Okay, ladies and gentlemen, this is it. We’ve got somewhere around 36 hours until life as you and I know it changes forever and not necessarily for the good. Some of you, around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 21, 2011 (that’s tomorrow) will suddenly, “in the twinkling of an eye,” be transported off this mortal coil and into the friendly confines of heaven. It’s called the rapture, and according to evangelist and Christian radio magnate Harold Camping it’s gonna happen tomorrow at the date and time stated above, which Camping has rigorously determined from calculations, associations and assumptions interpreted from biblical language. What happens to the rest of us, the nonbelievers, or the believers who didn’t quite get it right, who didn’t embrace all of God’s irrefutable doctrine, His infallible word, or who interpreted it in such a way that was displeasing to Him?
Well, Harold Camping says he doesn’t know, and from all evidence of his interviews on the subject matter he doesn’t appear to care because, well, he’s not going to be here. But some think they do know. Folks like famed tribulation expert Hal Lindsey have made evangelical careers out of amassing “evidence” of the coming end times and what life holds in store for those who are “left behind” to endure the increasing trials and horrors that will occur between the rapture and the actual Second Coming of Christ, which Camping says will go down in October of this year. Lindsey, for the record, thinks Camping is a false prophet, his predictions the product of dangerous religious quackery which will provoke ridicule and distract from more serious consideration of the sort of end-times scholarship in which Lindsey has cast his lot. One does wonder if Lindsey, the author of the best-selling The Late, Great Planet Earth (and the inevitable movie adaptation) might be just a little possessive of claims to authority on this particular subject. But he and others make a good theological point about Camping and his Timex-accurate predictions: the Bible itself is quite specific that predicting the exact time and date of the end of the world is none of our business, the logical extension of which is that those who do dabble in this kind of apocalyptic soothsaying probably aren’t the most trustworthy sources when it comes to parsing and interpreting divine intent and meaning.
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone,” speaks Matthew in the 24th chapter of that all-time best-seller, and it is this one sentence alone that ought to encourage believers and simultaneously frustrate them too. One hopes that Camping and his minions will allow camera crews to accompany them as the final minutes approach, because if it happens that’s going to be a hell of a scoop. But if it doesn’t happen, people are going to see what it looks like when a religious figurehead who has had the temerity to put God on a schedule has to do some serious backtracking and repositioning. And really, despite Camping’s multitude of assurances that there is no Plan B, that one is not necessary because the rapture is going to happen precisely when he says it will, it’s an awfully large horse pill to swallow that Camping wouldn’t have some sort of contingency plan at the ready to explain away the fact that he and his millions of followers, spurred on by a pervasive radio, TV and billboard campaign through his Family Radio network, are still flesh and blood on planet Earth come Sunday morning, May 22.
I suspect the company line will probably be drawn somewhere in the vicinity of citing the precedent of Yahweh’s sparing of the people of Nineveh, who were amply warned that if they didn’t shape up that destruction of their city and death of its citizenry lay in wait. At the last minute, with the same kind of drama the Lord employed to let Abraham off the nasty hook of potential filicide, Nineveh was spared because God saw they had given up their wicked behavior, so he changed his mind about his declaration about smiting them out of existence. (I’ve always found this instance of God deciding to not do what he said he’d do curious, given most Christians’ insistence on the notion that God is the same now as he always has been and that his word is never-changing. But perhaps it’s a source of comfort for those believers who would like to think that, ah, maybe he’ll show us some last-minute mercy and call off this whole Revelation plan eventually.)
It’s this scenario, or one like it, that Camping is surely banking on. We’re likely to suddenly hear that maybe there’s been a sudden upswing in Christian conversion in the last few months, all due undoubtedly to Camping’s campaign, so God decided that we all weren’t worthy of Gomorrah-esque intervention after all. I mean, sure, there’s still the gay problem and the promiscuity problem and the Democrat problem and the thousands-of-other-religions-that-aren’t-Christianity problem, but those have become less urgent because the fear of eternal damnation, of being left behind while all our Christian friends float away to safety, has brought so many more souls to salvation via Family Radio’s pervasive persuasion. (Will Camping be held accountable for all the souls convinced by his rhetoric who then fall away because, well, it didn’t go down the way he said it would? I’d like to think so.)
So am I worried about suddenly coming up a few friends short for the bowling league on Saturday night? Not exactly. Hal Lindsey is right about another thing. He says on his Web site that he’s worried about Camping and his ilk precisely because when that thief in the night fails to steal all the believers away according to Camping’s well-publicized timetable, “It will be used by our enemies to discredit the expectation that the rapture could take place at any moment.” And, yes, there has been a cash-crop of ridicule being harvested thanks to Farmer Camping and his clockwork band of zealots. I’ve dealt some of it myself, mainly in incredulity that anyone could be so arrogant and misguided as to publicly flail about and invite such scorn and derision, even from those who share his fundamentals beliefs. (It turns out Camping is no stranger to failed apocalyptic theory. He laid down another precise prediction about the end of the world back in September 1994 that did not materialize.) And there are plenty of places you can go on the Internet to cast your lot with the doomed naysayers—there’s even a Facebook page where you can sign up to gleefully participate in post-rapture looting. But in these, our last days, hours, minutes, I’ve come to look upon the whole enterprise as not so much funny as pathetic, and I take no joy in seeing the passion of genuine religious belief that is shared by several people I know who are good and sincere people being clowned and made such an easy target by egomaniacal figureheads of false humility like Harold Camping or, for that matter, Hal Lindsey. It’s not a belief I can say I share anymore (though I once did), but that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable getting cheap giggles out of it courtesy of a glorified tent preacher who has figured out how to run a radio transmitter and a video camera.
No, I prefer my religious giggles to go down with a genuine chill and a rigorous stirring of the mind, which is why I’ll always favor the sensibilities of Jonathan Swift, or Mark Twain, or H.L. Mencken, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus in times like these over, say, a Mystery Science Theater 3000-type marathon sitting in front of the tube and cracking wise over an increasingly depressing series of televangelists and their God and pony shows. But where can you go in pop cinema if that Saturday night bowling league does get cancelled, if the skies are full of happy Camping campers, or if even it doesn’t go down according to plan and you’re left mulling over thoughts of a human race, sacred and secular, who seem to be obsessed with all aspects, spectacular and spiritual and satirical, of the final chapters in the story of the human race? Well, I’ve got a few suggestions that, for me, provide interesting food for thought (or at the very least a few good laughs in the face of Armageddon) on the subject of the end of the world and how exactly we might get there. Some are pop nuggets of varying social credibility, some are pure riotous spectacle, some are sincere missives, some are cackling satirical jabs, some are shot through with fear and dread and confusion, and one might even make you think that some human beings are so fundamentally stupid that wiping man off the face of the earth might not be such a bad idea, with no guarantee that starting all over again is necessarily its opposite in the great shrine of genius moves. Any combination of these might make a good double or triple feature for this coming possibly rapturous Saturday night, by which time each of these will be either funnier or scarier, depending on who’s left behind to watch them with us.
12) THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1972; Donald W. Thompson) This movie was the first of producer Russell Doughten’s four-part “Rapture” series and probably accounts for more nightmares among the ‘70s Christian youth group set (of which I was a reluctant member) than any other filmed work. Thief opens with a young woman discovering that her husband has been whisked away, along with millions of Christians, as if carried off by a thief in the night, and with the kind of horror only unpaid regional actors in the ‘70s could muster she registers the dawning horror that the tribulations of the nonbelievers leading to the Second Coming are indeed under way. All the standard fearsome tropes of the Book of Revelations are examined here, including the systematic phasing-out of cash (I knew my debit card was evil!) and the mandatory mark of the beast—rather than the more subtle chip implantation favored by many tribulation theorists of late, Doughten’s movie has unwary survivors getting stamped with three rows of “0110” on their foreheads—and the movie has the wide-eyed, guileless power of sincerity. Thief in the Night is too inept for exploitation, yet that’s where its roots lie, and to underestimate its raw presentation is to misunderstand the effect it still has on many Christian viewers. The movie makes for fascinating viewing for a distance of 40 or so years if you were one of the many who fell under its 16mm spell in your church’s parish annex back in the day. (W.B. Kelso sends along his own appreciative assessment of Thief, if your interest has been sufficiently piqued.)
11) 2012 (2009; Roland Emmerich) In no way should this orgasm of upheaval and global destruction be taken seriously. But as the ultimate expression of the ‘70s disaster movie template, writ large by Sony’s deep pockets, director Emmerich’s increasing blood lust and the dearth of original ideas in the age of computer-generated imagery, it’s a surprising amount of fun. It’s fun, however, that’s gilded with an edge of dread that, though it won’t happen this dramatically, and certainly again not according to this particular calendar, we might yet figure out a way to choke off our planet’s life systems and see it revolt against its oppressors. And we’ll likely not have John Cusack around to help us get out of disaster’s way over and over again by the skin of our teeth.
10) THE OMEGA MAN (1972; Boris Sagal) My generation’s favorite adaptation of Richard Matheson’s seminal story I Am Legend (Is it the best? Maybe…) starring Charlton Heston who, whether by design or divine providence, came to be the muscular emblem of man’s railing against the end of the world (and other less far-reaching airborne disasters) in a series of films from 1968-1975. Director Boris Sagal flubs the tone here and there in this story of a man hiding out after a nuclear holocaust from its other blood-drinking nocturnal survivors, but one thing the movie gets right is the eerie quiet of a world without men or women, confirming our worst fears that survival, and its attendant isolation, might be worse than obliteration.
9) BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972; Ted Post) The film as a whole is far less satisfying than the original Planet of the Apes, its immediate predecessor, or Escape from the Planet of the Apes, which was the next in the series. But the trump card Beneath holds behind its rubber monkey makeup is the profoundly creepy society of atomically mutated subterranean bomb worshippers, led by Victor Buono (“Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout!”), who are empowered and fulfilled, absent God, by the possibility of total annihilation. That Beneath was not the end, but only the second volley in a series that continued through three movies, two TV series, a Tim Burton remake and yet another chapter coming this summer, surprisingly doesn’t dampen the grim aftershock left by the narration that ends this film: "In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead." Damn you all to hell!
8) MIRACLE MILE (1988; Steve De Jarnatt) Incurable romantic Anthony Edwards wrangles a date with waitress Mare Winningham, but while he waits for her shift to end he intercepts a phone booth call telling him that missiles have been launched and the world will end in a little over an hour. De Jarnatt (who also wrote the movie) makes the most of his Twilight Zone premise, with Anderson desperately scrambling first to figure out whether or not the call can be believed, and then to try and escape Los Angeles with Winningham before the black rain starts to fall. The romance is compelling and moving, all the more so for being played out in a state of adrenalized horror fueled by the ticking clock of the last moments of existence, the final hammer blow of which is spared neither for the characters or the audience.
7) CHILDREN OF MEN (2006; Alfonso Cuaron) The devastated society that is the subject of this technically exemplary movie is hard to shrug off. It has been imagined with the kind of relentless fury and desperate energy which still leaves room for some surprising grace notes, all of which are the hallmarks of a genuine dystopian vision. Clive Owen must protect the one mysteriously pregnant woman in a now-barren society, and whether or not he succeeds is a question that is left as clear as the fog the two sail into at the film’s conclusion. But if it’s reassurance you’re seeking in a film like this, it’s probably best to look elsewhere. My own feeling is that Cuaron ends the movie not on a false note of hope (a la the original version of Blade Runner), but instead in the moments just before we can know for sure whether or not mankind is likely to survive.
6) THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (aka SHIVERS) (1975; David Cronenberg) Here’s a film not necessarily about the end of the world but instead about the beginning of the end of the world. A parasite is unleashed in a high-rise apartment building that turns this microcosmic society into raving, homicidal sex fiends, and it is full of the kind of body-horror imagery that would soon become an artistic signature for Cronenberg. What’s also interesting is how Cronenberg expands the imagery George A. Romero introduced in his seminal horror film (see #4) in a more fertile way than Romero himself was able to accomplish, bringing social criticism, moral judgment and prejudice together with screaming fear of the Other into a horrific collision at the crossroads of science and sociology.
5) THE BIRDS (1962; Alfred Hitchcock) The original vision of unexplained apocalypse that found great fulfillment in some of the films of Cronenberg and Romero, Hitchcock is arrogantly masterful in positing a society that has been taken over, brought to its knees by the very symbols of natural beauty and peaceful coexistence, our avian friends. As with most of the great movies about the end times, Hitchcock’s style has the confidence of a righteously disaffected god. But even that style’s less successful elements work. Some of the blue-screen projection and clumsy superimposition during the bird attacks, which some would chalk up as simple technical deficiencies, work toward disorienting the viewer, making the familiar world seem askew, malevolent, somehow wrong. And Bernard Herrmann’s relentless sound design, no notes, just the demonic music made of chirping and squawking, feels ahead of even our time.
4) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968; George A. Romero) The blueprint for 40 years of zombie horror filmmaking, one of this film’s great distinctions is in having never been surpassed in terms of text (gruesome hordes of undead on the move for no appreciable reason), political subtext-- the outrage over the destruction and racism of the Vietnam era was the fertile ground in which Romero sowed this metaphor of a society run amok—or technical achievement. (All the money in the world can’t buy a homegrown vision this potent.) Romero’s most upsetting existential revelation is not that we could be under attack from forces beyond reasoning, but that our desperate attempts to protect ourselves from rampant death may have helped create a world that is no longer worth living in.
3) FALL FROM GRACE (2007; K. Ryan Jones) Not a movie about the end of the world, this is a documentary about the horrendous intolerance at the heart of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas that, more than Romero’s movie even, will make you feel like maybe the world should end. Jones has made a document of the Reverend Fred Phelps and his familial campaign of righteous hatred (“God hates fags!” “Thank God for 9/11!”) that made me angrier than any movie I can recall. Thank God, or K. Ryan Jones, that the movie balances the insane ignorance of Phelps and his clan of tunnel-vision hate-mongers with the testimony of those who were part of this cult of moral arrogance, managed to regain their sanity and got out. The only good thing that might come of Harold Camping’s prediction coming true tomorrow is that we might finally be rid of Fred Phelps et al. But really, I’d rather go to hell than think for a minute that any compassionate God might consider anything other than eternal damnation for this twit.
2) DR. STRANGELOVE (1962; Stanley Kubrick) The ne plus ultra of strychnine-laced nuclear satire, Kubrick’s movie deserves every pixel of its honorably earned reputation as no-holds-barred belly laugh in the face of unknowable annihilation. Without a hair mussed, it nimbly demonstrates both the inevitability of technology to move us toward disaster and humanity’s penchant for vainly fumbling around in the dark and facilitating our own destruction. Vera Lynn sings over a montage of mushroom clouds as the movie climaxes, but by then even flashes of atomic energy can’t cause a ripple in the pall that has settled over this fatal farce like a shroud. “We'll meet again/Don’t know where/Don’t know when/But I know we’ll meet again/Some sunny day.” Lynn’s voice takes on an echo like a barely remembered past. Cancel all future meetings.
1) THE RAPTURE (1988; Michael Tolkin) This movie is remarkable in so many ways, not least of all that it takes seriously the strictly Biblical view of the end times in a humanistic fashion. The word “humanistic” can itself be a negative buzzword for some believers who won’t cotton to the portrayal of a seeker (Mimi Rogers) who trades her empty sex-filled lifestyle for salvation through Jesus Christ, only to find her faith in God and the coming rapture tested in the most Old Testament of ways. But Rogers’ conversion is probably the most believable such character arc I’ve ever seen in a movie, and Tolkin displays rare sensitivity and empathy in assuring that the audience—who, let's be honest, probably isn’t likely to accept Rogers’ most beatific rationale once that conversion has been undergone—stays with her character and is capable of understanding at least one of the awful choices she has to make. When this rapture occurs it’s not the end, but instead the impetus to cap one of the most chilling and overlooked character studies I’ve ever seen. Save this one for tomorrow night at midnight, and then celebrate that such a movie ever made it through the American movie system.