The end is nigh (and profitable too)

It cost next to nothing and has no major stars. But is it a miracle that The Omega Code is the latest surprise movie hit?
On a recent Monday morning in Hollywood, the studio power-brokers were perusing the weekend box-office listings in the trade papers when they saw something so surprising that it had them all spluttering into their caffe e latte. Sneaking into the top 10 was a film that they had never heard of.

The Omega Code wasn't a movie showing at a multiplex anywhere near them. The production company, an outfit called Gener8Xion Entertainment, rang no bells, nor did the name of the distributor, Providence. The film hadn't been advertised through any recognised channels. There had been no press screenings, and no reviews. Yet there it was at No 10, having taken in more than $2m on its opening weekend from just 300 cinemas - the kind of per-screen average of which sleeper hits are made. What was this thing?

What it turned out to be was a fundamentalist Christian thriller about the end of the world, reworking the prophecies of Daniel and the Book of Revelations into a breathless piece of international political intrigue shot through with paranoid right-wing survivalism. And that was only the first strange thing about The Omega Code.

Contrary to what we might expect, its production values were top notch. It was not shot in some backwater in Idaho, but in locations as far apart as Los Angeles, Rome and Jerusalem. Somehow or other the producers had managed to persuade mainstream actors such as Michael York and Caspar Van Dien (star of the sci-fi fantasy Starship Troopers) to participate, in starring roles. Its budget - just over $7m - was more than twice that of the average independent production, and, to judge by the flashy, effects- filled result, it had been stretched most resourcefully.

The question all this posed was: who could be behind such an effort? The answer, it turned out, was beguilingly straightforward. The Omega Code had been sponsored and co-financed by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, the largest tele-evangelist outfit in the nation, with access to more than 550 channels and 83 million households. Christian fundamentalism is big business in America; for once, some of that power was being harnessed to herd the faithful into a multiplex rather than a church hall or a fundraising meeting.

If the movie wasn't promoted in the usual way - through mainstream television commercials, newspaper advertisements and junkets laid on for entertainment journalists - it was because there was no need to go to such expense. TBN merely pumped the film through its own broadcasts, starting while the film was still in production, and appealed for volunteers to spread the word from door to door. "The Omega Code is destined to be our greatest soul-winning film yet!" went the network's tease. "Take unsaved friends and loved ones to see The Omega Code!"

A month before the opening on 29 October, 100,000 posters were distributed on church notice boards and in congregants' front windows. A dedicated website received 500,000 hits on its first day. TBN channels showed footage of supporters buying up blocks of dozens of tickets, including church pastors who then distributed them to their congregation. Several showings on the first two weekends were booked a month or more in advance. To date the film has taken about $9m.

The Hollywood moguls have been marvelling how such an underground operation could have been mounted so effectively. The Omega Code's producer, Matt Crouch, has cunningly encouraged them to marvel even further, boasting that "we've identified a new consumer group that Hollywood, Wall Street and Madison Avenue don't know exists". But perhaps the more productive question the moguls should have asked themselves is: what took the fundamentalists so long?

It is not just a question of consumer power - although, with 75 million Americans describing themselves as Evangelical Christians, the market is undoubtedly there. It also has to do with the nature of the fundamentalists' beliefs. At the turn of the millennium, a vast subculture of theories about the "end times" and the Second Coming of Christ is thriving on the Internet and elsewhere. For years, thrillers about Doomsday have been appearing in novel form and generating extraordinarily high sales. There have even been occasional films, with titles including the words "apocalypse" and "revelation". Mainstream sensibilities have not been unaffected - indeed, the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster, End of Days, gives a profane, explosion-filled twist to the same basic material.

It is, of course, an irresistible subject. If you happen to believe in the literal truth of the Bible, the possibilities for interpretation - not to mention the sheer terror - of the many-headed beasts, plagues, symbols and trumpet-blasting angels of the Book of Revelations are almost endless. If you also believe that the world is being stifled by big government, that the United Nations is trying to take over the globe, and that Jesus's message of salvation is being savaged by abortion, divorce, homosexuality, free love and comingling of the races, the possibilities stretch even further.

By now, something of a stock formula for apocalyptic fiction has emerged. There has to be an upsurge in natural disasters - floods, earthquakes, tidal waves. Satan has to make his appearance on Earth, usually as the charismatic, thrustingly ambitious leader of a sinister one-world government. And there has to be an appealingly flawed hero, who feels tempted by the sins of the flesh, say, but quickly jumps back on to the straight and narrow as he realises that The Rapture - the ascension of all good Christian souls to Heaven - is coming.

Pat Robertson, the right-wing preacher and erstwhile presidential candidate, dabbled in the genre in his 1995 novel The End of the Age, which briefly outsold Michael Crichton. A series called Left Behind, now in its sixth instalment, has sold nearly 10 million copies thanks to the adventures of Rayford Steele, an airline pilot who valiantly resists having an affair with his favourite flight attendant in order to battle the anti-Christ, a slick Romanian who apparently looks like Robert Redford, speaks nine languages and is voted "sexiest man alive" by People magazine.

The Omega Code fits snugly into this tradition, with Michael York improbably playing Satan as a charismatic "chairman" of the European Union, and Caspar Van Dien doing a star turn as a writer of motivational books torn between his faltering marriage and his jet-setter schedule. There is also a female television presenter, played by Catherine Oxenburg, who somehow manages to host a day-time chat show in Los Angeles one minute and report live from terrorist outrages in Israel the next. Intriguingly, at one point we see the Temple of Solomon being blown up just off-camera; nobody appears to have told the screenwriters that the Romans completed that job in AD70 - one of the script's many glaring factual errors.

Among its absurdities, the film sets itself a hilariously insoluble problem, which is to depict absolute evil and the destruction of the physical world while eschewing sex, bad language, graphic violence and anything else that might be offensive to conservative family values. Another delicious irony, which The Omega Code shares with many apocalypse novels, is that though it supposedly deals with the end of the world, it leaves open the possibility of a sequel (Omega II is in fact already in development). The End may be Nigh, but as long as there is a willing audience it seems it won't be quite as Nigh as all that.

For evangelical Christians, such considerations pale next to the sheer excitement of having one of "their" movies out there in the multiplexes. Such reviews that have appeared - mainly on the Internet - have oozed approval. "This film is full of great values... There is a clear line of good versus evil and how choices can be made. Parents will love the fact there is no sex or language [sic] in this film."

One Internet site contributor adds: "It is evident the Lord has his hand on this picture. I went with many unbelievers and after seeing the movie they all said they were going home to look at their Bibles to find out about prophecy."

Such opinions, ultimately, matter far more than the smart-aleck sneering of intellectuals. The Omega Code has mostly played in rural Texas and Alabama, and in suburban malls. TBN certainly thinks it is on to a winner and promises much more of the same. "We've primed the pump," says Matt Crouch. It is, in one sense, an impeccable formula for mass-market film- making: the good go to heaven, and the bad burn in hell. Isn't that what fiction means?