The Prodigal Planet

You can’t beat a good Christian end-times movie. Dated Hollywood tropes, Protestant moralization, myopic eschatology, Cold War paranoia all in one place. That’s The Prodigal Planet, finally available online.

The Prodigal Planet is the fourth and final installation in the ‘Thief in the Night’ film series. The first film, Thief in the Night (from where the series gets its name), was released in 1972 and was also arguably the first film of ‘Christian end times movie’ genre. Though low budget as a matter of course, the film’s release nonetheless incorporated elements of mainstream cinematic storytelling horror and suspense tropes to bring relevance to its fundamental message: that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is going to come to Earth “like a thief in the night” and bring all of his believers to Heaven—and you don’t want to be one of those ‘left behind.’ Thief in the Night and the other films that followed—A Distant Thunder (1978), Image of the Beast (1981), and The Prodigal Planet (1983)—all take place in this ‘post-Rapture’ world, and though all of the films are low budget, there is a clear directorial and narrative maturation that happens over the 11-year life of the series that is crystallized in the post-apocalyptic world of The Prodigal Planet.

Beyond its initial intention as an evangelical tool, The Prodigal Planet—along with the other ‘Thief in the Night’ films—is also the creative product of an erroneous but popularly accepted eschatological interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Furthermore, this particular mode of interpretation is itself reflective of the anxiety, mistrust, and cynicism engendered by the long, ambiguous years of the Cold War—and the requisite apocalyptic (and thus, spiritual) dread of an increasing ominous and secretive military economy which, through the manufacture and development of nuclear and chemical weapons, literally has the power to destroy the world; an anxiety theretofore unrealized by human consciousness. For this reason (and many others), the 1970s and early 1980s were a time of widespread spiritual upheaval, leading not only to a widespread Evangelical Christian revival, but also to the formation of other various apocalyptic communal and religious groups.

The first three ‘Thief in the Night’ movies—all filmed in Iowa—could be easily dismissed as mere Midwestern Christian propaganda. In fact, a drive down I-80 through Iowa will reveal dozens of barns and water towers still painted with similar come-to-Jesus messaging. But The Prodigal Planet, unlike the other movies in the series, is filmed and set in New Mexico—the heart of the American Military-Industrial Complex during the Cold War and the site of super-secretive weapons R&D and countless nuclear tests (see Nuclear Borderlands by Joseph Masco and Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico by Jake Kosek). The Prodigal Planet, in other words, makes no bones about its supposed Cold War hermeneutics.

The world in The Prodigal Planet is one dominated by the reign of the Antichrist. The world has been wrecked by nuclear war, and the film’s protagonist, David Michaels (played by William Welman, Jr. of ‘that guy’ TV-episode fame, like when he played ‘Delivery Man’ in the ‘How to Get Rid of Your Wife’ episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and so forth), is a former government employee now working for an underground Christian movement which is looking to thwart the Antichrist’s plans through vague, technological means (which only David Michaels has access to). The film follows David Michaels around as he encounters other underground agents, government soldiers, and ‘regular people’ who knew about Jesus Christ prior to the rapture, but never gave their lives to him—and now they’re paying the price. Murderous humanoid figures masked in monastic garb also present an ongoing threat, because the nuclear fallout has disfigured their bodies, ravished food supplies, and turned them into monstrous madmen. The film runs for 126 minutes and has a few moments of action punctuated by long, dark interior scenes that provide somewhat sinister backdrops for David Michaels’ guilt-ridden sermonettes, moral condemnations, and vocalized spiritual self-loathing.

I first encountered The Prodigal Planet and other Christian apocalyptic movies as a child growing up in an Evangelical Christian home. Neither of my parents had come from Christian homes, but had become Christians during the Evangelical revival of the 1970s; the same revival that partly inspired (and was inspired by) the first Thief in the Night movie. In turn, this was the religion I was raised with. My access to film, TV, and music was somewhat limited by the moral preferences of my parents, though many of the media distributed through Christian channels was fair game. For example, I have a vague recollection of my 7-year-old self spending an evening at a special mid-week church event (my family was at church multiple times per week) where attendees were encouraged to bring those ‘on the fence’ to learn more about ‘the Gospel.’ At this particular event, they screened The Prodigal Planet, and they followed the screening with a question and answer period. I had also seen VHS copies of the film at our local Christian bookstore, though they were marketed in such a way to encourage sharing and accessibility—as at the screening event I had attended.

Of course, at 7 years old, I had a wild imagination. Seeing the then-popular Christian theology of ‘the Rapture’ play out in a movie, frankly, scared the shit out of me. Not because the images, but because of what they implied: Hell on Earth. The idea of the Rapture is based on a highly problematic but well-accepted (and often disseminated) interpretation of the Book of Revelation, where it is supposed that in the last days of the Earth, God will call all of his people (those who have confessed Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior and Son of God) up to heaven, leaving the sinners, non-believers, and ‘lukewarm’ believers behind on Earth to fend for themselves without the morally balancing hand of The Holy Spirit around to moderate our human interactions. There is a lot of philosophical assumption and theological dogmatism tied up in this particular hermeneutic, but it’s far easier to heat your intellectual dinner in the microwave than it is to cook it from scratch.

As the years have gone on since the conclusion of the Thief in the Night series, the concepts and general production values of the films have dated them and rendered them largely useless as Evangelical tools (replaced, intermittently, by similar apocalyptic rehashings, as in the Left Behind and Omega Code series of Christian end times films). However, The Prodigal Planet has never been far from my critical purview, and a kind user at Vimeo.com recently uploaded all of the films in the series for some unstated purpose (probably curiosity, like me). As time goes on, however, I expect that The Prodigal Planet—and perhaps even its genre descendants—will either fade out entirely, or be logged as caricaturizing entries in a long history of Christian apocalyptic paranoia. This ‘fading out’ is already evident in the actual composition of the movie, which was shot on film—itself a non-permanent medium—aging gracefully into a grainy, antiquated texture. Digital conversions, like the kind uploaded on Vimeo, are direct VHS-to-digital transfers with no restoration of fidelity performed during the translation.

But with The Prodigal Planet, and other Christian cinematic tracts, the ‘message’ of the film is not contained in the image, but in its verbiage. It’s an extremely dialog-heavy narrative, which is just as suggestive of bad screenwriting as it is of supposedly effective sermonizing. Perhaps a film in a Christian context doesn’t need to have high production values, because it’s the word that matters (“In the beginning was the Word…”). Alternately, the excessive dialog could be compensatory—but even so, why and for what?

It is thus from the dialog where we can draw the ultimate message of the film: that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s the message of Evangelical Christianity in general, though the film gives the message immediacy by framing it in apocalyptic terms. And in the Cold War—and the latent nuclear threat of total annihilation—these apocalyptic terms weren’t merely science fiction tropes, but real and ignoble psychic threats. The film’s utilization of New Mexico as a backdrop and as landscape of the Antichrist’s totalitarian rule further reinforces this framing, which is just as fearful as it is ideological. In this world, Jesus comes for his followers “like a thief in the night,” which means that you need to choose Christ now, while you still can. If you wait, it might be too late, and you’ll live your life in fear, starvation, and on the run. Buy in now or forever hold your peace.

Additionally, if we consider the film as an evangelical aide, it’s clear that the film was made as a fulfillment of the Christian injunction to share the gospel of Christ (also known as ‘the Great Commission’). To have known the truth (that Jesus Christ is the Son of God) but not share it is as dire of a sin as any. The Prodigal Planet was not made to gross millions of dollars, but to save millions of people (the Wikipedia page on the Thief in the Night movie claims that the film has been seen by over 300 million people). Russ Doughten, writer of The Prodigal Planet, himself was also the founder of Mustard Seed International, a non-profit organization with a mission of translating Christian films into other languages for Evangelical purposes. Doughten, then, was likely no stranger to the perceived pressures of the Christian conception of the Great Commission, and that The Prodigal Planet is so deliberately sententious is reflective more of Christian duty (clarity of message) than of creative impulse (undervaluation of image and metaphor). In addition to the other Cold War, nuclear, and apocalyptic anxieties, there also seems to be a personal, spiritual anxiety here—am I doing what God has commanded me to do? (Surely Doughten didn’t also want to be ‘left behind.’)

This personal, spiritual anxiety constitutes the Evangelical charge that drove much of the resurgence of Christianity in the 1970s and early 1980s, where the Baby Boomer generation not only found themselves reacting to the supposed moral flippancy of 1960s America, but also to the spiritual nihilism and apocalyptic paranoia borne both by the failure of the Vietnam War and the apocalyptic omnipresence of the Cold War. Preach on.

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