TFTM: The Antichrist’s inbox

TFTM: The Antichrist’s inbox February 13, 2012

Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, Part 6

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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