It’s the End of the World as They Know It: Rapture Films Then and Now
How do you make a movie well when everyone knows the ending coming up to it? How about when people also know the beginning and middle? This is the biggest dilemma in making Rapture movies. I didn’t grow up in a Christian household, and I am not a Christian myself, but I even know what’s involved in the Rapture: the saved disappearing, the Antichrist, the mark of the beast…it’s been told many times since the original Revelations was written, in many forms. Is it possible to keep it fresh?
In 1972, a small outfit in Iowa called Mark IV Productions made what is considered a modern classic in Christian filmmaking. A THIEF IN THE NIGHT centers on three young women: one Christian, one nonbeliever and one who just isn’t too sure. The film opens the morning of the Rapture and Patty, the middle of the roader, has discovered her husband and millions of other people have simply disappeared overnight. The film has an interesting structure, mixing flashbacks with present-time action. There were opportunities for Patty to find the correct path to Christ and she passed them up, believing that simply attending church and being a good person was enough. Instead, she is stuck on Earth while a group from the UN called UNITE creates a New World Order, demanding all its citizens get the binary code for 666 stamped on their wrists or foreheads. Patty refuses, recognizing the mark of the beast for what it is. She is chased down by UNITE members, including her former friend who mocked Christ, and must choose death or the mark. Luckily for Patty, though, she wakes up in her own bed. However, the radio is announcing the disappearance of millions of people worldwide….
There is no doubt A THIEF IN THE NIGHT was made on a miniscule budget. Many of the sets are simply empty rooms with people sitting around. There are absolutely no special effects (the filmmakers wisely had the Rapture itself happen off screen so they wouldn’t have to figure out how to make everyone disappear). The actors were all local volunteers, and what they lack in realism, they more than make up for in enthusiasm.
And enthusiasm is definitely the strongest feature for A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. The movie starts in the middle of the action, and from moment one, it doesn’t let up. And while the performances aren’t realistic, they are energetic. The actors were all volunteers, as were most of the crew, making this movie because they felt it was important to get the message of salvation across. The writers were just as dedicated to that message. Unfortunately, their dedication was the biggest hindrance to this little movie. They were on a mission to save as many souls as they could so they wanted the message to be as clear as possible. The characters they created weren’t whole people but rather single characteristics: good, evil, and unsure. Only the main character was allowed some growth in the end when she finally allowed herself to make a decision and oppose the mark. The dialogue is predictable. Because there is nothing unique about the characters, you know what they’re going to say in any given situation.
Twenty nine years later there is a new Rapture craze—the “Left Behind” media empire created by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I haven’t read any of the books, so I can’t say how loyal the movie LEFT BEHIND is. Instead, I can only judge how it works on its own as a movie and, I can say with complete honesty, it doesn’t.
Kirk Cameron stumbles through the role of Buck Williams, a reporter for a CNN-like news channel. While in Israel covering a man who invented something that makes the ground fertile, allowing for food to be grown anywhere, and thus an end to world hunger. Peace is soon to be found in the Middle East, for the first time in history. And these are bad things. During his flight back to the states, half the plane’s passengers disappear in a split second. While the world tries to figure out how and why, a Russian banker is on his way (using slick Jedi mind tricks) to take over the UN. Only a handful of people know the truth. Now, you might expect the next line to be “Can they stop him in time?” But, no. That’s not the point of this movie. What is the goal Buck is aiming toward? Far as I can tell, the point of his journey, and of the movie, is for him to find God. Which he does. The end.
For a movie that promises to be an action film, that kind of internal revelation is a bit of a downer. In the first five minutes, there’s a huge airstrike battle in the skies over Israel. Our characters had to weave their ways home through the chaos and bloodshed left when millions of people disappear while driving cars, flying planes. We are always a step ahead of Buck, so we’re on the edge of the seat waiting to see if he discovers the truth. And once he finally does…nothing happens. At least not in this movie. There is a sequel, and I can only assume there is some great battle between good and evil to bring the story to a conclusion. I understand that LEFT BEHIND was also the first book in a series. But I am a firm believer that, even if part of a series, a movie should be able to stand on its own as a story. For example, take THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. While it was an integral part of the STAR WARS series, the movie itself had a complete beginning, middle and end. LEFT BEHIND is missing that cohesive end where you feel like something was resolved. Yes, Buck finds his way to the lord, yet it still feels incomplete.
The production values of LEFT BEHIND were good enough. The occasional use of CGI was slick and seamless. The film quality was professional when compared to A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. The acting was certainly on a higher level. That is, except for the performance of Kirk Cameron in the main role of a man searching for his faith. He just doesn’t get across the whole searching for the truth. You get the feeling he already knows what the truth is, and is just going along because that’s what the script says. For being the one actor who had the most credentials of the cast, I was expecting better from him.
I have a small complaint about both DVDs. It appears the makers of both movies don’t feel the deaf have souls worth saving. Many times when the baby is sleeping, I’ll turn on the English subtitles of a DVD as to not wake her. Neither, while having multiple language options, had an English subtitle track. This is something future filmmakers might want to keep in mind.
I have no doubt a fantastic movie could be made about the Rapture. Even one, as these two were, made to be a sort of commercial, but instead of selling a product they’re selling salvation. Would they still be able to make conversions, even with a more subtle message? I think, not only could they, but it would be even more effective. Unfortunately, we can only guess until they actually make a movie like that. Which is fine, unless the Rapture happens before then. In that case we’ll be stuck with these two movies to explain what’s going on.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES:
LEFT BEHIND is available pretty much anywhere they sell DVDs.
You have to order A THIEF IN THE NIGHT direct from the website for what used to be Mark IV productions, but is now Russ Doughten Films: www.rdfilms.com, and it will cost you about $23.