So, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, the 2002 DTV sequel to the hardcore conservative Christian classic Left Behind. If the only thing you tell me about that film is its title, and the fact that it involves a small group of True Believers facing off against the Antichrist during the Tribulation (which is, in the particular eschatology we're worried about here, the seven-year period between the arrival of said Antichrist and the return of actual Christ, during which things are generally horrible for every living person on Earth), well, let's just say that I start to come up with some assumptions about what I'm going to see. "Tribulation Force" says, to me, rocket-bikes that fire lasers of pure holy energy, and also convert into personal mini-jets; also some big guns, like enormous, comic book shotguns that can only kill demons. Stepping back from the precipice, and recalling that the book from which this film was adapted was conceived by fundamentalist Christian zealot Tim LaHaye and written by the feckless hack Jerry B. Jenkins, I'd still at least assume that anything with "Force" in the title probably involves its protagonists doing, like, things.

Joke's on me, in that case, because Tribulation Force turns out to be 95 minutes of virtually uninterrupted idling, in which our core group of heroes talk about their plans to stop the Antichrist, but don't ever actually engage in anything that those plans entail; for the first hour or more of the movie, all that happens is that one character decides to become the Antichrist's personal pilot, while another decides to run a newspaper for him, thus getting into his inner circle and finding themselves able to keep tabs on him from the inside. But not actually fight him. Because the Tribulation is already set, I guess, and all that a True Believe and Tribulation Saint can do is to ride those seven years out, not actually take plans to lessen their impact, or whatever.

Impossibly, despite the lack of incident, the lack of characterisation, and the lack of dialogue in which two consecutive sentences share an obvious causal relationship with each other, this is still better than the book, where the same end-points of pilot and newspaper manager are reached, but instead of being the character's active plans, they sort of happen at the characters almost by accident, and the characters then spend pages and pages and pages of limp prose trying to figure out if they should take those positions or just sit around doing whatever it is they're up to when they're not praying for guidance. Which probably literally never actually happens. Yessir, Paul Lalonde & John Patus's script for Tribulation Force the movie is a 100%, objective improvement over the book, with more activity for the characters, a clearer conflict, more interaction with characters and the world of those who were left behind when God gathered up all the Truest Christians up in the Rapture, and so much less talking about things we already know, or talking about short-term possibilities whose outcome is never in doubt. And this being the case, it says terrible things about the book, given that Tribulation Force one of the worst motherfucking things I have seen - worse, yes than Left Behind, since in the two-year break, Kirk Cameron apparently figured out that he'd been making some terrible decisions as an actor, and took clear, motivated steps to correct those decisions, and so instead of being amusingly disastrous in the role of crusading born-again TV journalist "Buck" Williams, he is merely tedious and awful. Cameron's wife, Chelsea Noble, is still outrageously, deliciously terrible as the Antichrist's whore, former flight attendant Hattie Durham, but she's barely in this one.

And so, instead of a movie that comfortably wanders into "so bad it's good" territory, Tribulation Force remains simply bad, a tedious chain of non-events feeding into each other as the good guys are filmed by director Bill Corcoran in indistinguishable close-ups, looking incredibly serious as they discuss the implications of Bibilical prophecies; every now and then, we get to spend a few minutes with the Antichrist himself, Romanian businessman-turned-president-turned-UN Secretary General-turned-dictator of the entire world (and all that in the span of about 36 hours!) Nicholae Carpathia, still played by Gordon Currie with a crazy Dracula accent that is, if anything, even thicker and more relentless than it was last time, and still proves that Currie, at least, understood precisely how much respect this material deserved, and provided it. The Carpathia scenes are by far the best part of the film, a statement that is unfair only because it suggests that some other aspect of the movie might in fact be in any measurable way good: and that's certainly not the case.

(At one point, the Antichrist recites an extensive portion of the Lord's Prayer. Question for those who know more than I: shouldn't he, like, burst into flames, or something?)

I'll admit, I truly don't understand why Tribulation Force exists. Not in the broad sense, where one regrets the existence of Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 or BloodRayne. I mean, I don't know why the people who made Tribulation Force made it. Not to evangelise a worldview: the End Times theology that LaHaye so scrupulously expresses in the books has been watered down with more generic conservative Christian boilerplate. Not to continue the meager story of the first film: only about five minutes worth of actual stuff happens, clustered in two scenes: the Antichrist's goons find they can't assassinate a pair of supernatural proselytisers at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, in an action sequence that plays like bullet time done on the cheap, and cross-cut with a choir singing "Amazing Grace", to no thematic resonance of note; this turns the world's foremost rabbinical scholar into a Jew for Jesus. I suppose they might have it in their mind that it's continuing the spiritual journey of the characters, but they pretty much end up exactly where they started, interrupted by a tremendously gross little farcical complication about Buck and his new ladyfriend, Chloe Steele (Janaya Stephens), and her belief that he's a bigamist (a subplot much reduced from the book, thankfully, where it felt like a 40-page vacuum sucking all the beauty of of the world). I can't even say that the film is just pandering and smugly informing its audience that they're wonderful people for believing the right things, because the film has diluted its belief system so far down that it barely counts as anything beyond the most generic possible "up with fundamentalism" sentiments. And if there's one thing that reading the book has made clear to me, it's that Tim LaHaye recognises incredibly fine but incredibly important declinations between the right and wrong kind of fundamentalist Christianity.

So the movie is just sort of there, being ugly, being slow, being devoid of any kind of human interest at all; as in the first movie, Brad Johnson is clearly interested in fulfilling his duties as a paid actor (I have no idea if he believed in the film's messages or not, but he's not riding it out as lazily as Cameron, if that's the case), and he is mostly alone in that regard, but in trying to flesh out the mind of a man who is still rattled by a devastating worldwide event that has changed virtually nothing about anyone's behavior outside of a single scene - and we're going to be getting to that scene shortly - but is also thrilled by his newfound wisdom about how to be spiritually redeemed despite having to live in that world; while Cameron and Stephens strike about as many sparks as a matchbook at the bottom of the ocean, Johnson feels his way into the happy-sad resignation of a dad whose daughter is starting to get serious about a boy. A boy who is, lest we forget, half again as old as she is, and neither Johnson nor any other element of the film bother to engage with that supremely unsettling reality. But at least he's got something going on besides just reciting the lines and stiffening his chin to show implacable religious determination, the way the rest of the actors do.

Anyway, I have accused the film of possessing no clear message and no thoughts and no brain at all, and that's not quite true. It doesn't possess a clear message that has dick to do with LaHaye's eschatological program, and since the plot of the whole franchise is back-constructed into that program, it means that the the film's big Message Moment is stabbed into the story, rather than drawn out of it. But that moment exists, and it is actually the perfect and exact expression of somebody else's worldview: Kirk Cameron's, to be exact, as anyone who has ever visited his nauseating website (which I will not link to) can attest.

So here's what's happening: the hard-right Rapture-thumping church that was left almost totally without a population besides the insufficiently Christlike junior pastor Bruce Barnes (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.), has now become the focal point of a post-Rapture community of the lost and scared and questioning. As makes sense, really: it's one of the points where the film actually engages with the implications of its story, instead of just sleepily moving the chess pieces marked "Antichrist" and "smug fundie journalist" back and forth in an endless stalemate. And so, after the service, we move out to find groups of people struggling to make sense of what's going on. One of these people is named Chris, and he's played by David Macniven, and he's only in two scenes, but in them he gives the film's best performance outside of Johnson, and maybe even its best overall: because he plays the lines he's given as an angry, confused, scared person who is being told some really weird things and asked, in the most grotesquely smug way, what he thinks about them. None of this happens in the book - the book only has something like a dozen named characters. But the conversation that ensues is so perfectly vile and so flawlessly descriptive of the appalling worldview that went into making these movies, I am going to transcribe it in full.
Two people talking in a boring two-shot. Kirk Cameron walks up to make it a boring three-shot
CHRIS: "What is it with you people? You think everyone's bad. Well I've got something to tell you. There are lots of good people in the world. Including me."
BUCK: "According to whose standards? Yours or God's?"
C: "What?"
B: "You just said you're a good person. I mean, do you think you've kept the ten commandments?"
C: "Yeah pretty much. I'm not perfect, but I've never killed anybody."
B: "Okay, well have you ever lied?"
C: "Yeah, well who hasn't?"
B: "So what does that make you?"
C: "Human."
B: "Come on, Chris, be honest. If you've murdered someone, that makes you a murderer. So if you've lied, what does that make you?"
C: "Okay. A liar."
B: "Have you ever stolen anything?"
C: "No."
B: "Even if it's something small?"
C: "Well, yeah, once."
B: "So what does that make you?"
C: "A thief."
B: "You know, the one that really got me, was, Jesus said, 'whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.' You ever done that?"
C: "Yeah, guilty."
B: "So Chris, by your own admission, you're a lying thief, and an adulterer at heart. And that's only three of the ten commandments. So if God judges you by those standards, do you honestly think you're gonna be innocent? Or guilty?"
C: "I guess I'd be guilty."
B: "Chris, that's the point."
C: "But what am I supposed to do? Get religious?"
OTHER GUY: "No, that's what we're trying to tell you. Jesus took your punishment when he died on the cross. That... God did that so you didn't have to go to Hell, that's how much He loves you. Eternal life is a gift, you don't have to do anything religious."
B: "I can't accept that."
There's one thing I want to highlight. Well, two: the feeble, "but anyway, Christ died for your sins" coda, which feels dramatically insincere and disconnected from the rest of the completely merciless and vicious rant, and reminds me of that great George Carlin bit, where he describes the unfathomable punishments that the right-wing God doles out to the unfaithful and imperfect, ending with "…but he loves you!"

The other thing is this exchange.
B: "So what does that make you?"
C: "Human."
Human. And in Macniven's delivery, that's not played as a feeble excuse by a defeated nonbeliever, or an uncertain attempt at countering Buck's flawless logic from a wavering doubter. It's defiant, it has a sting of insult and passion, and you can hear the part of the sentence he doesn't say, which is "but I don't suppose you'd know anything about that, ya damn robot". It's the most fleshy, most feeling moment in this whole terrible, boring, antiseptic and incompetent movie.

Now, I don't know shit about shit. I'm erratically a secular humanist, when I'm not in one of my more cynical moods (spoiler alert: Left Behind puts me in a cynical mood), so hearing Kirk Cameron and his car dealer's smile tell me that by virtue of having been born and subsequently gone through the life events that are part of being a person, I'm hopelessly corrupt and venal and I should be indescribably grateful that there exists a supernatural being willing to hold his nose and overlook the countless ways in which I'm lower than dirt, well, that kind of puts me in a little bit of a blood rage. But I don't count.

Thing is, being an American, I of course know a great many Christians (using the definition of "somebody who believes in the narrative of the New Testament Gospels, and subscribes to the moral teachings found in them"; to be fair, if we use LaHaye's definition of "Christian", then in fact I do not know any at all), and many of them are people who make mistakes and forgive others for making mistakes; people who can feel real, genuine love and friendship towards people they know to have had moral lapses in their life; people whose attitude would be better described as "it's okay, we can do better next time" than "oh, you better start praying for forgiveness right now, but don't expect me to help, because I don't want to be tainted by all your sinning". People whose Jesus is the one who stood in front a crowd to bless the peacemakers, the merciful, and the meek, not the Jesus who will never, ever forget about that one time you snuck a peak at the sexy neighbor wearing hardly any clothes on a hot summer day, and will make you feel like the scummiest piece of dogshit ever crapped onto a pristine lawn for the rest of eternity because you were so miserable as to be born with a set of genitals. I don't know where that Jesus is in the Bible; I haven't come close to reading the whole of the New Testament. But I'm sure he's in there, because the people who make and consume movies like this read the Bible literally, doncha know. Anyway, it seems hard to square that with the individual who, in his last hours on Earth, said regarding the men torturing him to death, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do". But I have a 0% chance of being saved anyway, so I really shouldn't be talking like I know more than Kirk fucking Cameron and Tim fucking LaHaye.

Sorry about the snark drying up back there. Some things don't deserve the respect of taking the time and energy to make jokes about them.