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Revelations (2005)
Directors: Lesli Linka Glatter, David Semel, and Lili Fini Zanuck

review by Alasdair Stuart
Spoiler Alert!
There's a certain morbid fascination with the apocalypse that transcends the traditional boundaries of science and religion. Bird flu, a rogue asteroid, the antichrist and WWIII all stem from the same basic combination of terror and fascination we have with the end of not just ourselves, but everything. It's this morbid curiosity that Revelations builds on; attempting to combine the scientific Armageddon and the religious end of days with mixed results.

As the TV mini-series opens, Doctor Richard Massey (Bill Pullman) is returning from South America where he's assisted in the arrest of Isaiah Haden (Michael Massee). A Satanist responsible for the murder of Massey's daughter, Haden is an articulate, plausible, charismatic psychopath and the antipathy of the ordered, rational universe that Massey thought he lived in.

At the same time, Sister Josepha Montafiore (Natasha McElhone), is in Mexico investigating a suspected miracle. A shadow of Christ on the cross has appeared on a mountainside, and Sister Josepha soon realises that not only is it real, but it has a greater meaning. The shadow is the first in a series of events, including everything from a ferry disaster with one miraculous infant survivor, to an eclipse of one of Saturn's moons that all point to one conclusion; the end of days is here. The war between heaven and hell has begun, and Sister Josepha and Dr Massey are caught in the middle of it.

On paper, this looks like a sure thing. The conflict between religion and science is a fascinating if emotive intellectual debate, that's been mined to tremendous effect by everyone from Richard Dawkins to the scriptwriters of The X-Files. As a result, the concept of throwing a woman who has given her life to the church together with a man whose entire life revolves around rational, quantifiable evidence is one that promises fireworks. Add the always reliable Pullman and McElhone, and what you should get is a firecracker of a series where personal values are as much at stake as the world itself.

The early episodes largely deliver on this promise too, revolving around a girl struck by lightning who has, despite being brain dead, begun to quote the bible, first in Latin, then in English. At the same time, Isaiah Haden begins building an army in prison, Massey's stepson is kidnapped by a pair of Haden's disciples, and Massey and Sister Jo struggle to come to terms with the fact that the second coming may already be on Earth. There's an almost Indiana Jones-ian quality to these episodes as the two hop from America to Greece to Italy and slowly discover exactly how far along the conflict actually is.

Unfortunately, these plot threads never quite coalesce and to make matters worse are soon joined by several more. An order of nuns who, somewhat implausibly, have been preparing for this for centuries, enter the fray, as does a mysterious bishop at the Vatican (oddly, played by Christopher Biggins), an equally mysterious rogue priest who may or may not be on the side of the angels, and a world peace conference that appears to have been prophesied in the bible. They're all interesting ideas and the idea of the Vatican being aware of, and quietly preparing for, the end of days has some small historical precedent (the Fatima prophecies and the stories surrounding them being a prime example) but they never actually go anywhere. Massey and Sister Jo spend half the three episodes travelling the world and they never seem to actually discover anything. Even the search for the second coming, the driving force behind the first few episodes, is relegated to a subplot in the final three instalments, and at one point it's all but impossible to work out who has the child, who has his mother and whether or not they're being held by the same people.

Even the main cast end up turning in distinctly uneven performances. Pullman, one of the best character actors of his generation, is almost sleepwalking here. Richard Massey is a man who has not only lost his daughter but has had his entire belief system, his entire worldview challenged. He should be reeling, confused, and angry at the world around him. Instead, Pullman seems to be disconnected from the world around him lacking any of the passion or emotion the role demands. By the time he's transformed into the instrument of God's will in a climax which is frankly incomprehensible (the heroes seem to fail completely, yet still, somehow, foil Haden's plans) there's no sense of acceptance, no sense of Massey changing his life and accepting his destiny, just two men fighting it out in a cavern which looks, for all the world, like a cast off from the Temple of Doom.

McElhone fares a little better, bringing her customary intelligence and compassion to the role. However, for all the constant references to how much of a maverick she is, Sister Jo remains the absolute epitome of the stereotypical horror-movie nun, quoting scripture left, right and centre, and proving utterly incapable of taking any physical action herself. The only moments where we get a hint of what Sister Jo could have been are a genuinely sweet exchange between her and Massey where she reveals that she'd like to wear something red instead of her normal habit, and a moment at the end of the second episode where Jo asks him how possible it would be to compare the DNA of the antichrist with the second coming. It's a fascinating idea and one that would have taken the series in a far more interesting direction than it ultimately goes.

And the rest of the cast fare little better. John Rhys-Davies serves no purpose other than to bring his usual gusto and presence to a role which is little more than an outlet for plot, Fionulla Flanagan does her best with an equally stereotypical Mother Superior, Tobin Bell is quietly impressive as Nathan Volk, Haden's attorney, whilst Massee as Haden manages to overcook the role as much Pullman undercooks his. The only other standouts are Mark Rendell who brings a fragile anger to Hawk that Massey is completely lacking and, surprisingly, Fred Durst. As blatant a piece of stunt casting as you'll ever see, the Limp Bizkit front-man has a great deal of fun as Ogden, one of Haden's disciples, bringing a quiet and jet-black sense of humour to a wafer-thin role.

For all its much-vaunted examination of the collision between science and religion, Revelations is in constant danger of being an extended polemic about the wonders of Christianity. Massey is revealed to be a lapsed Catholic, the only other religion that gets a look in, Greek Orthodox, is implied as being mercenary and capitalistic and perhaps most tellingly, the final episode is set entirely in the Holy Land. The charitable view of the scene where Haden's followers conceal themselves under burkhas is that it's the most logical disguise for the area. The uncharitable view is that this is a lumpen and profoundly offensive attack on Islam, the living embodiment of a cheap shot at a time where understanding, one of the central tenets of every religion, is needed more than ever.

Despite all these problems, Revelations is actually quite entertaining. It's well shot, moderately well placed and even at their worst, a cast like this is never less than watchable. However, by the time the final episode finishes you can't help but feel that the show would have been better served with one last script polish, several fewer plots and a shorter running time.
Revelations

Bill Pullman and Natasha McElhone in Revelations

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