Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The treatment of Christian eschatology in THE OMEN series and the changes that are made to the story over its three installments reflect an inability to accept its implicit pre-millennialism. The notion of an end to human history cannot be represented as constituting any kind of good and so must be circumvented. The fear of otherness implied by the ideas of God and the millennium is the subject of John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987). While departing significantly from the story line sketched in Revelation, this film nonetheless has a real involvement with popular culture’s restructuring of the Christian apocalypse, explicitly delineating the ideological core evident only intermittently and by implication in the structure of the Omen series.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS concerns a glass receptacle within which Satan is imprisoned in the form of a green liquid. This receptacle has been guarded since early Christian times by a secret sect called the Brotherhood of Sleep. As the liquid begins to evince unusual activity, this sect seeks outside assistance, first from the church and then from the scientific community. The is an ancient book describing the receptacle’s history, which is translated by a member of the scientific team. This book tells that the receptacle was buried in the Middle East eons ago by the father of Satan, who is described as, “a god who walked the earth but was somehow banished to the dark side.” The translator continues to read:

“Christ comes to warn us. He was of extra-terrestrial ancestry, but a human like race… Finally they determine Christ is crazy, but he’s also gaining power, converting a lot of people to his beliefs, so they kill him. But his disciples keep the secret and hide it from civilization until man could develop a science sophisticated enough to prove what Christ was saying.”

Christ is of an advanced and seemingly sympathetic race, but there is in this film no beneficent divine order. The supernaturalism present is inherently evil and anxious for humanity’s destruction, and humanity can only look to itself and its technological and scientific advancement for salvation. When speaking to a priest, the theoretical physicist leading the research team speculates:

“Suppose what your faith has said was essentially correct. Suppose there is a universal mind controlling everything, a God willing the behavior of every subatomic particle. Now, every particle has an anti-particle, its mirror image, its negative side. Maybe this universal mind resides in the mirror images, instead of in our universe as we wanted to believe. Maybe he’s anti-God, bringing darkness instead of light.”

The notion of the otherness of God has a long history in Christianity. In the Institutes, for example, Calvin argues that God is naturally alien to humanity and, indeed, to all of creation. He writes, “no neither angels nor man was God ever Father, except in regard to his only begotten Son, and men, especially, hateful to God because of their iniquity, become God’s sons by free adoption because Christ is the Son of God by nature.” Hence, it is only be sharing in Christ’s spirit that humanity can be reconciled to God. In PRINCE OF DARKNESS, however, it is precisely the otherness of the supernatural entity - acknowledged in Christian thought through the concepts of personal redemption and the millennium - that is the primary source of evil, and the Second Coming is the work of humanity’s disposition. The force contained in the canister has telekinetic powers, and transforms characters into its thrall by spraying a slimy liquid into their faces. Although the film does not elaborate explicit correlations, there are parallels between this spraying and Christian baptism, as well as between its power to cause mutation and the manner in which the Christian regenerate receives Christ’s spirit and becomes the New Man. In this film’s ideology, such a change in tantamount to the negating of humanity itself, and so must be resisted. As such, the film in fact formulates a humanistic attack on the whole notion of religious transfiguration. In reflecting on the history of the Church, the priest muses:

“Apparently a decision was made to characterize pure evil as a force even within the darkness within the hearts of men. It was more convenient and that way man remained at the center of things. A stupid lie, that’s all, we sould our product, to those who didn’t have it. Reward ourselves, punish our enemies. So we can live without truth, substance. Malevolence, that was the truth, aasleep until now.”

The eternal world of “things which are not seen” in Paul (2 Cor. 4:18) becomes here a realm of horror. One of the team assembled to combat this force later states, “I think it’s time to stand up for what we are,” and from the perspective of humanism such a position entails combating the personal transformation and sense of ending implicit to religious revelation. The New Life is the termination of human life, humanity’s forced passage into a world in which it cannot be as it is.

In PRINCE OF DARKNESS Christ becomes a scientist providing humanity with theorems and equations that will allow it to defeat the supernaturalism threatening its development. The remaking of Christ’s role in this film is consistent with that of other films that have also attempted to restructure the story of the last days. It formulates a reading of Christ’s Second Coming that will validate humanity as it presently exists, and so liberate it from the burden of supernatural augury. The seventh sign (1988) IS ONE SUCH FILM. In this rendition the world is threatened with termination not because of an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil but because all of the souls that God has created have been spent. In the film’s mythology there is a hall in Heaven containing all the souls that are to be born, but the number of souls in finite. Seven signs denote the end of the world, and the last sign is the birth of a soulless child. Christ is again on earth, but only to witness its destruction; although he has attempted to intervene, God refuses to refill the hall with new souls. At the film’s climax, Abbie, the protagonist who is pregnant with the soulless child, offers her own life for the life of her baby, and her sacrifice is sufficient to give life to her child and persuade God to refill the hall. The film concludes with Christ leaving the hospital room in which she has just died and telling a boy who has witnessed the event, “Remember it all, write it down. Tell it, so people will use the chance she has given them.”

Abbie in effect becomes a female Christ, who, through the birth of her child, provides the hope that the traditional Christ is no longer able to sustain. The only lie the film concerns is earthly life, and the figure of the expectant mother becomes the savior, promising humanity the immortality of procreation. Abbie, merely through her belief in the future of humanity, works its reconciliation with God. Her reconciliation, moreover, is achieved for humanity as it is and so does not require its spiritual sanctification or adoption through faith. Prophecy and revelation accordingly become things of the past. THE SEVENTH SIGN articulates a new covenant between God and humanity in which the parties agree to leave each other alone. In a sense Abbie’s story is the gospel foretold in the representations of the apocalypse in the other films: it is a narrative of humanity’s sufficient to save itself and to continue in its present condition, despite any plans God may have to the contrary.

In each of the popular representations invoking Christian eschatology that I have mentioned, the notion of a millennium consistently collides with a humanism that, in militating against an end to time, insists that history will remain perennially open. The inability to accept the notion of a final and completing revelation is reflected in another film, THE RAPTURE (1991), which represents the apocalypse as it is understood in Christian pre-millennialism. This film concludes, however, with its protagonist, Sharon, standing outside of heaven, just beyond the river that washes away all sin, unable to accept heaven and so refusing to proceed any further, preferring to remain in the darkness. As such, THE RAPTURE demarcates the limits of humanity’s capacity for self-abnegation. Because Sharon cannot dismiss the pain she experienced on earth, she cannot partake of the new life offered by God: divine revelation is no longer capable of speaking to her.

THE REPATURE complements the rejection of traditional Christian salvation portrayed in THE SEVENTH SIGN by illustrating the inability of the religious apocalypse to provide fulfillment. Abbie in THE SEVENTH SIGN sacrifices herself to ensure the perpetuation of the human world, and Sharon in THE RAPTURE chooses to remain alone in the twilight of that world rather than accept God’s Kingdom. As such, the apocalypse is transformed into what could be termed humanistic post-millennialism. Humanity is presented as having a future that is distinctly its own, but the nature of that future is forever deferred. These films all bear witness to the belief in human potential. THE RAPTURE and THE SEVENTH SIGN are frok this perspective the converse of PRINCE OF DARKNESS: liberation from God’s prophecy and God’s kingdom is as much a good as is the defeat of Satan. In all three films the supernatural element is either rejected or expelled from human history.

Just as popular films cannot represent the end of human time, they cannot ever completely conclude an apocalyptic narrative. OMEN IV: THE AWAKENING was released in 1991. It chronologically follows THE FINAL CONFLICT, and, although it attempts to link its narrative with the story established in the earlier films, it is essentially a retelling of the first Omen film. This retelling, however, reflects the diminishing role afforded supernaturalism in mainstream representations of the apocalypse. In this installment the focal point of evil is a young girl, Delilah, who is the daughter of Damien, the first Anti Christ, and is born with the future Antichrist existing in embryo within her womb. As such, this film takes place at a remove from ultimate evil. While Delilah is responsible for some deaths, her malignancy is manifested in such activities as blackening all of the crystals belonging to her nurse and inflaming a New Age fair; her true descent is revealed not by telltale 666 birthmark, but by her possessing a “muddy” aura. In a like manner the film devotes a great deal of attention to the necessary preconditions for the Antichrist’s reign. A priest reflects:

“We are ushering in the Antichrist to a world of overpopulation, pollution, crime… That part of us that is the world of us gives him his power… leaders who plunder the treasuries of their poor countries, trashing their own people, driving them into famine, hopelessness, disease. Men who pave over forests that provide the very air we breathe. These are the true apostates; these are the ones who are laying out the red carpet for the Antichrist.”

By stressing the role of humanity in the world’s decline the film effectively removes the apocalypse from the realm of the supernatural and relocates it in the context of human history and agency. Although the Antichrist still exists as a character, he is primarily the representative of the destructive elements existing within humanity. As such, the narrative represented in Revelation is made an allegorical representation of humanity’s struggle between its altruistic and selfish tendencies. Humanity is assign the role of the arbiter of its own fate, and whatever millennium awaits it is represented as being of its own making.

OMEN IV concludes with Delilah, her adoptive father, and the reborn Damien leaving America for Italy, with the narrative inaugurated in the first OMEN film poised to begin again. As such, the film transformed the story of the Christian apocalypse into a process of continual testing, in which humanity is perpetually maintaining itself against forces threatening its existence. As with THE SEVENTH SIGN and PRINCE OF DARKNSS, the supernatural becomes a realm of dread and potential annihilation. Although OMEN IV ends ominously, the struggle confronting the world in fact is not different from before, and the Antichrist is not dissimilar to other lesser oppressors of the past. Similarly, salvation is to be sought not in divine deliverance but from humanity’s own ability to curb its destructive impulses and to believe in its own future. In this respect, OMEN IV again accords with the ideology articulated in THE SEVENTH SIGN and PRINCE OF DARKNESS. In THE SEVENTH SIGN, Abbie saves the world by virtue of her willingness to die for her child, and in PRINCE OF DARKNESS the team of scientists prevails because one member sacrifices herself to expel the demonic entity. These characters act in this manner because of their faith in humanity. This faith does not manifest itself in any particular vision of a future worthy of sacrifice, as their actions testify to the fact that humanity is capable of sustaining such belief. As such, it is humanity’s faith in itself that provides it with the strength to prevail against the forces threatening its destruction and that will likewise allow it to continue to progress.

The apocalyptic narrative that emerges out of secular popular film is in this way an unveiling of humanity’s faith in itself and its future, as well as its belief in the sufficiency of that faith to preserve it through adversity. The narrative becomes an articulation of a secular and humanistic post-millennialism, but one formulated within the context of a pre-millennial setting. From this perspective supernatural revelation can only be understood as a coercion and limitation that must be resisted if humanity is to take possession of its future. As the genre evolves through readaptations the possibility of a beneficent divine revelation becomes increasingly alien, eventually receding from film plots altogether. The apocalyptic produced instead becomes a chronicle of termination averted through humanity’s belief in its own future.

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