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 [1983], Testament [1983]) or afterward (Mad Max trilogy [1979-1985]). The Terminator ...

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