annoying Christians are finally gone! Now I can finally start scattering bicycles everywhere, bwa-ha-ha-ha!“)

A toppled newspaper box bears a headline from the day of the Event, suggesting that this disarray has been there, untouched, for more than a week. Why hasn’t Bruce arranged to have this cleaned up by now? I appreciate that the Tribulation Force regards itself as having a vitally important mission — “nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet will ever see,” as the back cover of the book says. But that’s no excuse for allowing such a mess to fester on the lawn of their headquarters. Seriously, the four of them could have this cleaned up in less than an hour. The earthquakes, rivers of blood, fiery hail and demon locusts will be enough of a challenge on their own without compounding the problem by letting trash pile up on the church lawn.

Inside the church, the Trib Force’s executive committee of the whole is having yet another discussion about Buck’s plan to interview the Two Witnesses in Jerusalem. Whenever we see the four of them gathered together like this we realize yet again that we’re seeing three actors and a celebrity. Kirk Cameron has a different agenda here than the others have and it takes us out of the story. Brad Johnson, Clarence Gilyard and Janaya Stephens are trying to show us a story. Cameron is trying to preach us a sermon. He seems perpetually on the verge of turning to the camera to say, “I’m Kirk Cameron, and I approve this message.”

One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare in Love repeats an old theater joke. The actor cast to play the nurse in what will become Romeo and Juliet is asked what the play is about. “It’s about this nurse …” he says. That sums up the difference between what Cameron and Johnson are doing in this movie. If you asked Johnson what the movie was about, he’d have told you that it was about a pilot humbled by the sudden loss of his wife and son. If you asked Kirk Cameron what the movie was about, he’d tell you what he thinks the Bible says about the End Times and the Rapture and the Great Tribulation. He would never say, “It’s about this reporter …,” and so when we see him there on the screen we never see that reporter.

“The Antichrist has powers we may not even be able to comprehend,” Bruce warns.

It’s an apt warning, because the Antichrist of this movie is, indeed, very hard to comprehend. Nicolae Carpathia just doesn’t make much sense as a character.

We’re told who Nicolae is, or at least what he is, but we can’t reconcile that with what we see him doing. What he does conflicts with what he wants. It conflicts with what he’s supposed to want given that he’s the Antichrist. But then that would probably be true no matter what he did, because it’s impossible to imagine anyone wanting what he wants. Why would the Antichrist want to be the Antichrist? Why would he agree to that? And specifically, why would this Antichrist agree to be the Antichrist?

Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye never address that in the books except by authorial fiat. They just assert that Nicolae wants bad things because he’s a bad person and that he wants arbitrarily strange things because that’s what the prophecies say he will want. That’s the Jenkins Method: Tell, don’t show. But that’s not an option on the screen. In a movie everything has to be shown, and that presents a big problem for director Bill Corcoran, screenwriters John Patus and Paul Lalonde, and most of all for actor Gordon Currie. Each struggles with the impossibility of conveying who Nicolae is as a person, what he wants, how what he does relates to what he wants, and why it is that anyone might possibly want or do any of what he wants and does.

The incoherence of Nicolae’s character isn’t entirely Jerry Jenkins’ fault. He had to start with the premillennial dispensationalist chimera cobbled together from various unrelated scripture passages. The Antichrist is a figure stitched together from pieces of the Beast of Revelation, of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, of Nero and Domitian, of Ahab and Omri, and of every generic warning against oppressors, liars, evildoers and tyrants in the Bible. Take that creature and add on several more layers of John Birch Society paranoia plus all the ways the identity of the Antichrist has been tweaked and adapted over the years in order to make various writers’ preferred candidates seem more likely. What you end up with isn’t a consistent, recognizable character.

Jenkins can make that character do all the things that LaHaye’s supposed prophecies supposedly prophesy he will do, but there’s no way he could have made all those things seem like the reasonable, human choices of a reasonable, human character. By never even trying to show us Nicolae as an actual human character, Jenkins glosses over the way the Antichrist, as a human figure, exposes the weird implausibility of LaHaye’s prophetic scheme. LaHaye’s prophecies insist that in the last days, a man will arise and do strange and puzzling things for no apparent reason. And everyone will rush to follow that man, also for no apparent reason.

I can’t help but pity Currie in all of this. He’s the one tasked with trying to show us why Nicolae might credibly be doing all of the strange things he’s prophesied to do. In some scenes he seems to surrender to the impossibility of that, camping it up like he’s in an old Vincent Price movie. In other scenes, though, I think he’s really trying. I think he’s approaching the role as though this movie were “about this Antichrist …” But the character of Nicolae Carpathia ultimately just doesn’t make enough sense for him to show us such a story.

I feel bad for Gordon Currie. His first real professional gig was on 21 Jump Street, so right out of the gate he was working with Johnny Depp. For his first two years as a struggling actor in Los Angeles, he shared a cheap apartment with a roommate named Brad Pitt. Pitt and Depp have both gone on to earn multiple Academy Award nominations and to be named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” two times apiece while Currie’s still stuck in sporadic roles on Canadian television and in wretched projects like this.

Note to Brad Pitt: On the extremely slim chance that you somehow read this someday, how about throwing a bone to your old roomie for old times’ sake? If the gang gets back together for Ocean’s Fourteen, maybe you could find room somewhere for another sidekick. You’ve been deservedly blessed to have your own career soar upwards since the days in which you appeared on Growing Pains. Have mercy on your poor former roommate who seems to have plateaued alongside Kirk Cameron. (P.S. Thank you for Moneyball, that was terrific. And thank you for the work you’re doing in New Orleans.)

In the next scene, we see Nicolae at the Global News Network headquarters, talking with Steve Plank. Currie and the writers here seem to take slightly different angles in trying to flesh out the character of the Antichrist. “Divided religions mean a divided world,” he says, offering more of a rationale for the idea of a one-world religion than is ever suggested in the book.

“This is not a dictatorship,” he says. I think Currie intends him to mean it. The writers, I think, intended that line to be duplicitous and hypocritical — something Nicolae would say with a malicious twinkle in his eye. But Currie plays it straight. That suggests what seems to me to be the most interesting choice — to present Nicolae Carpathia as an idealist who is so certain of his own good intentions that he does not worry about his capacity to wield absolute power unchecked by anything except his own benevolence. That could be the stuff of tragedy — a story worth telling.

Unfortunately, the writers and the director seem intent on preventing that option in this story.

“Tolerance, harmony and peace,” Currie says, as though this is what Nicolae truly dreams of bringing about. But that interpretation is stymied by a script filled with evangelicalese — the jargon of American Christians in which “tolerance” is always regarded with disdain as an expression of hostility to the One True Faith.

In a big departure from the book, we see real-life mega-church pastor T.D. Jakes on the TV monitor in his role as the Rev. Vernon Billings. GNN appears to be broadcasting Billings’ In Case Of Rapture video — the video the Trib Force members watched in the books, in which the now-raptured pastor predicts the Event with stunning accuracy and foretells precisely what will unfold afterward.

Billings’ video is probably the most powerful piece of evidence the Trib Force has, and their best weapon for advancing their goals. But Buck had nothing to do with this broadcast of the tape. Like the Buck Williams of the first two novels and the first year and a half of the Great Tribulation, Cam-Cam hasn’t even thought about trying to get that tape on the air.

Nicolae shuts down the broadcast. “How does this create harmony?” he asks. For the writers, that’s his excuse. For Currie, that’s his reason.

We have a brief scene of aggressive cuteness as Buck and Chloe say goodbye at the airport. It includes a cookie reference, but thankfully opts not to faithfully stick to the book’s entire cookie subplot. Whew.

Next thing you know we’re in the air aboard Global Community One, scaled down to the more modest realities of this small-budget film. There seem to be only six people aboard the plane: Rayford, a copilot, Buck, Nicolae, Steve and Hattie, who despite her recent career-change apparently still has to serve as a flight attendant whenever her new boyfriend flies.

This next bit recalls the earlier scene in which Bruce was, inexplicably, running some kind of field hospital in the church. I was pleased to see the filmmakers decide to have Bruce doing something rather than the whole lot of nothing he does in the books, but it was disappointing that the something they had him doing instead didn’t make much sense.

The same thing happens here. In the books, Rayford and Buck go to work for the Antichrist supposedly because working closely with him will enable them to track his every move, supplying invaluable intel for their resistance efforts. But then that doesn’t happen. They don’t wind up as Trib Force spies who have bravely infiltrated the inner circles of the Antichrist’s power, but just as a couple of guys whose paychecks happen to be signed by the Antichrist. Their close proximity to Nicolae serves the narrative needs of Jerry Jenkins, but it does nothing to advance the agenda of the Trib Force as described in that back-cover blurb.

Given that, it’s refreshing to see movie-Rayford taking a bit more initiative here. It’s his first day on the job and already he’s skulking about in the hopes of stumbling across something to spy on. He finds Nicolae’s unattended laptop and he stealthily downloads secret files from Nicolae’s email onto a disk.

Well, he downloads files anyway. Just not very secret ones. The document he risks his job to steal is titled “Ben Judah Speech – World Presentation Revised.” It is, in other words, the prepared text of a public speech — one that will in a couple of days be broadcast around the world.

It turns out later that this speech relates to actual nefarious-secret Antichrist stuff, but there’s no reason yet for Rayford to know or suspect that. As far as he knows, in the moment, all he’s doing by swiping this file is making it possible to pre-empt a press embargo by a day or two. That’s hardly the sort of thing a double-agent should be risking his position to uncover.

Somewhere on that laptop, after all, must be the plans for the implementation of the Mark of the Beast and the martyrdom of all Tribulation Saints. Those files, one would think, might have been more useful to the work of the Trib Force.

The unintentionally hilarious bit here is the contents of the rest of the Antichrist’s in-box (see screen-grab above). Nicolae Carpathia can cast a spell over the minds of men, but even he doesn’t seem to have a foolproof spam filter.

Corcoran shows himself to be a competent director here, capably hitting all the standard notes in this standard scene wherein a “downloading” screen prompt is exploited for suspense. If we’re feeling ungenerous, we can criticize this scene as a hackneyed cliché copied from hundreds of earlier movies and TV shows. Or, more charitably, we can regard scenes like this one as a kind of formal structure, like a sonnet or a haiku.

That formal structure, as you know, requires that Nicolae enter the room just as Rayford is slipping the disk into his pocket. Currie and Johnson have both seen this, probably both performed this, enough times to produce the requisite awkward tension, and the scene seems to be working according to form.

And then Corcoran tosses in a really odd note, and not a good one. Not content to let two professional actors carry what is probably the most effective scene of the film thus far, the director strangely decides this is the perfect time to pretend he’s doing a remake of John Carpenter’s They Live. When Rayford hands Nicolae a note to give to Hattie, their fingers briefly touch and for that instant it’s like Rayford just put on Rowdy Roddy Piper’s* magic sunglasses — seeing Nicolae’s true face of evil revealed.

That flash of bad special effects erases all of the intriguing possibilities Currie tried to establish in the previous scene. From here on, Nicolae is presented as unambiguously evil and all of his talk about harmony, peace, unity, tolerance, etc., can only be interpreted as dishonest cover for his deliberate pursuit of evil for evil’s sake.

From here on, Nicolae is one thing and one thing only: The Antichrist. Not a character, not a person, not a human being, just an incoherent embodiment of evil cobbled together from disparate Bible passages and 20th-century right-wing fantasies.

Poor Gordon Currie. He tried.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Professional wrestler Roddy Piper plays Kurt Russell in They Live, which might have been one of the greatest American movies of all time had Carpenter gotten Russell to play the part instead. Carpenter is widely acknowledged as a skilled director, but he doesn’t get his due as an artist and auteur. This is largely due to his uneven track record of directing several films that failed to star Kurt Russell. Look back at any of Carpenter’s less successful artistic endeavors and they all suffer from this same flaw.

Anyway, Piper is no Kurt Russell, so They Live is no Big Trouble in Little China, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Even without Russell, it’s one of the better anti-Yuppie protest films of the Reagan Era. Plus: Keith David.

 

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  • http://profiles.google.com/vlowe7294 Vaughn Lowe

    “Is all vorking perfectly.  Moose and Squirrel vill be united in Vun Vorld Religion, Natasha.  All thanks to Fearless Leader.”

    [sigh] This would be so much more entertaining in cartoon form.

    I don’t like the term “Mary Sue.”  It’s too hard to pin down.  People throw it at any character that they don’t like, forgetting that heroic characters are supposed to be… well… Heroic.  True Sue’s are rare in published fiction.

    “Feel like a cookie…”  I quite literally said… “Ack!  Nooooooooo!”

    This film can be mildly entertaining, as long as you don’t think about it too much.  The departure at the airport with all the dramatic music is quite tension building… you think they’re going off to war or something, until you think.. “What exactly are they in danger from… he’s getting  ON A PLANE!”  Dum dum duuuuum!

    Buck Williams – Worst Investigator Ever.

    Buck:  Hey, is that you Ray?  Whatcha doing sneaking around back here for??
    Ray:  [sigh]  I knew I should’ve given him the wrong terminal number.

    Hey Rayford.  Here’s a faster way to get a copy of an email.  It’s called “Forward”  Or… if you don’t want it flagged as being forwarded… just copy it into a new email and send it.  No muss no fuss.  I shoulda been a spy.

    Is Nicky aware that he gives people that “disturbance in the force” thing when he shakes hands?  Does it only happen for Christians?  Or was it just a one time message from God to show that he’s EEEEEVIL.   But… they already knew that… ergh.  Bad enough that they do that silly cartoon effect, but they did it for no good purpose.  Movies do that a lot though, because I guess we’re too dumb figure out who the villian is, unless he’s got the mustache and top hat.
     

  • Anonymous

    OK, so Disqus doesn’t like me any better than anyone else, so maybe this is where we came in, but:

    Nicolai as anti-Mary Sue? Discuss.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Nicolai as anti-Mary Sue?

    Nicolae’s biggest flaw is, as Fred observed, that he’s not even a character in the literary sense. We don’t understand his motivations, his goals seem nonsensical, and most of his identifying traits are informed traits. Part of this is the amazing LaJenkins Writing Style. (“Tell! Tell! What the heck are you doing, trying to show? Tell! Always tell!”) But the larger part is that he’s not mean to be a character for the readers to explore.

    I’ve been reading ahead in “Nicholae” (double-discount-day purchase at Value Village!) and mostly his role is “Mr. Exposition”, which matches up with these clips. His lines mostly consist of “this is what will happen next”.

    So if we define “Mary Sue” as ‘plot black hole’, then yeah, Nicky Matterhorn would be the opposite of that. He’s nothing but plot advancement through monologing.

  • Tonio

     

    But the larger part is that he’s not mean to be a character for the readers to explore.

    Did you mean “meant”? If so, I agree. If it weren’t for his monologing, he would be no different from a force of nature, as far as the plot is concerned. I might point out that it was a massive mistake for Nicolae to have such prominent interactions with other characters, and that he might have worked better and been more sinister as a force that is talked about but never seen. But this is Ellanjay we’re talking about – my suggestion would be like an auto mechanic replacing the radio in a clunker that’s missing an engine.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Parenthetical note: In the subtitles I often see “Nikolai” or such variations. It’s as though Cloud Ten didn’t bother checking with anybody who’s actually Romanian about the spelling of, y’know, “Nicolae“.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.maki Jon Maki

    In light of my earlier comment, I have to mention this…

    My boss teaches a kickboxing class at a local YMCA.  Said YMCA posted a video on its YouTube channel focusing on her and her class, so she asked me if there was a way I could grab the video from YouTube and put it on a DVD.  I told her that I’d do it when I got home.
    As I was on my way out for the day I told her that the video can’t possibly be that large, so it would be kind of a waste to put it on a DVD and asked her if she had a flash drive I could put it on.
    She dug one out of a drawer, plugged it into her computer to see what was on it, and, seeing that it was full, decided to delete the files.
    This led to eight minutes, then five minutes, then ten minutes, then five minutes of estimated time remaining while I stood there waiting, thinking about my suggestion for a variation on the file-copying trope, and being mildly amused, then becoming even more amused when she – surprisingly – safely removed the flash drive before handing it over to me…

  • Anonymous

    It’s as though Cloud Ten didn’t bother checking with anybody who’s actually Romanian about the spelling of, y’know, “Nicolae”.

    Or bother opening a book to see how it was spelled … Or bother glancing at the cover of “Nicolae” (Book 3)…

  • Apocalypse Review

    Hard drives have moving parts, they’re more fragile. USB sticks are hard to kill.

    The Terminator:
    It cant form complex machines, guns and explosives have chemicals,
    moving parts, it doesn’t work that way, but it can form solid metal
    shapes.

    I got the T2 vibe from the italicized part. XD

  • Tricksterson

    While by the end of the third book I wasn’t expecting Goodman to actually be the good guy but I was hoping that he might be at least convinced that he was, that God was the bad guy.

    Christ Clone trilogy spoilers 

    Instead he not only turns out to be in it purely for the evilz but he even knows he’s doomed to lose.  Which makes him a stupid villain as well.

  • hf

    And this Bad Guy is the Anti-Christ with mind-powers. Why should he care
    about people hacking his computer if he can make people forget a murder
    they saw with their own eyes?

    Well, obviously. N Kilimanjaro just wants to mess with Rayford — the files are worthless anyway. That’s why he throws an X-Files face at Ray, to have some more fun with him. Heck, ISTR the X-Files called their virus “Purity”, so this could be a joke about Rayford looking in the mirror.

  • Ken

    There are some who say that Bella in the Twilight books is a Mary Sue for Stephenie Meyer.  However, these people have never read any of the fan fiction set in the Twilight world where a new girl* shows up in town, and Edward and Jacob immediately dump Bella and start vying for the attention of the new character.  That’s a Mary Sue.

    * Or a new guy, depending what kind of fan fiction sites you read.

  • hf

    Invisible Neutrino: I don’t even understand what you’re saying about Draco. Surely you don’t think gung encr jbhyq or ener va gur jbeyq WX Ebjyvat fubjf hf. Erzrzore jurer Ibyqrzbeg pbzrf sebz? Naq gur jubyr cbvag bs puvyqubbq vf gb vzvgngr gur nqhygf nebhaq lbh.

    Do you think this is more objectively evil than killing one of your classmates because she has the wrong parents, as Draco claims he wants to do at least as early as Book 2? (He also tells a minion to go kick unconscious classmates in the infirmary.) Where does your objection lie?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The point is, the author manages to take Draco Malfoy and make him even worse of a racist shitbag than he is in canon, and in the process take him from someone who counsels the commission of wrong acts or unthinkingly cheers them on* to wanting to do them himself and you don’t see where I might have a bit of a problem with a story like that?

    Fics can be morality tales, but do they have to be Author Tract morality tales in which he bludgeons home the “children imitate their parents” thing? Conan Doyle did it in Sherlock Holmes with a good deal more subtlety.

    * In CoS he says “You’ll be next, Mudbloods!”, but as offensive as that is, the words are of a boy cheering on something someone else is doing, and he knows (and it’s established in canon) nothing of what’s actually happening.

  • hf

     When Draco is talking to (Ron and Harry disguised as) his friends, he claims he wants to help kill his classmates and that he hopes Hermione dies first. I agree that he “knows nothing” of his father’s plan to remove Dumbledore, in the sense that he hasn’t quite put all the pieces together, but he shows that he grasps the politics of the situation. He also reports that, “Father says to keep my head down and let the Heir of Slytherin get on with it. He says the school needs ridding of all the Mudblood filth, but not to get mixed up in it.”

    We seem to have a disconnect of some kind here. What message do you think the “Author Tract” seeks to convey here? And what part do you think is fictional?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I find it interesting that you chose to seize on the remarks I made about Draco Malfoy and don’t take issue with any of the rest of my comments. This discussion seems to be mixing together two things (Author Tract and the way the author chooses to write the characters), so I’m going to stop here.

    I will say, however, that I do get that the author is conveying the “children can be nasty little creatures especially when their parents teach them to be”, in a vein similar to JKR’s portrayal, just that in Draco’s case he chose to make him even more vile than the canon version.

  • hf

     You want to discuss the rest? Dumbledore’s not perfectly evil, Harry’s not perfectly rational, Snape’s neither perfectly rational nor perfectly good, and Voldemort’s not perfectly unbeatable any more than death is. (Also, are you sure we should want someone to beat him?)

    in Draco’s case he chose to make him even more vile than the canon version

    I don’t think he did, but probably we can’t pursue that without an unnecessary and unpleasant discussion of precisely how each of us defines the word “vile”. A better approach might be to ask, ‘why do you care?’

    I do get that the author is conveying the “children can be nasty little
    creatures especially when their parents teach them to be”,

    Possibly, but I assumed all the readers knew that already. The passage shows me that Harry has the right idea about society in some respects, that he harbors some illusions about our own society, and that he might wind up doing something stupid like urycvat Cebsrffbe Dhveeryy bepurfgengr n wnvyoernx.

  • http://www.iki.fi/wwwwolf/ Urpo Lankinen

    Antichrist has no mind-mojo power over Real True Christians, correct?

    Then why can the Antichrist mess with Rayford’s mind?

    Nicolae: “Give me that thingy.”

    Rayford: “Whatthingywhuhwhatareyoutalkingabout?” *sweats like hell*

    Nicolae: “The normal thingy.”

    Rayford: “Oh THAT. *phew* Here it is!”

    Nicolae (thinks): “That guy’s obviously up to something.”

    I think this proves the old proverb: “When faced with sheer stupidity, even the Almighty is powerless.”

  • You Decide

    The world in its present state resembles the final conditions foretold in Revelation and even part of the Qur’an, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_rMpRtlYCs have a look for yourself; and in the end You Decide.


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