Thursday, July 25, 2013

Meteor Apocalypse

Are you ready for another blockbuster from Faith Films? The guys who brought you 2012 Doomsday and Sunday School Musical? Well, this one, Meteor Apocalypse, makes those other two look good.

Nah, I’m kidding. Nothing could possibly make 2012 Doomsday look good. Meteor Apocalypse is slightly better, but not as good as SSM. Which is like saying taking a dump is better than explosive diarrhea, but not as good as having a wizz.

But enough of that crap. Meteor Apocalypse, billed as an End Times thriller, is about the trouble that ensues when a comet threatening the Earth is blasted to fragments by the US government, only for those fragments to rain down on the planet.

David (Joe Lando, from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) is some sort of emergency response person. His wife Kate (Babylon 5’s Claudia Christian, who gets top billing in spite of only being in the film for less than ten minutes) and daughter Alison (Madison McLaughlin) wish he’d spend more time with them. “Why did you bother switching to days when you’re on call seven nights a week?” Kate asks as David is called in to help deal with the meteor crisis. “It’s my Job, Kate,” he replies. “What d’you want me to do?” Having established the required amount of family drama, David rushes off to do his stuff. If only something would happen to make him realize how precious his family really is.

The first meteor poisons the water supply, and people start getting sick. David confers with his sick friend Mark, who dies just after giving him some medicine that will slow down the poisoned water’s effects. Then a random meteor shower destroys the building, but David escapes with the meds just in the nick of time.

Mark’s pal Sam in Las Vegas is working on a cure – he tells David this, and apparently no one else. The government moves in and starts quarantining the sick people, including Dave’s daughter Alison. He arrives home just in time to watch helplessly Alison and Kate are hauled away by army goons. David himself escapes, only to waste time wandering in the wilderness. Why he didn’t simply get back in his car (which was available) or the car of one of the goon-abducted sickies (also available) is a question best left for film critics.

On his way to Las Vegas to help Sam make a cure, David meets a sick woman named Lynn (Cooper Harris). She also has drama (ex boyfriend, ex job, ex dog), but it fails to make her interesting. Lynn’s function in the film is to look sickly, and it uses up the entirety of Cooper’s acting talent.

David and Lynn find a jeep and continue on toward Vegas, until another random meteor shower destroys it. Over the course of the film, David faces five random meteor showers, but emerges from each unscathed. Somebody up there must like him.

Meanwhile, Random Government People are hard at work. There are always two types of RGPs in movies like this: the ones working to solve the current crisis, and the ones who get in their way for no good reason. Both groups provide much-needed exposition.

David and Lynn reach Sam just in time to save him from some guy with a gun. They put their heads together (David and Sam, not Lynn or the gun guy) and quickly concoct an antidote to the poisoned water. And not a moment too soon! More gun guys turn up to make things difficult, but David and Lynn escape with the help of some FBI agents. Things look promising for our heroes until a bunch of bikers turn up and kill the FBI guys, only to be scared away by random meteor shower #3. One of the FBI agents lives long enough to tell them (David & Lynn, not the bikers) that a giant comet is heading for L.A. Which is where the quarantined people are! Including Kate and Alison! David rushes off for L.A., and Lynn comes with him because her character has nothing better to do.

At no point does it occur to either David or Lynn to turn their antidote over to the authorities. David’s mission is surprisingly single-minded for a Christian movie – he’s taking the cure to his daughter, and everyone else can fend for themselves. In this way, Meteor Apocalypse is very similar to Sunday School Musical – no consequences are shown for bad behavior. David does use half his supply of antidote to save a little girl, but that hardly counts; David wasn’t even sure it would work. He basically used the girl as a guinea pig to make sure the cure could help his daughter.

And, like Sunday School Musical, there is very little to suggest that this is in fact a Christian movie. David’s wife Kate asks him early on if he’ll come to church with her that weekend, and David and Lynn take shelter in a church in L.A. In that church, a priest named Pastor King (Celestial) talks to David about faith; she is the only one to mention the name of Jesus in the entire movie. It doesn’t do her any good; she and her church are wiped out by random meteor shower #4.

Back in Washington, the RGPs’ bureaucratic exposition continues. Most are in favour of saving those quarantined in L.A. However, a bearded RGP is of the opinion the sickies should be left to their fate to avoid a jurisdictional misstep. “You’re sentencing them all to death!” a good RGP cries. “If I could wave a magic wand I would!” the bearded one retorts. Clearly he’s a villain – he’s in favour of using magic! The good RGPs do manage to evacuate some of the people in L.A. before the comet arrives, destroying the city in the cheapest and most pathetic CGI I’ve ever seen.

Before that half-assed apocalypse, however, David and Lynn escape L.A. and track down the evacuated quarantined people in the mountains. Lynn tries to kiss David, but he refuses. This seems a fairly insignificant moment in the film, but according to the Bible Study questions in the disc’s special features, this is the moment when David is faced with Temptation (other questions deal with the film’s supposed Biblical accuracy). That he doesn’t give in to Adultery proves he is an upstanding Christian guy. When Lynn succumbs to her sickness shortly after, and refuses the cure so that David can keep what’s left for his daughter, she is seen to have redeemed herself for her attempted defilement of David’s marriage.

Basically, Lynn is a helpless female in need of rescuing, who becomes a Temptress for five seconds. If her entire purpose was to be a temptation for David, why did they wait for the very end of the movie? If they are trying to teach viewers about the sin of adultery, they have failed miserably.

After Lynn’s death, David is menaced by one last meteor shower before finding Kate, curing his daughter and getting rescued by a chopper. So the hell what? Joe Lando is a serviceable leading man, but the script from Brian Brinkman and director Micho Rutare (who also co-wrote Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus) doesn’t give him much to work with. This is Rutare’s second motion picture as director, and like SSM it was shot in 12 days. Faith Films, it would seem, is too cheap to go over that pitifully short schedule. I’m not sure that an extra few days would have made much difference, though. More love seems to have gone into the making of featurette; it’s the only time that Cooper Harris displays any kind of energy. Honestly, why couldn’t one of those random meteor showers have hit during pre-production and saved the world from this godly mess?

Meteor Apocalypse
Likely To Convert - 0
Production Values - 4
Acting/Direction - 3
Likely To Be Sat Through - 3
Unintentional Hilarity - 4
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 2

Monday, July 22, 2013

Here Comes The Judge!

By now, readers of this blog will have a good idea about what to expect from that banana pudding mixture of Christian fundamentalism and overblown paranoia that is Jack T. Chick. Demons luck everywhere, trying to lead you astray. Your intelligent-sounding best friend might be the Devil in a rubber mask. Reject the Word of God, and death and Hell are only seconds away!

This overly-plotted story, however, is a right turn onto left field. It isn't until halfway through the story that a point begins to emerge.

Chick introduces us to Judge Shelton Barnstead, who "gave to charity and was loved by all," but who apparently "had a dark side that very few knew about." Having introduced his titular character, Chick proceeds to ignore Judge Barnstead for a full eight panels. Those panels tell the story of a mother, Kim Keefer, who returns home with her two kids to see a man killing her husband Kyle. It seems Kyle Keefer was a P.I., who had been investigating the Governor and had gathered photographic evidence against him. The murderer, Lance, escapes with the photos and reports to the Judge. "You messed up big time, stupid!" Judge Barnsy admonishes Lance for being caught in the act, and orders him to "bring me the photos right now!"

Judge Barney gets the photos, but Lance gets himself arrested. In response, the Police Chief plants "a stash of illegal drugs" in Kim's home, then has her arrested for her husband's murder. Kim appears before Judge Barnstead, who gives her 50 years (40 for her crimes, and 10 for calling him a "devil").

All clear so far? The Governor did something bad, Kyle took pictures of him doing it, and the Governor used his extensive list of henchmen and cronies (Judge B, the Police Chief, Lance) to cover his ass. The Governor's next move is to have Judge Barnsy taken care of, and one exploding cafe later the not-so-good judge finds himself in hospital.

And it is here, finally, that the plot... not thickens, exactly, but becomes slightly less runny. Conrad, Judge Barnstead's well-groomed but big-nosed house servant, pays his employer a visit in intensive care. Even though Barnsy treated him "like trash since day one," Conrad feels compelled to tell him "about the awesome Judge you must face after death." Barnsy is unable to speak, having been wrapped up mummy-style, but his fearsome eyebrows make his feelings plain.

Conrad preaches about Jesus, then he goes on to tell his boss about the End Times as well. It's as if Chick stuffed the first half of his tract with his complicated plot, then needed some extra material to fill a few more panels. "So what's your decision, sir?" Conrad asks, and he actually hands the judge a card with Yes and No tic boxes on it! Chick gets in a decent joke here - instead of ticking Yes or No, Judge Barnstead writes "You're fired" on the card. Conrad, and Jesus, take that as a solid No, and anyone who rejects Christ in a Chick tract is doomed to an immediate death. Two panels later a bearded, eyepatch-wearing henchman finishes Barnsy off; his soul "was carried away" and "his muffled screams went unheard." The context suggests the screams took place after his soul's departure; maybe Chick was referring to the judge's agonized cries from Hell. The picture of him burning in flames is small by Chick's usual standard, although his eyebrows aren't nearly so terrifying any more.

Oh, and apparently Judge Barnsy didn't go to Hell for his part in the whole murder/theft/conspiracy deal with the Governor. Chick identifies his sins as that of "stubbornness and pride." Readers are then warned, "Don't make the same mistake!" So it's okay to kill someone and take their stuff, blow up cafes, manipulate the law, plant evidence, send innocent people to jail, and whatever the heck it was the Governor was caught doing in the first place... all that stuff is just fine with the Lord as long as you aren't prideful and stubborn? And how was Judge Barnstead prideful and stubborn, exactly? For rejecting Jesus? How do we know he didn't reject Jesus because he thought his house servant Conrad had gone to the nutty store to buy a pair of crazypants?

Jack T. Chick's tracts are usually obvious to the point of being insulting. Here Comes The Judge is so full of plot that the message is hopelessly lost. You blew this one, Jack. That's my verdict.

Here Comes The Judge
Likely to Convert - 2
Artwork - 7
Ability to Hold Interest - 4
Unintentional Hilarity - 4
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - ?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Glorious Appearing: The End of Days

This is it, the final volume in the Left Behind series! Except, of course, for the three prequel novels. And the novelizations of the Gospels. Oh, and the final, final novel set 1,000 years after the events of this one.


Okay then, how about this - at the time of its publication, Glorious Appearing was meant to be the concluding chapter in the AntiChrist vs. Tribulation Force story. The Seven Year Tribulation - and its accompanying curses, plagues, disasters, soul harvests, improbable human-headed scorpion locusts, and other assorted trumpet and bowl judgments – comes to an end, and we finally witness the Second Coming of the Son of Man of the Hour, Jesus the Christ.

And boy oh boy, does the Prince of Peace ever let them sinners have it! Jesus quotes the Bible at them, and His Voice acts like a death ray:

“And with those very first words, tens of thousands of Unity Army soldiers fell dead, simply dropping where they stood, their bodies ripped open, blood pooling in great masses.”

“With every word, more and more enemies of God dropped dead, torn to pieces.”

“Rayford watched through binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.”

“…and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor… their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.”

And it actually gets worse from there. Jesus leads no less than four separate campaigns against the AntiChrist’s army, one after the other, before finally chucking AntiChrist Nicholae Carpathia and his False Prophet sidekick Leon Fortunato into Hell. Why, you might ask, does the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (which is actually written on his robe! For real!) need to go to all that trouble? Couldn’t HE just, I don’t know, blow them all up and be done with it?

No, HE can’t. That’s not what the Bible says. Or, at least, that’s not what authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins say that the Bible says. They say that the Bible says that Jesus fights four battles with the AntiChrist’s army, so HE has to fight all four battles. Wouldn’t want to contradict Biblical prophecy, now would you?

And that is one of the main problems with this book, and indeed the entire series; every Biblical I is dotted, every Gospel T crossed (see what I did there?). If it’s in the Bible it has to be accounted for, no matter how small or silly or detrimental to the plot.

For example, in the middle of Jesus’ slaughter of Nicky’s troops, there is a storm of giant hailstones. As if the poor guys didn’t have enough to worry about, what with the whole getting annihilated by GOD HIMSELF. These great chunks of ice crush several more unbelievers and then melt, and Nicholae’s humvee gets stuck in the ensuing flood. Leon Fortunato has to get out and push, a situation that becomes fraught with comical hijinks.

Comical hijinks? Seriously?!?

Yes, seriously. The AntiChrist and the False Prophet are played largely for laughs in this book, most of it due to Leon’s clumsiness and Nicholae’s cowardice. Are these two really the same guys who kept the world in a state of terror for seven years and eleven previous volumes? For the reader, this is less than satisfying.

But that isn't nearly as bad as the hand that’s dealt to our plucky Trib Force heroes. Things start off interestingly enough – we witness the death of Buck Williams, and the scenes involving the search for the wounded Rayford Steele contain genuine tension and pathos. The others wait at Petra for the AntiChrist’s imminent attack…

…but the moment Jesus appears in the sky, all of them become useless. They follow Jesus and the AntiChrist and watch the remaining prophecies unfold, allowing readers to witness those events through their eyes... and that's it. None of the characters that readers have journeyed with up until that point have any kind of important role, any plot-resolving function, any longer.

So, having usurped the role of Main Character for HIMSELF, what does Jesus the Christ do with it? He obliterates his enemies in his infinite mercy – we’ve covered that. Otherwise, he has two roles to play, which I’ll call Nice Jesus and Mean Jesus. Nice Jesus gives comfort to his flock, speaking to and hugging each of them, assuring them they have done well. Mean Jesus divides the entire population of the planet into Saved and UnSaved, and sends all the UnSaved people to Hell. It’s hard to believe they are the same deity.

The Trib Force characters don’t care. They’re delighted when their Lord adds their names to a bit of Scripture-quoting, and all of them have a Wayne’s World-esque “we’re not worthy” moment. They happily (and passively) sit back and watch the Lord do his stuff.

The last quarter of the novel is like an Academy Awards Ceremony for the faithful, with Old and New Testament guys like Moses and Paul getting their pats on the back for jobs well done. We are told that Rayford et al suffer no weariness or boredom during the event. The same cannot be said for this reader!

I’d like to point out here that the book The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church was Left Behind by Robert M. Price does a far better job of critiquing Glorious Appearing, and the rest of the Left Behind books, than I ever could. If you like my reviews, do pick this book up, you won’t be sorry. I won’t go into detail about most of the points Price raised, because I didn’t think of them before reading his book. I am trying to limit my reviews to my own impressions, and I won’t go and pass his thoughts off as my own.

I will, however, discuss one of his excellent observations: Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don’t present Jesus as being all that different from Nicholae Carpathia. Both demand worship and loyalty, both make grandiose claims about themselves, both punish those who fail to obey them, and both plan to rule the world - in Jesus’ case, with an iron rod: Revelation 12:5 ‘She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron.’
“That rod of iron sounds like He’s going to take no baloney from anybody, doesn’t it?” says a character too unimportant to be worth naming. I find the similarities between Nicky and J.C. both hilarious and disturbing, and I wouldn’t want either of them to get their hands on my eternal soul.

Neither, I suspect, would any secular reader. Then again, if a non-believer has been willing to read all the way to book 12, I have to concede their conversion is a possibility, if not a very big one.

Glorious Appearing is billed as 'The Final Chapter of Those Left Behind', but it shouldn’t have been. The battle of Armageddon in the previous volume would have made a more exciting climax, with Jesus’ return relegated to the final few chapters. If LaHaye and Jenkins had been willing to condense things a bit and leave one or two details out, they might have achieved a much stronger and more interesting conclusion to their series. Just because you have enough prophetic material to fill an entire 400 pages doesn’t mean you should.

Who would have thought the Second Coming would be so boring?

Glorious Appearing: The End of Days
Likely to Convert - 1
Cover Art - 4
Ability to Hold Interest - 3
Unintentional Hilarity - 5
Level of Disturbing or Offensive Content - 8