Judgment Day on the Big Screen
Sandwiched exactly between the lives of John Nelson Darby and Steven Spielberg, Abel Gance directed La fin du monde (1931), France's first feature-length talking picture. In it, a comet threatening the earth divides humanity between those who spend their last days indulging in wanton orgies, and those who unite in the name of peace, following a man first seen playing Christ in a passion play.
Apocalyptic themes didn't really take off, however, until the 1970s. Society was in a state of turmoil, exploited by films about conspiracy theories and disasters both natural and supernatural. In both Stephen King's 1978 repackaging of Revelation, The Stand, and in The Omen (1976), the Antichrist is pop culture's ultimate, serious, bad guy.
That decade also saw the rise of a parallel popular culture, best exemplified by the Jesus music scene. The Rapture and the Second Coming were especially common topics. Larry Norman wrote perhaps the definitive early Christian pop song when he composed "I Wish We'd All Been Ready": "Life was filled with guns and war / And everyone got trampled on the floor … / There's no time to change your mind / The Son has come and you've been left behind."
The song is played several times in A Thief in the Night (1972), the first in a four-part film series. It set the mold for Christian apocalyptic fiction: a one-world government, a bar code "mark of the beast," and an evangelistic appeal to become a Christian now.
The end times became both more and less urgent in the 1980s. The fear that gripped popular culture now was not one of political and economic instability but of outright annihilation, usually in nuclear war (The Day After , Testament ) or afterward (Mad Max trilogy [1979-1985]). The Terminator (1984) told a modernized nativity story against the backdrop of an impending nuclear holocaust; the apocalyptic overtones were made explicit in the title of its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).
To skeptics, it sometimes seemed that Christians who dwelled on the end times were unconcerned with the present world and perhaps all too ready to let it go to hell—as shown in Michael Tolkin's The Rapture (1991). Mimi Rogers plays a Christian widow who goes to the desert with her daughter to await the Second Coming. When it looks like Jesus might not return, she shoots her daughter and thus sends her to heaven right away. However, when the Rapture does take place, the Rogers character condemns herself to a lonely eternity rather than committing herself to a God who would allow such suffering.
At the same time, Christian music was establishing itself and toning down its more radical aspects, particularly where the end times was concerned. Popular culture in the 1990s has settled into a sort of ironic nostalgia; to paraphrase the rock group R.E.M., it may be the end of the world as we know it, but we feel fine. Disaster movies and conspiracy theories are in vogue again, but they lack the urgency of their 1970s predecessors. Nuclear bombs have become our saviors, rescuing us from the comets and asteroids of Armageddon (note the title) and Deep Impact (in which the spaceship carrying the bombs is dubbed "the Messiah"). The apocalypse will become even more ironic in the upcoming film, The End of Days, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a former cop who has to save the world when the devil visits New York City.
Peter T. Chattaway is a film critic from British Columbia and an instructor at Trinity Western University.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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