TFTM: Everybody watches TV

TFTM: Everybody watches TV January 3, 2012

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force; part 1.

Two things must be said at the outset.

1. Left Behind II: Tribulation Force is a bad movie.

2. This movie is far better than the book.

Both of those truths are demonstrated in the opening scenes of this film video.

Director Bill Corcoran begins by slowly panning over a bulletin board covered in fliers pleading for information about missing people. Corcoran oddly emphasizes the text of these posters, rather than the faces in the photographs, and there’s a uniformity to the size and design of all the posters, making it seem more like they were done hastily by a single lazy and uninspired production assistant rather than like they’re the handiwork of dozens of disparate, desperate people. And yet the image itself, evoking the sight of such desperate message boards in the aftermath of 9/11 and other tragedies, and the accompanying sounds of children laughing and playing, does more to suggest the human toll of the Event — the Rapture that began this serialized story — than anything Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye ever attempted in the novel.

As this scene inexplicably dissolves into a fireball, we hear Kirk Cameron’s voice, as Cameron “Buck” Williams, providing an expository news summary from the set of the “Global News Network.”

The story he’s reporting begins, “It’s been a week since the greatest disaster the world has ever seen, a week since people all around the world simply vanished off the face of the earth.” And he continues in that vein — the sort of no-angle, nothing-new, non-breaking “news” common in movies despite having no real-world counterpart.

Seeing Cam-Cam slouching forward on his elbows, I’m again surprised by the realization that apparently no one involved with this project ever saw Broadcast News. I want to send William Hurt in there to teach him how to sit on the tail of his jacket to keep it from rising up like that behind his collar.

Cam-Cam tells us that “initial estimates” of the number of disappeared are in the “hundreds of millions.”

He then immediately contradicts himself by finally getting to his buried lede, which he quickly re-buries:

Even more unbelievable and terrifying is the fact that every child from every country is among the missing.

In 2005, when this movie came out, there were about 1.83 billion children in the world. So like the book, the film grossly underestimates the scale of the disappearances.

And also like the book, it grossly underestimates what the disappearance of “every child from every country” would mean to everyone. Cam-Cam continues with his summary-report, babbling about crashed cars and such. Having once mentioned those missing children, he and the movie are done with the topic.

Everyone in this TV studio, and everyone else we encounter along the way, is dry-eyed, untraumatized and unhorrified. Like the book, the film gives us a world without children, but not a world in which children are missing or missed.

And that world is just as tiny and insular as the world of the novel, apparently consisting of the Tribulation Force quartet, Nicolae, and a handful of extras. What that means, in part, is that within the first 10 minutes of the movie we see Nicolae watching Buck Williams on TV, and then we see Buck watching Nicolae on TV. The rest of the world, apparently, is sitting around watching both Buck and Nicolae on TV.

Gordon Currie plays the Antichrist as almost smitten with Buck’s TV persona. “I want him to join us,” he says in a Lugosian accent just millimeters from camp, exchanging a look with Chelsea Noble — Mrs. Kirk Cameron — who’s playing the part of Hattie Durham. The effect isn’t “Ooh, diabolical” as much as “Eww, swingers.

Cam-Cam pushes aside his notes to conclude his news-less report with a personal note. “I can only ask each one of you to be strong,” he says. “Good night, and God bless.”

That last remark is punctuated by a reaction shot showing a shocked news producer, which I think is meant to reinforce the persecution complex that imagines that all journalists and eviliberalmedialites physically recoil at the slightest mention of God.

Rayford and Chloe Steele, we learn, were also watching Buck’s exposition update. As Rayford, Brad Johnson has the same beaten-down look we saw glimpses of in the first movie. It’s a look that says “How did this happen to me? I was in a Spielberg movie with three Academy Award-winners …” Janaya Stephens, meanwhile, tackles these early scenes like they’re part of a Very Special Episode of the Disney Channel sit-com Chloe. “At least [Buck’s] not afraid to say how he feels,” she snipes at her father, leaving the sense that she’s afraid to say how she feels about his being afraid to say …

Anyway. An establishing shot of a peaceful, unscarred Chicago at night segues into a street scene in which Cam-Cam, on a motorcycle, passes by both nonchalant pedestrians out for a stroll and thugs-gone-wild torching cars, smashing windows and generally looking like they’re about to lose a fight with Snake Plissken.

A trio of Jimmy-Bats wannabes are smashing random windows on a van as Cam-Cam pulls up, and then suddenly soldiers/cops/security guards show up with automatic weapons and murder the unarmed window-smashers.

“Man, you didn’t have to kill ’em,” Cam-Cam whines. “They were just kids.” But the soldier/officer points out that those kids were “breaking into a van,” and that seems to satisfy our hero. Buck departs, saddened, but not feeling he’s just witnessed anything newsworthy.

We hear the audio from the next scene overlapping with the last shot of Cam-Cam’s Escape From Chicago adventure, which is a bit confusing in that the next scene doesn’t actually occur until the next day. Bruce Barnes is listening to a GNN panel discussion in his sunlit church office as he hangs Bible-prophecy flannel-graph pictures for the next Trib Force meeting.

The panel is discussing the Two Witnesses in Jerusalem, because that whole “whatever happened to our children?” story is kind of stale after nearly a week, and … Hey, look! It’s Bob Carlisle!

Mr. Butterfly Kisses and the rest of the panel, it seems, are broadcasting live from the lobby of the GNN building, where we see Cam-Cam clopping across the marble floor toward the superfluous security guard who tells him to turn around and talk to Steve Plank.

The utter lack of any reason for the security guard to be present in this scene makes me think of Roger Ebert’s “Law of Economy of Characters,” and thus to suspect that old Joe here will be revealed as the killer in the final reel. But then I remember that this isn’t a murder mystery story, but a direct-to-video Left Behind franchise, and that the filmmakers just didn’t know anything about storytelling economy.

Steve Plank introduces himself, tells Buck that Nicolae wants to talk to him, then leaves. Cam-Cam pockets the Antichrist’s business card, then heads towards his office, passing a monitor on which the GNN panel is now discussing “Rabbi  Ben-Judah … who claims he’s going to announce the single biggest piece of news in history.”

Pause to appreciate how monstrously cruel it would be to tease any announcement in those terms in the circumstance of this story. “The single biggest piece of news in history?” every viewer would be thinking. “They’ve found our children!

But no one in this movie thinks like that. The kids are long gone. That’s old news by now.

Buck strides toward his desk in the newsroom. (Apart from the random desk labeled “Prague,” this set actually does look pretty much like a newsroom.) Cam-Cam sits down and starts watching Nicolae on TV.

Nicolae is sitting in a passable United Nations set, soaking in the applause from hundreds of invisible people. (Note to sound editor: When the screen shows only a handful of people in a room, don’t use the stock audio of a huge crowd clapping.) Everybody is watching this on TV — Buck and all his co-workers, Bruce Barnes, and even some random pensive dude in a dorm room.

The Security Council, represented by one guy, and the “World Monetary Fund,” represented by this other guy, plead with Nicolae to declare a single world currency as the only hope for global salvation.

I’ll commend the filmmakers for at least acknowledging that the Event would have economic repercussions — something LaHaye and Jenkins never seemed to consider in the books. But that doesn’t excuse them here for failing to describe these repercussions in any coherent way. “Almost every currency has crashed completely,” the WMF guy says. “There is little doubt that the entire world market could be just days from complete collapse.”

So they beg Nicolae to declare himself the one supreme leader of the world, and to declare the existence of a single world currency. And he says OK, will do.

I sat through all of the English-dubbed version of the Japanese disaster movie Gorath.

In that 1962 film, a giant planet named Gorath is hurtling toward the Earth. Scientists save the day by building giant rockets at the South Pole with which they move the Earth out of Gorath’s path.

That plot was far more plausible and sensible than any of the business in this scene about rescuing the world economy by creating a single currency and religion.

This scene, really, is just the filmmakers’ attempt at politico-economic phlebotinum. This is true of all the economics and politics, national and international, in this movie and in these books. The writers have to get to Point B — one-world government, one-world religion, one-world currency, etc. — but they lack the care, curiosity, energy or intelligence to sketch out any plausible path from here to there. So instead they just mumble about currency crashes and “the entire world market” — which might as well be the “mystic amulet of Azkeriah” or a “tachyon pulse signature” for all that either they or we can make sense of it.

Such scenes are infuriatingly lazy and stupid — infuriating because they ask and expect us to participate in their laziness and stupidity — but at least in these movies they pass by more quickly than they do on the page.

“Now, with control of all currency,” Nicolae says, “we are finally in a position to make peace our only choice.” He calls for global unification not just of currency, but of religion, ending with this:

For ours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Buck and Bruce look appalled at this blasphemous appropriation, but everyone else — all the evil, reprobate, liberal left behind masses who deserve the coming wrath and torment — grins and claps with delight. You know how those atheists are — they love nothing better than when someone claims to be God.

So 10 minutes into the film and Nicolae’s plan of global uniformity is sailing along: One currency, one religion, one government, one TV station (GNN) and one language (erratically accented English).

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