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NBC's 'Revelations': It's a Long Way To Armageddon

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C01

The least we can ask of the end of the world is that it be entertaining.

But lo, NBC has unleashed the armies of the night in a six-game tournament against the armies of the day, and "low" sums up the whole thing pretty well.

Bill Pullman plays a Harvard professor and Natascha McElhone is an overly fervent nun in NBC's "Revelations." (Larry Horricks -- NBC Universal)

That includes the quality of the production as well as the power of the experience. Although it's true that "Revelations" hippity-hops like mad around the globe -- from Mexico to Boston to the Adriatic Sea to Miami to dear old Harvard in 15 minutes or less -- you still may get the feeling that most of it was shot in Toronto, the way most of everything still tends to be.

Based on the last -- and wackiest -- book of the New Testament, "Revelations" finds screenwriter David Seltzer, the "Omen" guy himself, summoning up yet another Armageddon, though this time minus nifty touches such as Satan's personal pit bulls guarding a creepy old Italian cemetery. "The Omen" was trash but had a few dandy set pieces and production numbers, like poor David Warner getting his head sliced off by a runaway windowpane.

"Revelations," made by NBC in conjunction with Pariah (no kidding) Productions, will unfold over six weekly episodes starting tonight at 9 on Channel 4, with the implicit climax being that showdown of showdowns, a "High Noon" between Christ and Satan -- the ultimate Wrestlemania. Budget constraints being what they are, the parameters of battle are likely to be limited, however, and really now, how can a movie end with the world ending too? Like, if the world ended, then how could we be sitting there watching TV? The conclusion, in other words, seems a trifle foregone.

NBC isn't calling this a "miniseries" but rather a "six-hour event series," which gives the network the option of bringing it back weekly next fall. It's hard to imagine millions of viewers tuning in week after week to see the world not end. Then again, if they did, then that would probably be a reliable sign that the world really was about to end after all, though NBC wouldn't be around to count the profits.

Truly skillful writing and direction perhaps could finesse the implausibilities, major and minor, but "Revelations" is monotonously bombastic and overblown from the outset. Lightning appears to strike a little girl not just once but twice, the second time while she's on the limb of a tree to which the first strike hurled her. More tasteless still, a man plummets from the window of a skyscraper -- an image certain to recall and thus exploit the nightmarish horrors of 9/11.

Except for the painful immediacy of such images, the montage of a world gone mad that opens "Revelations" duplicates a sequence that began the first of Universal's three magnificently campy "Flash Gordon" serials back in the '30s -- mostly stock newsreel footage of riots and ship sinkings and so on. And so in seven decades we have come full circle, in a way; for NBC and Universal are now one, and still in the business of simulating the Big Bang for the Big Buck.

It was so much more fun when Buster Crabbe in his Speedo slew dragons and monsters while trying to resist the heaving bosom thrust his way by the daughter of Ming the Merciless. "Revelations," of course, with its repeated biblical quotations and allusions, has higher aims -- or does it?

Once all the punishingly noisy prefatory hullabaloo settles down, the essentials of the plot rise to the surface. The little daughter of the very practical and scientific Harvard professor Richard Massey (Bill Pullman, who earlier survived apocalypse in "Independence Day") has been killed by a vicious homicidal maniac named Isaiah Haden (Michael Massee, baring not just teeth but gums). Haden claims to be a harbinger of the world's grand finale, the End of Days, as Revelation calls it, and to prove his standing as an F.O.S. (Friend of Satan), Haden declares that although he may be cut, he will not bleed -- lopping off a finger and letting it plop bloodlessly to the floor to make his point.

Meanwhile, two other little girls figure in the unholy mess -- one who lies brain-dead in a Miami hospital but who suddenly begins chatting up a storm, drawing donkeys on a sketch pad and channeling Massey's late daughter. He's alerted to this by a dour, fanatical nun, Sister Josepha Montafiore, played overbearingly at every turn by Natascha McElhone. She corners the professor at Harvard and implores him to visit the chatty-Kathy living on instruments in Florida. He'll think about it.

"In the meantime," says Nutty the Nun, "might I be so bold as to make a suggestion?" This is one of those lines of dialogue a viewer feels compelled to complete himself: "Will somebody turn on the freakin' lights around here?!?" To hype the moody atmospherics, you see, director David Semel shoots nearly everything in the dankest dimness a camera will record. You'd think that in the nominal interest of realism, scenes set in hospitals would at least be lit brightly enough so that patients' faces, not to mention their other parts, could actually be seen by the naked eye.

Meanwhile, there are several more meanwhiles, one of them in the Adriatic Sea, where the third little girl pops out of the water as if hawking canned salmon. This child, it is strongly suggested, is the second virgin birth on record, the daughter of the Devil himself and ready -- presumably after growing up at an unusually rapid rate -- to lead his forces of evil against the forces of good.

Among biblical quotations, the script cites "Nation will rise up against nation, kingdom against kingdom." "Kingdom" is sometimes thought to be a synonym for giant international conglomerate -- like, say, Rupert Murdoch's Fox outfit or Time Warner's evil empire (or, for that matter, General Electric, owner of NBC). But, at least in Part 1, nobody floats that possibility. Hmmm, isn't that strange?

There's definitely, and probably always will be, an audience for speculative malarkey like "Revelations." But even these easily satisfied souls deserve better dialogue than "Clearly, the endgame for Earth has begun" and more credible performances all around. Then again, making Seltzer's script credible, however, is the kind of task from which even the greatest actor in the world would shrink.

"Revelations" hasn't one good revelation in it.

Revelations (one hour) airs at 9 tonight on Channel 4.

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