End of Days

Film * Peter Hyams * Y2Satan * 1999

Synopsis

Remember the Millennium? I suppose there are teenagers now who do not, which is upsetting. But for the rest of you, surely you remember how anticlimactic the whole thing was. Maybe it was just me. I was twenty, impatient for life to start happening, and all I wanted was the complete and utter collapse of Western Civilization. Really, was that too much to ask? Even then I knew the turning of the calendar from 1999 to 2000 was a meaningless gesture (save alerting you to which of your friends were irritating pedants who couldn’t wait to tell you the real millennium didn’t start until 2001). The global situation in 1999 was (outside of some far-flung local unrest in places that were definitely not California) incredibly, annoyingly stable. As a society, the best we could come up with to worry about was Y2K, which was stupid.

On the off chance that you’re a teenager, or an adult with a poor memory, Y2K was the lame-at-the-time apocalyptic scenario in which older computers wouldn’t be able to figure out how to roll the date over to the new millennium. The idea was that all the old mainframes which ran the government and big businesses and whatnot were programmed to only account for two digits of any given year. So when the year ticked over to 2000 all these computers would think it was 1900 and would stop working or explode or create a time-portal to send everyone back to the year 1900. I don’t actually remember the particulars because again, it was dumb. But it was what we had. There wasn’t any real crazy religious fervor, Jesus totally didn’t ride down on the back of a dragon to burn the agents of secular humanism to a righteous crisp, and the Anti-Christ wouldn’t be elected until eight years later according to Fox News.

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I get it, the devil is attractive. Jeez.

Basically, what we as a society had going for us heading into the distant future of the year 2000 was an utterly unlikely computer apocalypse and the movie End of Days. This film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in his post-True Lies/pre-governor phase, and while I like this movie, it is clear that many people do not. I suppose I understand, but on the other hand anyone who doesn’t like End of Days is a joyless buzzkill who hates fun. I mean, come on. It has Arnold trying to actually act, which is fun. It has Kevin Pollak in the Tom-Arnold-from-True Lies sidekick role, which is fun. It has Gabriel Byrne as Satan, who according to my wife is the hottest thing this side of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and is also something I’ve been hearing for fifteen years but whatever), which I guess is fun. There are many pointless explosions and a gratuitous action sequence featuring a helicopter. Also, speaking of gratuitous nonsense, if you’re in the mood for some rockin’ tits, End of Days will hook up you up with that too.

I suppose the problem is that End of Days seems to take itself seriously, which it probably shouldn’t. I can imagine Schwarzenegger looking over his previous work and wanting to prove to the world that he can actually act. He cannot and it was a mistake to try. In this film he plays a morose, suicidal, alcoholic ex-cop. He’s playing it straight and trying to be gritty and it’s like, nah man, this ain’t you. Arnie isn’t supposed be all busted up over the loss of his family and finding solace in the bottom of a bottle of cheap whisky. But here we are, so we may as well make the most of it. Meanwhile, Satan is back on the eve of the new millennium to wreak havoc and fulfill some arcane Biblical prophecy something something The Omen. In order to begin this new era of Satanic rule, he must knock up some girl. This girl, Christine York, has no idea she’s supposed to bang the devil, and is thus surprised when renegade Catholics show up to murder her to prevent the apocalypse. Lucky for her she reminds Arnold of his dead daughter. Or something.

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There is some excellent imagery in this film.

Discussion

Look, just because I like this movie doesn’t mean I’m going to go through much trouble to defend it. There’s elements of classic Schwarzenegger action mixed with gritty street scenes reminiscent of (better) movies like Se7en mixed with weird religious thrillers like Stigmata and The Prophecy, and none of it quite hangs together. But whatever because then Arnold fights Christine’s nanny and it looks like he’s beating up a hobbit and that’s pretty excellent. Then he murders some priests and that’s cool too. Of course this can only end in one way: Arnold must redeem his life by fighting Satan and saving the girl. In order to do this he must find his faith and pit his strength against the Dark Lord. In order to do this he must sacrifice himself, which he does. Satan explodes in a flurry of late-90’s, Buffy caliber CGI, and all is well. The end!

Okay, I just checked my word count and that’s not even close to my average. This means that I have to think of something else to talk about which is invoked by this film. It would probably help if I had any kind of religious background whatsoever, considering that this movie is mostly about Satan. Maybe that’s one of the reasons this works for me. I don’t have the background knowledge to worry about Biblical passages not being used correctly, or fuss over the depiction of Catholic apocrypha-as-canon or whatever it is religious people get up to when watching movies like this. On the other hand, when writing about the kind of events that can destroy/reinvent/supplant existing society, a pissed off fallen angel ushering in a new millennium of bloodshed and hell-on-earth is pretty low on my list of possibilities. Like, right after zombies pretty much.

That said, I do enjoy the vast amount of, for lack of a better term, lore involved with world religions. Look, I play a lot of video games and my favorite kind of game involves exploration and digging up weird, random bits of information about the world. Depending on the game, this mechanic can be the entire experience, or it can be a sort of meta-game for when I get bored of shooting aliens. If the developers are on their game, this lore can be well written and woven into the overall narrative to excellent effect. Some games go real deep. More often, it’s a half-assed attempt at padding out the game’s length. I bring this up because religious stories work in the same way. The source material is so old that countless people who are long dead and undocumented in history have had their hand in the process of transmission. You’ve got the Bible as your go-to source, obviously, but surrounding that thing? There’s commentary and scraps of information buried in ancient libraries and untranslated tablets and shit like that all over the place. It’s the real world equivalent of finding notes all over the environment for no reason. All told, it’s fertile ground for mythology and storytelling.

 

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Arnie is your God now.

On a personal level, I don’t understand faith and belief. Those synapses were never formed when I was young, and now I look at people praying and I’m just kind of confused. Like, those folks sure look like they’re feeling something, and there’s this whole human history thing where religions have dominated social progression and whatnot. Then I try and read the Bible, and it never goes well. A favorite line of atheists is “the Bible is a good book and nothing more,” but come on, it’s not even a good book. It’s uneven and dull and there is very little continuity. I prefer the side stories. Dante’s Inferno is an excellent example, as is Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both authors were of course intimately versed in the Bible and likely all the rituals, stories, and history that was available to them at the time. They use all this knowledge to create richly detailed, logical extrapolations of the supernatural. Lore, in other words.

End of Days relies on various religious tropes to evoke the threat of a demonic apocalypse. Catholicism, sure, but also secret commando Catholics who are sworn to defend the Lord… with extreme prejudice! The film juxtaposes lots of religious imagery and idolatry with gritty street scenes, which amplifies the idea of faith pervading human existence. Even in the postmodern grime of a modern American city one can find salvation if you know where to dig. In its own way, End of Days is working with your action movie comfort zone in order to make you more comfortable with our faith. Milton did the same thing when extrapolating lore from Biblical stories in an attempt to make faith more relatable and human. And now I’ve just compared End of Days to Paradise Lost. That probably won’t happen ever again.

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