TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

The End of the World, Part Two
Written by Denis Faye


WHERE TO LOOK

If scholarly writing is where you’d like to start your research, you might want to start with chapter seven of Ostwalt’s book Secular Steeples entitled “Movies and the Apocalypse.” You’ll find it here at Google Books. 

From there, check out the University of Omaha’s Journal of Religion in Film where, once you get over the blindingly orange background, you’ll find a host of useful articles and reviews. 

You might also want to read Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections Between Scripture and Film by George Aichele and Richard Walsh, which includes chapters with such scintillating titles as “Dracula and the Apocalypse of John.” Here’s the Google Books version. 

But ultimately, if you’re going to use the Bible as a source for your apocalyptic epic, you might want to peruse the Good Book itself a little. Oswalt suggests The Revised Standard Version for a “good, standard translation” or Today’s English Version, which is the least flowery version out there. It’s kind of like the Gospel according to Uncle Joe. 

Conrad Ostwalt Jr. has made a career of writing about religion in the movies, emphasis on the Apocalypse, with scores of scholarly articles to his credit as well as several books, including Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination.

So you’d think he’d be a little apprehensive about the strange goings on around the planet as of late: the earthquakes, the storms… Locust swarms can’t be that far off, right?

Wrong. This professor of philosophy and religion at Appalachian State University is surprisingly levelheaded about the whole thing. “I don’t get nervous,” he claims, “but I know a lot of people do. There’s been a long tradition of people trying to read signs and overlay them in the Christian tradition. That’s been going on since the Book of Revelations was written. I take more of a ‘If the world’s going to end, it’s going to end’ approach.’”

What a healthy approach to our pending doom! For part two of Technically Speaking’s End of the World series, we spoke with this Zen-minded biblical scholar about his specialty. Does Hollywood get the Book of Revelations right? Not really, according to Oswalt. But whatever we are doing, it’s certainly fun to watch.

What does Hollywood get right about the pending End of Days?

In general, what Hollywood has done is to really tap into some of the underlying fears about human contingency in general – fears about our planet, fears about our own death. In that sense, Hollywood has done it very creatively. And there’s such an extensive variety of visions about the end of the world, so if there is such a thing, Hollywood has made it entertaining.

So in general terms, to reach a popular audience and tap into those universal fears, that’s what Hollywood has done right. But this is a caveat: a lot of the films that are out about the end of the world, they’re not apocalyptic in the traditional sense.

Talking specifically about the ones that are supposed to be about the Apocalypse, what do they get wrong?

In terms of what they get wrong, sometimes there’s kind of a religious façade placed on films that aren’t technically based in a religious view of the end of the world. There’s a tapping into a religious language or religious expectation, but the plots or the way the movie unfolds is something quite different from the way traditional religion would view the end of the world. But I don’t know if that’s actually wrong; it just defies expectations if you’re looking at them from a traditional religious perspective.

What are some examples of that?

An example might be the film Armageddon [Screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams], which uses for the title a loaded religious term. And there are scenes of Armageddon from the Book of Revelations, but the film really didn’t have anything to do with Armageddon. It is a film about the possible end of civilization, but it doesn’t follow through with a traditional viewpoint.

And even something like an older film like The Seventh Sign [Written by Clifford Green and Ellen Green], it taps into very rich kind of religious tradition, the Jewish Apocalyptic tradition and the Christian Apocalyptic tradition, but it does so in a very creative way, in almost such a way that people familiar with those traditions might recognize parts of those traditions, but wouldn’t recognize it as a traditional way of looking at the end of the world.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the concept of what Hollywood gets right and wrong because I don’t see it as a right and wrong thing, it’s just an alternative take.

But there are films out there that are produced by evangelical filmmakers, like the Left Behind [Screenplay by Alan McElroy and Paul Lalonde and Joe Goodman] films. People who are more traditionally religious or evangelical might resonate with those films more because they more faithfully reconstruct what they’re used to in terms of the end of the world.

What about The End of Days [Written by Andrew W. Marlowe], the Arnie movie?

I’m not really familiar with that one. He’s a hero who saves the day, right? One of the things that I’ve written about these End of Days films is that one of the characteristics is that there are heroes who come in and save the day – astronauts, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whatever, and that’s really not part of the traditional Apocalyptic vision. The traditional religious vision is that a supernatural agent destroys the world, destroys time so that a new world order can come to be. So, there’s a kind of theme of destruction and also renewal. In a lot of the Hollywood films, there are heroes who come in and prevent that end from ever coming about. That’s a major departure from the traditional vision.

So would more post-apocalyptic movies like The Postman [Screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland] or The Road [Screenplay by Joe Penhall] be technically more accurate?

In general, even in these films, you’ve got survivors who are trying to eek out an existence. In the traditional Jewish and Christian apocalypses, the world is destroyed and there’s a new kingdom, but it’s a kingdom of heaven, so it’s almost as if time is destroyed too. The new kingdom is part of eternity and not part of time. In that sense, they’re different. Although I do see your point in that the post-apocalyptic films pre-suppose destruction, so there is this chance of renewal. The missing thing there would be the element of the supernatural or the omnipotent God who has control of the whole situation. The important work has somehow been transferred to human being or post-apocalyptic survivors.

Yeah, but a film where human beings have no say in the matter wouldn’t exactly make for good drama.

That’s right. It would be over quickly.

What would you like to see in a post-apocalyptic movie that you’ve never seen?

I know that there are those Left Behind films out there, but I’ve always been kind of surprised that first tier Hollywood hasn’t taken a more traditionally religious vision of the Apocalypse. I would think that a good director could make a really good film based just on the Christian and Jewish traditions. There are films out there, but they aren’t really first tier films.

The other interesting thing that Hollywood has done, there has been a big variety of agents to bring about the end. Atomic weapons, storms, all sorts of things. It will be interesting to watch Hollywood continue to delve into whatever fears tend to be confronting society at the time and convert that into apocalyptic ways of thinking because that’s the genius of what Hollywood has done. In a time of mutant viruses, they might make a film about a virus, for example. It almost has a cathartic effect on us.

To be the devil’s advocate (so to speak), the Apocalypse, or my understanding of it, is when God comes down and says, “Alright, all you Buddhists and Muslims were wrong and now you’re screwed.” If you make that movie, it’s awfully alienating, isn’t it?

It could be, but just to play devil’s advocate back at you, there’s nothing in the Book of Revelations that says that Buddhists and Muslims and other religions will be screwed. In the first part of Revelations, there’s a list of metaphorical churches that will be judged, so it’s really written toward Christians who haven’t been faithful – and probably written against the Roman Empire as well. You’ve got this judging cycle against enemies of God, but it’s not really against other religions, as much as it’s internally directed and directed against the political establishment. Not everyone would agree with my assessment, but certainly there is that political tension in the Book of Revelations.

I know the popular conservative, Christian take on that is that the people who are against God would be these people of other religions, but Islam wasn’t even around when the book of Revelations of written, and I don’t even know how much the author would have known about other religions.

I would say that would be a kind of misreading. Oddly enough, there’s really a message of hope in Revelations. It’s written to a church during a period of Roman persecution. The message is “Stay faithful and in the end, the agents of evil will be judged and the agents of God will be rewarded.” So there’s a much more hopeful message there and I would think that a sophisticated filmmaker with good consultants could do a very good job with that.