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"'To the angel of the church in Philadelphia, write this: "The holy one, the true, who holds the key of David, who opens and no one shall close, who closes and no one shall open, says this: 'I know your works… Because you have kept my message of endurance, I will keep you safe in the time of trail that is going to come to the whole world to test the inhabitant of the earth"'" Rev. 3:7-8,10.

I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to do this, but when I was nine, I stayed up one Sunday night and read the book of Revelation. The entire book frightened me, with its talk of Beasts, Antichrists, rivers of blood, eclipses, war, famine, disease, death, pestilence, and so on. What frightened me the most, however, was the appearance of Philadelphia as the name of one of the seven cities addressed in the book by Christ. I didn’t realize that this was a Philadelphia in Turkey around 2000 years ago. As far as I was concerned, I was living in ground zero for the Apocalypse, and I wasn’t happy. So, the end of the world has always been of interest to me; in particular, films which depict the end.

According to a poll in the November 1, 1999 edition of Newsweek, "40% of American adults do believe that the world will one day end, as Revelation describes, in the Battle of Armageddonand 19% of Americans, and nearly half of all those who accept Biblical prophecy, believe that the Antichrist is on earth now" (Woodward 68-69). It's no surprise, then, at the number of popular films that deal with the Apocalypse. From the recent Dogma and End of Days to blockbusters like Armageddon and Independence Day, American film is filled with dire warnings of the Big Finale. What creates this atmosphere, where one of our most popular mediums is seemingly obsessed with End Times, and what are the forms that the apocalypse takes in these films? What does this say about America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? What is the relationship of these films to St. John's Revelation?

But first, a disclaimer: regarding the Book of Revelation, I intend to take the historical and Roman Catholic viewpoint that the intention of St. John the Divine was not to detail what will take place at the end of time, but to warn his fellow Christians not to compromise or to lose their faith in confrontations with the persecutions of the Roman Empire. Many fundamentalists believe that the book is to be read literally and use it like a checklist, searching the headlines for signs of the end, fitting modern events into a first century text as they see fit in order to that the end is at hand. A prime offender is Hal Lindsey and his books, in particular The Late Great Planet Earth, which uses current events to prove that the Antichrist is here in the form of homosexuals, communism, feminism, the New Age movement, and the arts; and Jesus isn't far behind, ready to kick some liberal butt. This interpretation does follow the revenge motif of Revelation, but isn't historically accurate in regards to the writing of St. John's book.

The reign of Nero (ca. 68 ce) was a strange, bloody episode in history, which included the first truly systematic persecution of the fledgling Christian community. The memory of this persecution wasn't about to be erased after only thirty years, the time when John was writing. Those thirty years had been a trying time for the Christians--the persecution under Nero, the overthrow of the Caesarian emperors, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, the institution of such tortures as being fed to the lions, and the equally bloody reign of Domitian (81-96 CE). Martyrdom was common and later seen as a free ride to heaven. This is the world of St. John, and it is thought that Revelation is less about the end of human existence but that "he was locating the trials of the first-century churches within a wider cosmic battle between Christ and Satan. He wanted Christians to know that the faithful would be rewarded and their oppressors punished" (Woodward 69). Revelation was a way to relieve the anxiety of the Christian community through reassurance of God's deliverance, and as a revenge fantasy.

The same can be said for the films of today. "Social and intellectual anxieties of a given era and nation will find expression in its art. For example, many Japanese science-fiction films of the 50’s dealt with hideous mutations that resulted from atomic radiation (i.e. Godzilla). A number of cultural commentators have remarked on the 'paranoid style' of most American sci-fi movies of the 50’s, when the 'Red Scare' intensified the Cold War atmosphere between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (i.e. Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Today, these fears have been updated to include the new millennium and all its possible repercussions." (Wensman & Muller). The glut of apocalyptic films depict humanity--often a few select survivors--battling and surviving whatever evil is the cause for their trouble. "But apocalyptic fears have moved through so many stages - nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, techno takeover - that no one formula can apply to the end days, even in movies. In the postmodern age, we've diversified our apocalypse. 'There's sort of a rolling apocalypse, which is based on people's current fears,' (Vognar 1D).

"There are two types of signal for the end of the world. One revolves around images of moral and social monstrosity, the other, around images of natural catastrophe" (Grosso 17). These are the two types of evil that are depicted in film; either directly through the folly of man (nuclear war, engendered plagues) or persecution from outside forces (God, the Devil, aliens, asteroids, etc). Of the first type are films like Dr. Strangelove, Miracle Mile, and 12 Monkeys. Of the second are films like War of the Worlds, Seventh Sign, Armageddon, and the recent films South Park, Dogma and End of Days.

It's interesting to note that films which treat the end as coming through man are harsher, showing little or no survivors, while films which depict the end as coming from other forces generally show humanity winning, beating the odds. The former films are more rooted in warning us of our actions, while the latter are more of a social commentary than dire predictions. "Hollywood has tapped into a growing popular apocalyptic consciousness in American culture and is perhaps carrying on a dialogue with contemporary audiences… {P}opular film apocalypses reinterpret the cataclysmic threat in terms of contemporary fears and projections. Thus, rather than depicting a cosmic battle between God and the forces of darkness, popular cinematic apocalypses often focus on environmental catastrophes and alien invasions" (Ostwalt).

"When he broke open the second seal, I heard the second living creature cry out, "Come forward." Another horse came out, a red one. Its rider was given power to take peace away from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another. And he was given a huge sword" Rev. 6:3-4.

Nuclear devastation is a well-mined source for the apocalypse. A few examples: Dr. Strangelove, Miracle Mile, On the Beach, and Testament. They are the result of Hiroshima and the Cold War fear of annihilation, played out in real life events like the Cuban Missile Crisis. The earliest here, On the Beach (1959), takes place in Australia, the last civilization in existence, where they wait for the radiation and nuclear winter to finally drift south and set in. There is no escaping this apocalypse, no select few who will survive; in fact, many are taking pills in order to die before the radiation comes. The innocent dies with the guilty unlike Revelation, where Christ saves the innocent. It is the ultimate worst-case scenario of nuclear war.

Similar to this is the 1983 film Testament, which also depicts the recent after-effects of nuclear war. In this more realistic film, there are survivors, but unlike Revelation, they are both the innocent and the evil. In this film, we are shown a most likely scenario for a post-war world. Chaos reigns at first, with food shortages and gas shortages, hoarding, violence. Once that settles down and people start to help each other, radiation poisoning sets in, and soon the cemeteries are overflowing. The film centers on one particular Californian community and one particular family trying to cope. In the end there is hope that life will go on and civilization will be rebuilt.

Dr. Strangelove is one of Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces, a satire on Cold War politics and nuclear annihilation that pokes fun at American nationalism of the Cold War, and the potential destruction inherent in this attitude. Nuclear war is started by a maverick general Jack Ripper (symbolism, anyone?), who orders a bombing of Russia with nuclear warheads. The rest of the film is about the attempt to stop the bomber plane carrying the warhead, whose communication systems have been knocked out, and so doesn't realize that their leader is deranged. At the same time, the Russians are now known to have a doomsday weapon that will destroy the entire world, with no way to prevent detonation, if they are attacked (a satire on mutual destruction theories). George C. Scott's character, Gen. Buck Turkington, is a gung-ho warhawk, distrustful of the Russians, and inadvertently escalates the problems through his own prejudices. Peter Sellers does an amazing job as three distinct and hilarious characters: a confused, befuddled President of the United States, an RAF captain who is the only man with the knowledge to stop the bomber, and Dr. Strangelove himself, an ex-Nazi who not only worked on the doomsday device, but who has his own ideas about how to choose survivors to repopulate the earth, relying on Aryan eugenics. By the end of the film, there is no turning back once the machine of the military-industrial complex has started moving. The final scene is of multiple mushroom clouds erupting, while the song "We'll Meet Again" is playing, in a bitter sneer from Kubrick. As far as he was concerned, there was no way out--the monster of the Cold War and the horror of the bomb were inevitable because of man's foolishness and distrust of others.

Miracle Mile (1989) is another nuclear war film with a twist—the hero is annihilated with the rest of society. Harry gets a phone call in the middle of the night at a payphone from a man at a missile silo, babbling about the nuclear holocaust about to start—we've fired our rockets, and there’s one hour left before the Russians retaliate. At first, no one believes Harry, but then panic begins to spread throughout Los Angeles, as people begin to loot and riot, a typical display of the degradation expected if there really were nuclear war. Harry searches for his girlfriend so they can escape to the South Pole (preposterous, admittedly), but it’s to no avail. They are stranded in LA, and die with the rest of humanity when the bomb hits. Like Testament, there are survivors of the nuclear war; however, like the other two films, Harry’s not one of them.

Apocalypse through nuclear annihilation is a potent theme, and one of the darkest to be played out on the screen. Given how close we came during the Cold War, it’s no wonder that this was the most popular version of Armageddon up until the late 1980s. It played upon our fears, with Russia as the Antichrist (remember Reagan's "Evil Empire"?), and the bomb as the carrier of all the plagues and horrors of Revelation. (In a side note, it was pointed out to me that the Russian name for Wormwood, the star of pollution that poisons the waters in Revelation 8:10-11, is Chernobyl.)

"I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider was named Death, and Hades accompanied him." Rev. 6:8.

Man-made plagues also form a version of the Apocalypse. One example is 12 Monkeys. "The movie 12 Monkeys could be about an apocalypse that is human-caused with the help of a virus and human-averted with the help of futuristic ingenuity. This option fits well our paradigm of modern secular apocalypses, because it places world destruction at the feet of humanity and it reinterprets the apocalypse in light of a modern fear, mutated viruses" (Ostwalt).

12 Monkeys isn’t only about a man-made virus destroying 99% of humanity worldwide. It is also a retelling of the book of Revelation. James Cole is a time traveling convict who is sent back to 1997 Philadelphia to discover the origin of the disease, so that the subterranean scientists of 2035 can create a vaccine and regain the surface of the earth. Unfortunately for James, they send him back to 1990 Baltimore, where he is sent to a mental institution. Here he meets Jeffrey Goins, mad activist son of a rich scientist. Cole lets slip his mission, and Jeffrey decides he like the idea of wiping out humanity; he gets so excited that he starts rioting in the institution, and claims that his father is God. After an escape and a bit of time travel, Cole is now in 1997. Jeffrey is an extreme animal activist, with his group the Army of the 12 Monkeys. At the same time, he works for his father, the pharmaceutical scientist. Cole believes that Jeffrey is the origin of the disease, and spends most of the movie trying to stop him; what he doesn’t realize is that it isn’t Jeffrey but a scientist who works for his father that is the origin of the disease. The scientist—an apocalypse nut—decides to spread this manufactured virus across the earth, and so travels to seven cities around the globe, beginning in native Philadelphia. Cole, now realizing who is originator, is powerless to stop him in the airport, and dies trying to save humanity.

Now for the decoding. James is St. John, who is witness to the destruction of humanity, but can’t do anything but record the data. Jeffrey is Christ, thinking he can save the animal population with Army of the 12 Monkeys (Apostles, anyone?), and his father is God, with his laboratory the origin of the disease. The insane scientist is the angel with the seven bowls of God’s wrath, spread out across the world. Finally, Philadelphia is the name of one of the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation, and one of the seven cities of destruction in the film. The film isn’t only another disaster flick, playing upon our fears of technology and science by showing how humanity screwed it up again; it is also is a cunning retelling of the Book of Revelation itself.

"When the 1000 years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth." Rev. 20:7-8.

It isn’t always humanity’s fault. Often, the end is the result of a force other than man—asteroids, aliens, God, the Devil, even a couple of fallen angels with attitudes. This tends to play upon our fears of the unknown—while nuclear war and engendered viruses can be prevented, these cannot. Disaster films like Armageddon and Deep Impact play upon the very recent fear of asteroids, something that wasn’t considered until the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet struck Jupiter in 1996. Of course, thanks to our brave heroes in Armageddon, humanity is saved from destruction by "good ol’ American know-how". Kinda quaint, huh. Deep Impact is a bit more realistic in its portrayal of the destruction and how humanity reacts to its immanent demise.

Aliens tend to like ending the world for us, also. War of the Worlds, a sci-fi classic based on the H. G. Wells novel, is an early depiction of alien invasion as the end. We can’t destroy the aliens, but our germs can. Yay Germs! A take-off on this is the recent Independence Day, wherein aliens have decided they like the planet and want to stay, just not with us on it. So, it's up to a ragtag band of survivors to defeat them. In this case, instead of a real virus, they use a computer virus, which brings the alien ships to a halt and give the humans time to attack. We win, foster love and brotherhood, and it’s Independence Day all over the world. It’s possible that these alien films (and I’ve only listed two—there are dozens, maybe even hundreds which are like these) depict what isn’t just a post-WWII preoccupation with UFOs, but also the growing Anglo-American anxiety about the influx of non-white immigrantsaliens, if you will. Given that the heroes are American and (except for Will Smith) white, this is a good possibility of film playing on this fear.

Finally, there’s the traditional, biblical ending—God and the Devil. The classic is The Omen (1976), where the antichrist is a little boy named Damien, adopted son of the American ambassador to Britain. He ends up causing the death of his nanny, mother, father, and a whole slew of people who know what he really is. No stopping the Devil, is there. It spawned two sequels of apocalyptic fervor, but the original is the most chilling, with a fairly good use of Revelation imagery, if not actual quoting of scripture.

Another version of the Devil as ending the world is South Park (1999). In truth, this is a movie about movies—what parents claim is an industry morally out of control. The makers of the movie poke fun at these parents, arguing that they should take a more active role in raising their children. In all the squabbling about who is at fault for the problems of children today, the Devil sees his chance to take over the world. Oddly enough, he’s usurped by his gay lover Saddam Hussein, and in the end, it’s the Devil who stops the destruction of the world by Saddam. While the film makes a statement about censorship and parenting, it also is a twisted view of the Apocalypse, one fitting for the 1990s, where irony reigns supreme.

The Seventh Sign (1988) is the most biblical depiction by Hollywood to date. Demi Moore is the mother of the first child born without a soul, a sign of the apocalypse (though not occurring in the Bible, this idea is present in Judeo-Christian folklore). It works heavily on specific verses of Revelation, using the seven seals, seven signs, seven trumpets, and so on, in an accurate following of St. John's dream. In the end, we are saved by Demi Moore sacrificing her life for the world by giving her child a soul through her death. The theme that love is the antidote to destruction is a powerful one, which plays itself more in the gospels than in Revelation.

And then we have Dogma. Challenging gender issues, racism, abortion, faith, and the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, it's the story of two angels who see a loophole in Catholic dogma (working on the premise that papal rulings--here the very real idea of plenary indulgence--apply to heaven, a biblically-based belief of the Roman Catholic Church) as a way to return to heaven, from which they've been banished for questioning God's will. However, if they do so, they will disprove that God is infallible and thus reverse all existence, leaving us all with nothing. The two angels don't realize they're being manipulated by a demon Azrael who wants to end his torment in hell, and will even destroy all existence to do it. The 13th Apostle is black, God is a woman, angels swear, and the savior of the world is the great-x grandniece of Jesus Christ (according to director Kevin Smith--and the gospels, I might add--Jesus had brothers and sisters). The end of the world is averted when the angels are destroyed after realizing what they've done (including a cross-country killing spree, the vengeance for breaking God's commandments), and the savior is raised from the dead by God. The film seems to say, though, that God loves everyone--blacks, gays, women, dope dealers, strippers, even crooked cardinals--and that it isn't always obvious who a prophet is.

"I saw that one of its heads seemed to have been mortally wounded… The beast was given a mouth uttering proud boasts and blasphemies… against God. …It was allowed to wage war against the holy ones and conquer them, and was granted authority over every tribe, people, tongue, and nation." Rev 13:3-7

The final movie is unlike the ones above. It isn't obvious (except for the title) that it's about the end of the world; on the surface, it seems like another war film, albeit a trippy one. Grosso states that instead of the peace, love, and understanding of Christ, Revelation is filled with "the will to power" (Grosso 25). Apocalypse Now can be said to say the same--in this film, the godlike figure of Kurtz is a Nietzchian superman of sorts, who's drive is power over those he sees as evil, brutish, less than him--not unlike John's vision of the martyrs and saints ruling over the pagans and unbelievers "with a rod of iron" (Rev. 12:5). Kurtz also plays the role of a sacrificial king, who must die for the good of the people, and be replaced by the young man who kills him--Coppola's take on the vegetative cults of ancient peoples throughout the world, a belief that is also found in Christianity, with its sacrificial king.

At the same time, this is a film about man's inhumanity and the horrors it wreaks--not unlike John's warning in Revelation. Kurtz can be read as an Antichrist, a man who sets himself up as a god, and Willard as a Christ figure, but the Christ of Revelation, here to destroy the false god. Kurtz reads from T. S. Eliot’s "The Hollow Men," which begins with a quote from Heart of Darkness ("Mistah Kurtz, he dead.") and ends with the lines "This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." This is an Apocalypse like we haven’t seen before on the screen—no aliens, no god, no nuclear war. The real message is that the evil needed for Armageddon lurks in each of us, and is waiting to be released.

Each of these films is a reflection of American society and its fears--nuclear war, aliens, corrupt youth, nature in chaos, disease, and the great unknowns, God and the Devil. Films capture the American psyche on celluloid for all the world to see. Like the Book of Revelation, they act as a comfort and as a release of anxiety through revenge fantasies, or as a warning of what our actions might cause. They are true Revelations--they reveal our inner selves, they act as the true meaning of the word "apocalypse"--to uncover. We would do well to pay attention to what these films are telling us about ourselves--our hopes, our fears, and where we are going.

"I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book" Rev. 22:18-19.

Works Cited

Texts

Grosso, Michael. The Millennium Myth: Love and Death at the End of Time. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1995.

New American Bible, The. Ed. Louis F. Hartman, C.SS.R. Witchita: Catholic Bible Publishers. 1992.

Lang, Brad. "Classic Movies About the End of the World" About.Com 14 June 1998: n pag. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://classicfilm.about.com/entertainment/classicfilm/library/weekly/aa061498.htm?iam=dp&rf=dp.

Ostwalt, Conrad. "Visions of the End: Secular Apocalypse in Recent Hollywood Film." The Journal of Religion and Film. Vol. 2, No. 1, 1998.

Vognar, Chris. "Cashing in on Apocalypse." Philadelphia Inquire 29 Nov. 1999 1D+.

Wensman, Eric, and Muller, John Stewart. "The Apocalypse in Media Companion." THST 398 - Revelation and Apocalyptic. 24 Jan. 1999. n. pag. Online. Internet. AvailableWWW: http://clawww.lmu.edu/faculty/fjust/Students/Media.htm.

Woodward, Kenneth L. "The Way the World Ends." Newsweek 1 Nov. 1999: 67-74.

 

Films

12 Monkeys. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt. Universal, 1995.

Armageddon. Dir. Michael Bay. Perf. Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton. Touchstone, 1997.

Dogma. Dir. Kevin Smith. Perf. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon. Lion's Gate Films, 1999.

Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott. Columbia, 1963.

Independence Day. Dir. Roland Emerich. Perf. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum. 1996.

Miracle Mile. Dir. Steve De Jarnatt. Perf. Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham. Hemdale Film Corp., 1989.

Omen. Dir. Richard Donner. Perf. Gregory Peck, Lee Remick. 1976.

On the Beach. Dir. Stanley Kramer. Perf. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner. 1959.

Testament. Dir. Lynne Littman. Per. Jane Alexander, William Devane. 1983.

Seventh Sign. Dir. Carl Shultz. Perf. Demi Moore, Jurgen Prochnow. 1988.

South Park--Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Dir. Trey Parker. Perf. Trey Parker, Matt Stone. 1999.

War of the Worlds. Dir. Byron Haskin. Perf. Gene Barry, Les Tremayne, Ann Robinson. 1953.

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