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Signs of the Apocalypse

The mini-series Revelations revives a bygone genre: spiritual thrillers that find horror in sin and science.

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Photograph courtesy of Larry Horricks/NBC.  

In spite of everything he knows about dust and chaos, about fluid dynamics and random chance, about bivalves, dinosaurs, comets, volcanoes, and 4 billion years of evolutionary scattershot, Harvard astrophysicist Richard Massey (Bill Pullman) is full of doubt and despair. Ever since the murder of his 12-year-old daughter by a satanic cultist, he has moped around Cambridge being rude to graduate students. No wonder he’s susceptible to the long-boned and Irish-brogue-y blandishments of Sister Josepha Montafiore (Natascha McElhone), a heat-seeking nun who wants him to decipher the automatic writing, in symbols as old as Galileo, by a little girl in a Miami hospital who is supposed to be brain-dead after she was struck by lightning.

Then there’s the remarkable coincidence that this message from a flatlined EKG features a stick drawing of a donkey, which insignia was a family joke between Dr. Massey and his daughter, a misheard corruption of Don Quixote. Except that in Revelations, a six-hour mini-series full of helium and woo-woo, there is no such thing as coincidence, randomness, chance, or jokes either. As we might have expected from writer-creator David Seltzer, who gave us The Omen, and executive producer Gavin Polone, who gave us Panic Room, there is instead a sort of diabolic hyperventilation. All of Harvard’s hard science will be Twilight Zoned. Miracles and monsters, the shadow of the cross on a mountainside in Mexico, and a baby floating in the Adriatic Sea; crop circles, organ harvests, suicide bombers, false prophets, famine, plague, and jet-stream turbulence—everything conspires at Armageddon’s advent, the End of Days, the Ultimate Smackdown.

For two months, we will be asked to follow Dr. Massey (with Pullman in the heroic cartoon blockhead mode he perfected as a fighter-pilot president in Independence Day) and Sister Josepha (with McElhone not quite letting us forget the sexy ghost she played in Solaris) as they scoot from Cambridge and Miami to the Greek island of Patmos, the holy haunts of Rome, and the Old City of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Since only the first hour of Revelations was available for preview, I can’t tell you whether, in Tiberias, the astrophysicist and the nun find the Miracle Baby they are pledged to protect from the Armies of Darkness, but it is hard to imagine any locale with a richer history of mystifications. Tiberias saw and survived not only a revolt of colonized Jews against Imperial Rome but subsequent invasions by Crusaders and Saladin. Whether its walls can stand the overacting of Michael Massee as a child-killing satanist is more problematic. So far, what we see are F/X magic tricks (all the passengers vanish from a commercial jet at 30,000 feet, evildoers seem to be telepathic, God speaks in extreme weather), what we hear is an orchestral swelling almost glandular (as if portentousness itself were about to explode), and what we are told is to run for our lives and our souls (lickety-split).

But I’m not here to proselytize or anathematize. I am here to wonder why, so long after we seemed to have recovered from our seventies-era fling with omens, exorcists, Rosemary’s babies, and similar species of Catholic porn, apocalyptic satanism is making a small-screen comeback. Revelations may feature a nun, but it depends even more, like such series as Point Pleasant and Medium, on Fundamentalist apprehensions of end-time and Protestant hopes for Rapture. Readers of The Da Vinci Code tend to stay home, behind closed doors, while readers of the “Left Behind” books, The Turner Diaries, and the science fiction of Newt Gingrich are loose in the streets: faith-based fruitbats policing the words in our mouths and the behaviors in our beds, while chasing evolution out of our schools.

The laziest explanations for this return of brimstone from the Old Testament and of Revelations from the New is a reelected government of true-believing born-agains and neocons, playing boom-boom in the erstwhile Holy Lands. But I blame the demise of The X-Files. Each troubled age embodies its own worst fears in devil worship or demonic possession: in Moloch, Minotaur, dragons, or a Sphinx. We were authorized by The X-Files to worry about aliens—big-eyed, sperm-sucking polliwogs from the same catalogue of sci-fi horrors as Triffids, Pods, and Blobs. But when Mulder disappeared, so did the threat from outer space. Who then was left to blame for our millennial heebie-jeebies, or to abuse for our cheap thrills, except Darwin, Harvard, stem cells, and secular humanists?

Revelations
NBC. Wednesdays, 9 P.M.
Premieres April 13.


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