Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

Harold Camping, Christian founder of Family Radio, has predicted the rapture will occur this Saturday. What better way to celebrate the beginning of the end than watching one of my favorite documentaries from my youth/ I am talking about The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, a 1981 docudrama that chronicles the alleged predictions of French astrologer and physician Michele Nostradamas.

The film combines footage from obscure films, cheap new action scenes, and the occasional interview from “experts” like alleged psychic Jean Dixon to lay out a history of Nostradamus’ predictions, generally offering only wild interpretations of the famous quatrains to match them up with major historical events. But the docudrama is hosted with effective creepiness by the grave Orson Welles. The man can sell doomsday prophecies every bit as well as he can frozen peas. With nary a drop of alcohol present, I might add. He certainly had to be tanked when he agreed to star in this thing.

This is the fourth time I have sat through The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. The first time I watched it was in 1986 when it was one of those odd filler films Cinemax showed on two or three odd afternoons a month. At nine years old, I was already a budding history buff who was fascinated by the historical elements in the first half. But I was also a student at a fundamentalist Christian school which adhered to the bob Jones University favored pastime of constantly fretting over the Antichrist’s identity and his role as the harbinger of the end times. So the latter half of the film, which named events taking place in the far flung future of 1988 onward, were frighteningly mesmerizing. Ever notice how predictions of the future make the horrors of the past look like a dress rehearsal?

Fret not, boys and girls. Los Angeles was not destroyed by an earthquake in 1988. The antichrist did not arise out of the former Persia--Iran these days--to begin a 27 year war with the West beginning in 1994 that will be so devastating, much of the civilized world resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. One also must assume the united states and soviet union will not set aside their differences by 2021 to combine forces and defeat the Antichrist, either. We can only guess if the world will actually end in 3997 as predicted, but that is pretty close to when taylor sets off the nuke in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, so maybe.

Subsequent viewings by my older self have taken the youthful sting out of waiting for a bleak future in which iran is going to force me to eat my neighbor in order to survive a nuclear holocaust. These days, the latter half of the film has given way to a camp factor, particularly with Welles’ ominous delivery. The fan of dystopian science fiction still finds it amusing. While still incredulous over claims Nostradamus predicted the past any better than the future, I still find the historical bits every bit as interesting as the first time I watched the film.

One thing that strikes me is the heavy Christian overtones. It is not just my christian upbringing. Nostradamus allegedly refers to three Antichrists coming to power. They are said to be napoleon, Hitler, and this Persian, who will naturally be far worse than the previous. The final war will begin in the middle East as the Bible predicts, depending upon your prophetic leanings. Islam is predicted as a bitter enemy of Christianity. You cannot argue much with that these days. There will be a thousand years of peace, which mirrors the Pre-Millennialist concept of the Thousand Year Reign. All that to say I bet nothing like this film could be made today considering the Christian elements.

You may be recalling a remake of this film NBC did in 1991 right after the Gulf War. Hosted by Charlton Heston, it was otherwise a condensed version of the original with Welless taken out and new footage added to claim the 1988 Los angeles earthquake was meant to be the 1989 quake in san Francisco, and Saddam Hussein was the now toned down third Antichrist. The term Antichrist was dropped, as were references to Christianity and Islam so as not to offend anyone. The original is far more fun with its sincerity. Faked or not.

I recommend seeing The Man Who Saw Tomorrow for the total over the top cheese factor. It is made even funnier by Welles’ absolute sincerity. I am confident he was in it solely for the paycheck, but nevertheless, listen to him closely in the second half as he warns of terrible calamities far and wide. What you will not get is any serious scholarship on Nostradamus, so if that is what you are looking for, skip it. The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is pure Chariots of the Gods level comedy gold.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

(Cross posted, with minor style changes, to Eye of Polyphemus)

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