Thursday 15 December 2011

The trouble with pre-tribbers

I didn't expect it after the dire Left Behind, but Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002) is one of those things you hear so much about but never encounter: an improved sequel. To be sure, it's still cheaply made, poorly written and outrageously idiotic; but it is all these things to a lesser extent than the first film was, and it even adds a couple of legitimately watchable scenes.

You may recall that Left Behind gave us the Rapture as foretold by premillennial dispensationalists. In the blink of an eye, God snatched away every single child as well as every born-again Christian on earth. The remnant of the still-corporeal seemed to take this in their stride and soon had bigger things on their minds: the rise of obviously evil Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) to power at the United Nations.

At a UN meeting behind closed doors, Carpathia appointed ten lackeys to run the world for him. He also murdered two men in front of witnesses he then brainwashed - all except for Buck Williams, who was shielded from his mind control by 'accepting Christ' - and proclaimed the dawn of a single global government and the disarmament of the nations. This, it seems, was accepted by the international community without a single complaint - surprising, you might say, since Carpathia has no military force at his disposal to threaten anyone into compliance. This isn't your run-of-the-mill idiot plot: the very premise of Tribulation Force requires not just its protagonists, but pretty much everyone in the whole world to be a wretched moron.

Everyone, that is, but the ragtag bunch of American Christians who call themselves the Tribulation Force. As the film begins, we're told that in Israel, Tsion Ben-Judah (Lubomir Mykytiuk), the world's foremost religious scholar, is about to announce 'the single biggest piece of news in history'. (What, bigger than Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection? The filmmakers think so.) It seems that after careful study of the scriptures, Ben-Judah has determined the identity of the Messiah, and Nicolae Carpathia, who's just proclaimed a one-world religion, wants to make sure it's him.

Through personal connections - his ex-pseudo-mistress Hattie Durham (Chelsea Noble) is Carpathia's personal assistant - Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) becomes the pilot of the Antichrist's personal plane. Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), meanwhile, is sent to cover Ben-Judah's proclamation in Jerusalem for the Global News Network, and decides to take the scholar to meet the two extraordinarily shaggy witnesses (Les Carlsen and Louis Negin) who are preaching Christ at the Western Wall. The problem: Carpathia's UN soldiers have sealed off the area and have been ordered to shoot any trespassers.

This plot point is mind-bogglingly stupid. Recall, perhaps, that the United Nations don't have a standing army; recall further that Israel, which controls Jerusalem and is the only sovereign nation that has not been integrated into Antichrist's empire, isn't exactly known for its cooperation with international institutions, especially when said institutions are inflaming religious tensions by gunning down pilgrims. Even so, this is the plot we get. My recap in fact skips most of the film: for two thirds of its running time, Tribulation Force is treading water.

That wheel-spinning at least gives us the series' first gospel talk. For a Christian film, Left Behind was curiously devoid of Jesus, befitting the authors' reading of the Bible as a mass of coded prophecies. In Tribulation Force, though, we get the new character of Chris (David MacNiven), who's lost his family to the Rapture. He shares a pretty nifty scene with Rayford, which feels almost raw and human, and although the gospel as preached by Tribulation Force is all about sin and judgment and not about Jesus' attractive qualities, as well as being curiously free of reference to the world-shattering events of Left Behind, this alone makes Tribulation Force better than its predecessor.

There's also a contrived romantic subplot between Buck and Chloe Steele (Janaya Stephens), involving one of those misunderstandings we all love so much when Chloe mistakes Buck's sister Ivy (Krista Bridges) for his fiancée. (This trope is virtually never gender-flipped.) Because women are irrational, it's perfectly all right for Rayford and Buck to join forces in patronising and manipulating Chloe in amusing and heartwarming ways until the misunderstanding is resolved. Although I do love some sanitised, subtext-heavy romance, it's still a bit much to take, especially when Buck and Rayford go off to Israel and leave Chloe behind. (This, however, gives us several hilarious scenes of unmistakeable sexual tension between Chloe and Ivy. I don't think that was intentional.)

That sort of relief makes Tribulation Force rather more enjoyable than its dour predecessor. Directed by the hack Bill Corcoran, the film trumps the books by considering what would actually happen to the world in the wake of the Rapture - although it still does so much less successfully than, for example, Jim Munroe's terrific comic book Therefore Repent!, which wisely focuses on the human element. The film also ends in the wrong place, going for a limp warm glow where a shock setback at the close would have worked much better.

Then there's the questionable theology. 'We can't stop [Carpathia], we can't change the events of the Bible', Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard) suggests. Well, that's all dramatic tension gone; but despite Bruce's claim, the Tribulation Force does manage to foil Carpathia in this film. It throws up a much larger question, though: in the rigid end-times chronology of premillennial dispensationalism, what space is there for human beings to act and affect events? What exactly is the TF to do? Ultimately, dispensationalism has a flawed understanding of the relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will, and that's a millstone around the neck of a series that already has a considerable number of strikes against it.

In this series: Left Behind: The Movie (2000) | Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002) | Left Behind: World at War (2005)

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