Tonight we had a grand time watching Prodigal Planet (PP), the fourth and last movie in the A Thief in the Night (ATITN) series. This 1983 movie is not only longer than the other ones in the series, but it also stands out by having a few professional-level actors in the cast–and one of them, William Wellman Jr., even helped with the storyline a little. So is it going to suck unremittingly? Or will there be a few scenes that are jewels in the dungheap? Come and see.
Everyone Recites Bible Verses as Missiles Fly, Right?
The first scene has two guys talking in English with sorta-Russian accents about missiles firing. A radio announcer recites Bible verses about the end of the world and mentions the Doomsday Clock.
We cut to David Michaels in his little white shift-dress. He’s the fake soldier who was about to be executed in the last movie. We’re taking up right where the last movie left off. As he ignores the soldiers imploring him to take the Mark to avoid execution, his mother in voice-over gives him strength by telling him he’s just like his brother.
David flashes back to seeing his brother try to outrace a train and get hit by it. After the funeral, David’s mom tries to proselytize him with guilt and a hard-sell of threats about Hell. He refuses her entreaties.
The missiles hit the base right then. All we see is the explosion and a bunch of smoking helmets and guns, and the guillotine seems to be destroyed.
David is hustled inside and downstairs. A woman dressed as a soldier, with a Mark on her forehead, meets his escort and rescues him at gunpoint.
They steal a military SUV (much higher quality than the other movies’ vehicles!) and leave. She tells him she’s a double agent as they drive through bleak wasteland. She wipes her fake Mark off to prove it.
David watches video coverage of the missile attack. He laments, “It’s hard to believe God could use something that hideous for good–but he’s done it before.” WTF, have a little compassion, asshat!
She explains that she’s with some sort of resistance movement of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who want his computer programming know-how. Her now-dead friend “Martin” has given her a transmitter gewgaw and a coded message of Bible words to find this resistance–but he can’t log into UNITE’s computer system from the SUV to do anything with it. The woman (Connie, we discover) gives him a tour of the SUV and some clothes. Meanwhile, Sideburns chases them in another SUV.
On Your Bellies!
Connie and David go to find Reverend Matthew Turner. It turns out Turner’s nice farmhouse burned down, so this very movement-limited old man somehow either made an underground bunker or appropriated one. He tells them that the buzzards have started attacking people, and he now traps and eats rats for food. (We’ll never see either situation happen–don’t worry.)
Turner tells his two visitors that a bunch of mutants, disfigured by the missiles launched like yesterday, are now roaming the countryside and menacing everyone. He calls them “Doomsday People.” David preaches at Turner, who it turns out is not technically saved. He just feels too guilty about his past as the nice preacher to do it! Awww! But he’s got a hand-drawn version of the mural from the farmhouse, which he uses to tell a totally fascinated-but-not-really Connie about the end of the world–which slams the action of the movie to a halt.
You won’t get why this scene exists unless you know that Turner is played by one of the series’ main filmmakers.
Connie and David drive away in the morning.
We hard cut to black-robed mutants attacking a car containing two screaming women. The mutants see Connie and David coming and scatter; the women in the car allow David to talk them into joining him and Connie.
The codeword list that Connie had is still a mystery, but David thinks the first phrase means they should go to New Mexico. They stop that night and one of the two new women, Linda, gives a very histrionic life history, but at least we learn that she’s some sort of medical researcher. Linda says the mutant zombies are people suffering from “acute x-ray, beta, and gamma disfiguration,” and now they seek revenge on un-mutated people. Linda’s husband was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ so he got Raptured.
David preaches at her about how Americans “broke God’s heart” by sinning, but don’t worry baby, there’s still hope for us. David asks Jodi, Linda’s super-petulant daughter, if she needs anything, and she rants loudly about wanting David to give her a nice house, her dad back, and a boyfriend. Way to thank your rescuer, Jodi!
Brother Christopher’s Sockies.
A TV screen in David’s SUV shows Brother Christopher, the Antichrist, sitting on his golden throne and ranting.
As they drive into Omaha, they see a picked-clean skeleton still intact and wearing its UNITE uniform, seriously. Connie “runs a level on the radiation” and discovers that in just a few days, the radiation levels have decayed enough to walk outside (um what?). David finds ammunition in the skeletonized soldier’s SUV and steals just a few packs of it.
Linda and Jodi go off to explore, but David stays behind to tell Connie he’s figured out a bit more about the code Martin left. Cue five solid minutes of them discussing it. As Connie leaves to go explore the abandoned city, David steals more ammunition.
Linda and Jodi go shopping and find a nice Stingray they want to steal, while Connie walks around with a walkie-talkie. But oh noes! A robed mutant watches her !
Jodi puts a cassette of
some Lone Ranger-type theme song the “William Tell” overture into the Stingray’s tape deck. Then the women go shopping, because of course! Linda leaves Jodi in a clothes shop to go loot religious artwork from a UNITE-closed Christian shop.
A mutant creeps on Jodi and attacks her!
You know, every one of these mutants has an identical black hooded robe on. Where on earth did they get these garments? Was the Satanic Temple having a sale?
Sideburns and his partner drive into the same city. They’re already getting boils (which they call “carbuncles”). Sideburns chases Linda, while the hooded kid corners Jodi–but he just asks her for help. Connie, cornered as well, radios David to tell him to leave without her. She hides in a basement to escape.
The rest of the movie will involve David trying to get back together with Connie in the belief that she still has the transmitter gewgaw. Remember that.
Good Question There, David.
Linda and Jodi run to the SUV from different directions, Jodi with the mutant kid in tow. David refuses to let the kid onto the SUV and almost shoots him. Jodi mocks him as they leave: “And you call yourself a believer?” They leave, passing the mutant kid, who is almost in tears at being abandoned.
The mockery apparently works, because David drives back for the kid, whose name is Jimmy. See, kids? Jesus didn’t make him a better person. Jodi’s mockery is what made him change his mind.
Jodi yells at David the next morning for preaching at her mother and says she doesn’t believe in his god–and demands he prove that this god even exists. David doesn’t, and she stomps off. Later she petulantly whines at him she’s bored. He’s upset that she’s not scared of Hell, but she just bugs her eyes at him and says, mockingly, “Should I be?” and he tries his best, but fails to terrify her. When David finally says that she’s just bitter and maybe should be happy about finding a friend, she insults Jimmy’s appearance.
But Jimmy overheard her, and he comes to talk to David about it. David preaches at him using the exact same sermon we’ve already heard two or three times.
Later, Jimmy tells Jodi that he wears the robes because he needs to protect himself from the heat and sunshine, but just as they’re becoming friends, she gets mad when he preaches at her. He tells her she needs a good spanking. She gets mad at him for that and once again insults his appearance. He says she’s been told all her life she’s pretty, but she’s not pretty on the inside at all.
It’s strange to me, incidentally, that Jodi’s mind-blowing beauty is something this movie pushes so hard. She’s certainly all right by 80s standards, but she definitely wouldn’t have been considered a looker. She looks like a perfectly average high-school girl, though the attitude would have sunk her immediately. Was there nobody else at the church youth group who wanted to do a Tribulation fantasy movie in the desert when Doughten’s people came a-recruitin’? Jimmy, however, is adorable in a Christian Slater kinda way, zombie mutant scars or not.
Wow, guys were negging this far back?
And Linda asks David, in the SUV, if someone can still “receive Christ” even now. David reads a bunch of Bible verses that he takes to mean that yes, it’s possible (most of his spoken lines seem to be recitations of Bible verses). David insists that if he’d only known what the Tribulation was, he’d have converted–so yes, he’s very much selling his religion through terror.
Second Chances = Fearmongering.
Now we get a long lecture about second chances. David talks about how his mother had preached to him about “the plan of salvation” or somesuch when his brother died, but he hadn’t understood it until after the Rapture–at which point he converted. But if anybody hears about that plan and understands it and then rejects it, they’re doomed! Why, they might hear it from their pastor, or their parents, or their friends, or a movie or TV show, but they better not reject it!
He all but turned and winked at the camera as he preached that last bit.
Linda says she never believed in any gods, but David tells her that his god “proved his existence by our existence.” Wow, did Christians fall for this irrational nonsense back then?
He tries to hard-sell her but she refuses to make a decision right then. But outside, Jimmy converts and is praying for the first time.
The next day, David radios Connie and tells her where they are in code–and Sideburns picks up the transmission.
As David’s SUV rounds into Oklahoma City, they’re intercepted by attack helicopters that try to capture them. Dang, nice production values for an early-80s Christian movie. The choppers lead David’s SUV to the one Sideburns is driving. Sideburns gloatingly reveals that they’ll be tortured for information.
Jimmy steals Sideburns’ SUV. Sideburns climbs onto it, and in the ensuing fight, the SUV goes off a cliff. After handcuffing the other enemy soldier to their SUV, the good guys rush to the enemy SUV. Jimmy’s been thrown clear but is clearly dead already. RIP, Sad Zombie Boy. David rescues the knocked-out Sideburns while Jodi mourns her sorta-boyfriend. The enemy SUV explodes.
They take Sideburns along with them and stop at a ghost town of some kind. In the morning, an attack helicopter arrives. Jerry goes to meet it, telling David that he’s repaying the life-debt he owes him. He doesn’t say how the helicopter knew where he was, though David asks. He gets into the helicopter and it leaves without further ado.
We’re now back down to David, Linda, and Jodi–who’s been quite subdued since Jimmy died. They drive away.
Some time later, Connie reaches the ghost town. She drinks from the farm spigot, but when she goes to fill her water bottles, red water comes out! There’ll be no more fresh water! She cries a lot.
When another attack helicopter attacks the SUV, Linda shoots it–and wow, she’s a good shot! David begins to wonder how UNITE always knows where they are.
Connie’s huddled in one of the abandoned houses in the ghost town, eyed by aggro vultures, but she leaves before they attack her.
Red Rock State Park.
Here we are at Red Rock! They stop there to let the SUV cool down, bunking down in something labeled a “Navajo Hogan” at the park’s historic village. Connie, meanwhile, is escaping the heat under some kind of shelter, but acid rain begins to fall. It destroys her radio and eventually will blow up her Jeep.
OMG we see Jodi sneaking to the SUV, putting on the communication helmet, and firing up the SUV’s communication devices. Could she be the traitor?!?
Later, Jodi tells her mom she’s scared, as the three huddle in the hogan. David preaches at her about a caterpillar they saw earlier. He tells her that just going to church doesn’t make someone Christian–they have to be totally into it or it doesn’t count.
Through superhuman effort, he keeps himself from openly masturbating during this sermon.
The Dance of the Helicopters.
Alert: This is the coolest scene I’ve ever seen in any Christian movie. Hands down.
The next morning, as they prepare to leave, they’re accosted by two more attack helicopters, which open fire. David is just dumbfounded!
Then he has a sudden idea.
He gets out and calmly walks to the helicopters, which fire warning shots all around him that don’t hit him. (Shazam says the music is “The Toreador,” by Sounds of Modification. Hear it here.)
David totally dances around in front of these helicopters! He does jumping jacks, bows to them, you name it.
And they stop firing at him!
It’s a hilarious scene actually. I don’t even know what to say, but if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, just go find it. It’s about 1 hour 38 minutes in. If I had a GIF of this, I’d probably watch it–and use it in posts–for just ever. It’s the best. It was such an unexpected bright spot in an otherwise dreary slog of a movie that it buoyed me for the rest of the movie.
I completely, absolutely think that this scene was William Wellman Jr.’s idea. There is no way Russ Doughten came up with this lighthearted, campy, almost slapstick scene. He’s as serious as a heart attack during a funeral. It is the best scene in the entire series, and it happens during the one movie that Doughten and his co-writer Don Thompson allowed anybody else to share story credits with them. This cannot be a coincidence.
They leave unmolested. David accuses Linda of feeding their position to UNITE, but she convinces him it’s not her.
Church Rock. Sorta. You Gotta Squint.
When the darkness passes, they find Church Rock, which they’ve been looking for all this time. David finishes decoding the message. But he needs Connie’s transmitter, so he needs to find her. The radio talks about Brother Christopher assembling armies for Armageddon, meanwhile.
While Linda and David go to find Connie at the dam, Jodi gets on the headset again in the SUV. She’s caught by Linda and David, but says it’s just music she’s listening to. She jams out and they believe her. And apparently that’s the truth.
Connie, languishing and almost dead, is found by a UNITE officer–who takes care of her wounds while she yells at him about being left out there for so long. Yep, she’s our double agent! She tells him she left her transmitter in her jacket in Omaha, though she told David she still had it–and conveniently, Linda finds it when she takes and uses the jacket to keep warm in the very next hard cut. David realizes that Connie must be the double agent and asks Linda to forgive him. He sends the SUV off on its own while playing that Western music, an act which signals UNITE and sends its location.
The officer who rescued Connie is driving them to the SUV’s location, and he tries to outrun a train. He fails just as David’s brother did. We hear Connie’s scream as the collision occurs.
By the way, that Western-style overture has been playing steadily all this time. It’s the most incongruous soundtrack I think I’ve ever heard.
Linda, Jodi, and David finally find the hidden cave enclave of Christians they’ve sought all this time. It’s not particularly impressive. The leader of the group has a computer that looks like an angry robot.
The leader explains how it broadcasts stuff in a way that suggests he has no idea what radios are or by what magic they operate. As David works on the computer, earthquakes shake the ground and the Christians living in the enclave sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
David does his thing sabotaging UNITE. Indeed, back at the UNITE base, Sideburns and his men deal with smoking computers and everything going haywire. Jodi converts with David’s help. The dam bursts. Then David hard-sells Jesus to Linda and she converts too. Neither conversion has been earned by anything that’s happened. It just happens because the movie’s about to end and two prominent characters on the good-guy side can’t be unconverted at the end of a Christian movie.
Back at the self-destructing UNITE base, Sideburns crawls on his hands and knees to find a safe place. He rips his UNITE armband off while sniveling in fear and pain. The camera zooms in on his terrified, weeping face. The base blows up with him in it, so I’m guessing he went to Hell.
We can all but hear Russ Doughten exclaim in glittering-eyed delight: See what happens to people who reject my sales pitch? SEE? SEE? Aren’t you convinced yet?
And my answer is “Nope!”
Petulant Teenage Girls: -100/10
Helicopter Dance: 100/10
Repetitive Sermons: -8/10
Angry Robot Computers: 2/10
Resemblance to an Actual Movie: 3/10
Sideburns: Got what was comin’ to him. Bet you’re convicted now, ain’t ya?
Zombie Mutants: Shouldn’t be judged, okay?
Shopping in a Nuclear Wasteland: Night of the Comet did it way better just one year later.
Should you see this honker?
That answer greatly depends on your tolerance for religious ranting and Rapture fantasizing. I’m not sad I saw it, because at least because I got to see the Helicopter Dance. I love this ridiculous scene.
The movie itself does come the closest of any movie in the series to being an actual, well, movie. The other movies don’t have much in the way of a plot. The plot in Prodigal Planet might be silly and nonsensical, but it is at least there. Thanks to the inclusion of some professional actors (notably the ones playing David, Linda, and Jimmy) and William Wellman Jr. to help with the storyline, the acting was also considerably better.
What really kills the movie is that it constantly comes to a screeching halt to hard-sell Jesus or to drone on and on and on about eschatology. The movie also constantly repeats itself in its constant sermons. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid to make a movie that was enjoyable on its own terms.
I also did see the themes I was talking about in the pre-show warmup post. It was painfully obvious that the ATITN filmmakers knew that this movie was going to be shown by churches to mostly children and teens. The scare and comfort points are very clearly aimed at teens in particular. We’re going to be talking about that later on.
More than anything else, this series of movies is probably best watched in a crowd, like at a party. And I’m so very glad that we got to do this tonight! Thanks to everyone who tuned in and hung out, and we’ll see you next time!
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