The Tribulation Force is coming soon to a theater near you. Namesake Entertainment and Cloud Ten Pictures, the Christian movie studio founded by Canadian broadcasters Peter and Paul Lalonde, announced in July that they are ready to embark on a $17.4 million big-screen adaptation of Left Behind, the best-selling novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

No director or stars have yet been signed to the project, but the film has already attracted the participation of Ralph Winter, an established producer whose credits include Inspector Gadget, Mighty Joe Young, and several Star Trek movies. Shooting begins in Toronto early next year, with the release tentatively set for October 2000.

Joe Goodman, president of Namesake Entertainment, describes the forthcoming film as a "spiritual thriller" and says it will have crossover appeal. "It's almost like creating a new genre. It's going to be very faithful to the core audience, while opening up to the spiritual craving of the secular audience, which is a big audience that exists out there for us."

GROWING BUDGETS: The announcement comes as the Lalondes are currently putting the finishing touches on Tribulation, the third in their series of straight-to-video end-times movies. The budgets for these films have increased sharply: according to Peter Lalonde, Apocalypse cost $1 million to produce, Revelation $5 million, and Tribulation $9 million.

Lalonde says over 300,000 copies each of the first two films have been sold to date, and Revelation did well when it played in select theaters across the continent. "In theaters, it always placed as the third or fourth movie of the [local] market, which means we beat about 50 percent of the Hollywood movies," he says.

Left Behind is going into production at a time when apocalyptic movies are experiencing their biggest revival since the 1970s, when The Omen and A Thief in the Night pitched their stories to secular and Christian audiences respectively. But the lines between the two markets have blurred as makers of religious movies are growing increasingly Hollywood savvy.

The Lalondes' movies have starred Gary Busey, Jeff Fahey, Howie Mandel, and Margot Kidder. The Omega Code, a Trinity Broadcasting Network production opening October 15, stars Michael York as the Antichrist and Casper Van Dien as a mythology expert who wises up to the global conspiracy. "The Bible Collection," a series of made-for-TV movies that includes the Emmy-winning Joseph and next spring's CBS special Jesus, may conclude with an installment based on Revelation, according to producer Lorenzo Minoli.

The apocalypse has also caught the not-so-reverent imagination of secular filmmakers. Last year Hal Hartley, a respected independent director, produced The Book of Life, in which Jesus comes to New York on the eve of the millennium but decides he no longer wants to judge the living and the dead. Not to be outdone, Universal Studios is unleashing End of Days, an expensive, effects-laden thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, in November.

These movies are coming out at a time when no-budget hits such as The Blair Witch Project have reopened big-studio interest in niche-market films. "Left Behind is a distributor's dream because of the built-in audience," Good man says. "When you have a project that has good word of mouth, the way to go is to start small so that snowflake turns into a huge snowball crashing down the mountain. And that's what we're going to do."

BAD THEOLOGY? The popularity of these stories, which mix elements of horror and action-adventure, has led some critics to complain that they sensationalize or trivialize the Bible. Criticism has been fiercest from those who do not subscribe to the premillennial, pre tribulation eschatology that underpins these stories.

Gordon Fee, professor of New Testament studies at Regent College, says the Left Behind books are based on a poor understanding of the Bible. "Theologically, the distressing point for me is that [Left Behind] makes Christian conversion a matter of fear, rather than a matter of hearing the good news of the gospel, of the God who has loved us in Christ, come among us and redeemed us. It focuses on, very frankly, selfish fear."

The point of the biblical Revelation, says Fee, is not that people can avoid suffering by becoming Christians before the Rapture happens, but that "we triumph through suffering, just as our Savior did."

Peter Lalonde is dismissive of such criticism. "Left Behind has brought alive the Book of Revelation to people who would never have sat down and tried to wade through the heads, horns, and beasts of eschatology," he says. "I think Left Behind has made this message accessible to the Christian community and to the wider community as well."

Tim Weber, professor of church history at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and an expert on the rise of dispensationalism, says novels and films such as these are an outgrowth of the movement's populist bent. "They've got the best books," says Weber. "They have cornered the market, so to speak, on this kind of delivery system. The amillennialists don't write fictional books about the end of the world, and the postmillennialists don't. It's the premillennialists who do this, and it's jazzy. It's easily transferrable into this kind of fictional model."

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Winter, currently working on The X-Men, an adaptation of the Marvel comic-book series, says he has no particular convictions concerning the end-times calendar. "I'm a panmillennialist. I think it's all going to pan out," he says. "But I'm definitely a committed Christian, and I definitely think that this is a good story that people will ask questions about.

"I think if we get people asking the right kind of questions, we're doing our job and pointing them in the right spot for the answers, in terms of meeting other Christians and looking at the Bible. If we can point them back to the Word, that's the right stuff."

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