God Help Us 

Cheesy Omega Code sequel offers misguided righteousness at the worst of times

Cheesy Omega Code sequel offers misguided righteousness at the worst of times

Megiddo: Omega Code 2

Dir.: Brian Trenchard-Smith

PG-13

Now playing at area theaters

Several years ago, I came out of a record store to find a small booklet under my windshield wiper. It was a crude black-and-white religious tract in comic-book form. The story concerned a burly trucker who calls Jesus a sissy for turning the other cheek. Whoa bud, says a fellow driver, who, over a plate of truckstop chow, explains that the Savior was the toughest hombre ever—so tough he refused to use his godly powers. To clinch the point, there is a horrifying drawing of Christ flayed alive on the cross, his skin livid with slashes. Not only does the trucker reject his sinful ways, he roars off with “Jesus Saves” printed on his bumper.

The tract was the work of Jack T. Chick, a bizarre and singular figure in American cartooning. The story goes that in the 1950s, Chick, a devout former soldier and graphic artist for a SoCal aerospace firm, heard that Mao had successfully used comic books for communist indoctrination. Ping! Five hundred million copies later, Chick Publications is still cranking out lurid tracts that draw no distinction between celestial ends and gutter means. Chick comics are essentially horror comics in the Lord’s service, filled with sudden deaths and hellish terrors. Chick wins souls the way a traffic-school splatter flick converts teenagers to seat belts.

In many ways, Jack Chick is the forefather of a booming industry, the current Christian-apocalypse genre. In these recent novels and films—the best-selling Left Behind series, the Apocalypse videos, the original Omega Code movie—the wellspring is Revelations, the book of the Bible most likely to connect with an audience weaned on Stephen King. The object is literally to scare the hell out of readers and viewers with a litany of “prophetic” horrors, mostly concerning unease in the Middle East, imminent famine and catastrophe, and the coming of the Antichrist—inevitably as a TV smoothie, a humanitarian, a foreigner, or some combination thereof. The genre still delivers the same lowdown jolts and spectacle as secular shockers, only in the service of a purportedly spiritual message—much like the demonic-possession movies of the 1970s.

The difference is, these are essentially separatist entertainments pitched to an audience that feels disenfranchised by permissive pop culture. The Omega Code, the first film from the production arm of the Hendersonville-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, wasn’t advertised on network television or touted on Jay Leno. Instead, TBN relied upon Christian bookstores, radio stations, and Web sites to spread the word—along with its own ceaseless promos—and tickets were offered in blocks to church groups, the last audience Hollywood considers when making or marketing a film. The strategy worked. As a Sept. 11 New Yorker article noted, The Omega Code outgrossed every limited-release feature of 1999, from Boys Don’t Cry to Buena Vista Social Club. It didn’t matter that The Omega Code was poorly acted, technically shoddy, and made without an atom of grace or subtlety. What mattered was proving that the Christian film industry could ship and sell its own separate-but-equal versions of major-studio product.

With Megiddo: Omega Code 2, TBN has apparently realized its goal: It has produced the equal of any secular made-for-cable piece of junk. This shameless crock of Christploitation was released with true huckster zealotry to capitalize on its “topicality.” In truth, it’s about as relevant to current events as The Omen was to the Ford Administration.

The prequel/sequel follows the first movie’s villain, Stone Alexander (Michael York), from his neglected childhood as the son of a widowed television tycoon. Thanks to military school and a steady diet of the blood of his enemies, served unsmilingly by Udo Kier—here more or less reprising his role from Andy Warhol’s Dracula—Stone grows up to consolidate the world’s nations with the aid of his dad’s global media network. He exerts pressure on the U.S. of A. to knuckle under and surrender its sovereignty to this New World Order, while his good brother, David (Michael Biehn), the U.S. vice president, battles treason within his own ranks. Their paths converge in a final reckoning on the plains of Megiddo in the Holy Land.

That conflagration is depicted in 15 untoppable minutes of celluloid insanity, climaxing with a CGI-gargoyle Lucifer getting body-slammed by the Man Upstairs, as crowds around the world shield their eyes and gaze heavenward. I’d be laughing, except for the Crusades-level body count and the scenes of innocent Middle Easterners getting branded as terrorists and blasted by tanks—the one aspect of the movie that seems prophetic.

It would be easier to accept the sincerity of Megiddo’s message, if it weren’t so pushy about advancing its true agenda: the gosh-darn necessity of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Instead of following his dad into the television biz, David says he wants to do something that helps people. Say, Dave, doesn’t TV help people? “Not from what I’ve seen,” he smirks, “on the major networks.” Meanwhile, the Antichrist chortles over how network television turns people into sheep: “It practically does my work for me!” His 24-hour news channel, clearly meant to represent CNN, broadcasts nothing but Satan’s party line.

TBN apparently sees no irony in these broadsides against television conglomerates and the stupefied, unthinking viewers who accept their marching orders. The uneasy mission of contemporary Christian mass media is to subvert the subversion wrought by Madison Avenue and Hollywood and demon rock ’n’ roll. The evidence is in church signs that create their own ad slogans for God, changing “This Bud’s for you” to “This blood’s for you.” It’s in the weakest of contemporary Christian music, which copies Top 40’s already derivative alt-rock and bland melodies. But in imitation, all these things do is reinforce the dominance of hucksterism and commercialism instead of replacing them with something better.

So it’s depressing to watch Megiddo imitate some of the lamest swill mass entertainment has to offer. It has one of those Anglopudding casts that looks good on a box at Blockbuster, from Diane Venora as Stone’s bride to late-night cable stalwarts Franco Nero and R. Lee Ermey. All are professional enough not to look embarrassed, although York’s chipper Antichrist is a camp marvel. The director, Brian Trenchard-Smith (Leprechaun 4: In Space), treats his audience as dolts: When grade-schooler Stone emerges from behind a post as a strapping cadet, Trenchard-Smith helpfully provides the cue, “Ten Years Later.” Most tellingly, the violence is just as graphic and gory as in any mindless major-studio hack job, with blown-off limbs and burning bodies and a casualty rate that makes Starship Troopers look like My Dog Skip.

In a message posted on the Megiddo Web site, producer Matthew Crouch, son of TBN founder Paul Crouch, says that the movie deals with events that are “shockingly similar” to what America is undergoing. “Who could have foreseen,” he writes, “that it would be a motion picture that rallies the resiliency and determination of the American people in the midst of catastrophe?” Maybe so, but we can only hope it isn’t this movie—which portrays organized humanitarian efforts as the tool of the Antichrist. The message the movie unintentionally sends is to sit back and wait for the Apocalypse, rather than engage the problems of a flawed world. Cheesy and trite, Megiddo: Omega Code 2 was undoubtedly made by sincere, well-intentioned people with only the best of motives. But as we know far too well, scary things are sometimes done in the name of righteousness. Christians deserve better. So does everyone else.

—Jim Ridley

Style, no substance

In Ben Stiller’s auteurist comedy Zoolander, the actor plays a dim male supermodel named Derek Zoolander, who takes his profession so seriously that he gives names like “Blue Steel” to his camera-ready expressions. In the movie’s funniest moment, Zoolander and his male model roomies cruise through the streets of New York City bopping around like the sort of ecstatic consumers who pop up in soft drink commercials. When they stop for gas, they begin giddily spraying each other from the nozzle. And then one of them lights a cigarette.

That’s about the edgiest moment in Zoolander, which is an otherwise irrelevant spoof of the culture of talentless celebrities. The plot has Stiller’s genteel, thickheaded character dealing with up-and-coming rival Hansel (played by Owen Wilson with his typical laid-back aplomb) and trying to figure out his place in an international conspiracy involving male models being deployed as assassins. Saturday Night Live workhorse Will Ferrell mixes his standard “fey guy” with his standard “loudmouth guy” to play fashion designer Mugatu, who’s at the center of a plot to rub out the prime minister of Malaysia.

Stiller co-wrote and directed Zoolander, but he doesn’t seem to have anything personal invested in the project. He has a running gag about the string of “pre-show parties” and “after parties” that comprise the model’s life, but even though Stiller has been a fixture of just about every MTV and VH1 awards ceremony of the past five years, his riffs on idling showfolk aren’t all that insidery. And it would be a complete waste of time to feel for anything sharp in the film’s subplot, although it does provide a chuckle when Zoolander and Hansel continually mispronounce “Malaysia.”

Mostly, Zoolander recalls the recent Chris Rock vehicle Pootie Tang. Both were made by smart, funny people with more freedom than inspiration, and both would play best if edited down to about seven snappy minutes. And had Zoolander been given to someone else to write and direct—or had it been directed by the Stiller who made the savage The Cable Guy—then Stiller might’ve realized that it would’ve been funnier if he’d played the title character not as a simpleton, but as a variation on the semi-articulate, put-upon crank that he’s made his career playing.

That signature persona—which practically defines the turn-of-the-millennium, middle-class, 30-year-old white male—is the place from which Stiller’s comedy risks cutting to the bloody guts of a situation, and it’s where he gets the most laughs. All you need to know about Zoolander is that before its release, Stiller had his footage of the New York skyline digitally altered, to remove the World Trade Center, lest audiences see the towers and be shocked into reality. Beyond the unintentional disrespect that his choice shows toward the people who lived and died with the twin towers, Stiller’s stated desire not to offend also shows the level at which Zoolander is pitched. Here’s a movie that takes its story cues from clichéd spy thrillers and is set in a world of vapid egomaniacs, and the filmmaker doesn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable? Then what exactly is this movie for?

—Noel Murray

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