As that wrenching, liberating, and singularly chaotic era known as the 20th century draws to a close, it's only natural that people are starting to wonder what comes after it. And since one of the reasons pop culture exists is to give voice to a society's repressed fears and yearnings, it makes sense that the end of the millennium has finally found its way into the movies. The Rapture, an independently produced feature about a woman who becomes a fundamentalist Christian and commences her own private countdown to the end of the world, isn't a very good film, yet it has the audacious, from-the-gut spirit of a pop phenomenon. Whatever its flaws, it's the first true end-of-the-century movie, a zeitgeist morality play that rides the wave of religious faith that's been building in this country for more than a decade. The Rapture is genuinely original and genuinely gonzo: You may not believe a minute of it, but it's not every movie that dares to turn the Christian apocalypse into show biz.
When we first meet Sharon (Mimi Rogers), she's a Los Angeles telephone operator who hates her job and lives for her after-hours sexual adventures. She and her lover, a proudly kinky aristocratic slimeball (Patrick Bauchau), cruise the local lounges for couples to swap with. First-time writer-director Michael Tolkin creates a frankly sexy portrait of the swinger lifestyle, one that's bound to raise hackles among the Jerry Falwell set. Yet these early erotic encounters are also the most dramatically potent episodes in the film. If there's anything truly canny about The Rapture, it's the way the movie taps into the restless, addictive nature of contemporary urban existence. Mimi Rogers, in a remarkably accomplished performance, shows us how Sharon's boredom, her hunger for sex, and her submerged desire for human contact all grow out of the same jaded, desperate spirit. By framing the movie as the redemption of a believable modern ''sinner,'' Tolkin both anticipates and plays off our skepticism about religious faith.
Sharon overhears some of her coworkers murmuring about ''the pearl'' and other vague portents of the Rapture that moment, prophesied by some fundamentalist Christians, when the world ends and every person on earth is either saved or sent to hell. And just about overnight, she rejects the empty decadence of her life and acquires the blissful, righteous smile of a true believer. This, of course, is the central dramatic event of the film. Yet if there's any single human state that lies virtually beyond the reach of art, it's the internal experience of religious faith. The way that Sharon's conversion is presented as a consuming plunge into a new, transcendent consciousness it's difficult, if not impossible, for those of us who aren't fundamentalist Christians to feel a true, empathic bond with what she's going through. And so the film, almost by nature, shuts us out.
In the second half of The Rapture, Sharon abandons society and takes her little daughter out to the desert to await the coming of Christ. Dramatically, the air goes out of the film; it loses its few remaining links to the everyday. Yet even as Sharon's behavior comes to seem more and more remote and extreme (she commits one supremely shocking act), Tolkin unveils his wild card: The movie really is about the coming apocalypse. Mystical horsemen yes, those horsemen-gallop along the highway, the sky becomes dotted with shimmery saints, and the movie turns into a low-rent evangelical retread of Close Encounters.
The Rapture finally devolves into camp in much the same way the old Hollywood biblical epics did: It tries to evoke the sublimity of Christian deliverance with the most spectacularly literal-minded means imaginable namely, special effects and white light. Tolkin, to put it bluntly, is trying to film the unfilmable. Yet commercially speaking, his instincts could pay off. From its title on down (it sounds like a Sunday-school parable as delivered by Stephen King), The Rapture transforms the spiritual fervency of Christianity into a high-concept hook. The movie leaves you wondering whether Tolkin is a true believer or simply an opportunist. In truth, he may be a bit of both. For the most telling aspect of The Rapture is that Sharon, in the end, can't bring herself to forsake her earthly pride. Standing at the gates of purgatory, she is split, perhaps forever, between faith and doubt. That far more than the end of the world is something today's audiences can surely relate to. C+