THE PROPHECY / GOD’S ARMY. Angels vs. angels
Certainly not an army. In Gregory Widen’s film, despite its military title, there are only a few angels, they’ve left their wings at home, and their weaponry too, replacing them with long coats. The great war in Heaven that we hear about is something we’re not allowed to see. Surprisingly modest in that regard, The Prophecy (or God’s Army in some European countries) deals with the bloody mission of the archangel Gabriel on Earth, but it resembles more of a Terminator than Paradise Lost. This didn’t stop the film from achieving cult status. Its merits, however, should be sought not in the framework of a chase film where an indestructible enemy pursues the main characters, but in the courage to use religion as a driving force for a B-movie plot.
In The Prophecy the angels opposing God, led by Gabriel (memorably played by Christopher Walken), decide to find the darkest of all human souls and use it in their battle. But the identity of the sought-after soul is discovered faster by Simon (Eric Stoltz) who is on the side of the Creator. He manages to hide the soul in the body of a young girl, protected by a former seminary student, now a police detective (Elias Koteas), and a small-town teacher (Virginia Madsen). Gabriel, who despises humanity, is on their trail.
As nonsensical as all of this may sound, the director of The Prophecy treats the material with full seriousness, skillfully avoiding the absurdity and kitsch that can often creep into such stories, especially for a debut director. Before he picked up the camera, Widen was known as the screenwriter of the original Highlander and Backdraft, two immensely popular films that were distinguished by their solid storytelling and unique execution. The Prophecy shares some similarities with Highlander, as it combines fantasy and mythology with the realities of the modern world. The characters in both films are nearly indestructible beings, and their presence on Earth raises existential questions. However, Highlander is a much more attractive and ambitious work with epic scope, while Widen’s directorial attempt clearly aims for smaller-scale filmmaking without sacrificing ambition.
What, then, is an angel? The voice of the Lord, carrying out God’s commands without questions or doubts, an instrument of punishment for sins, a protector of humans, or perhaps a being that only appears as a sign that there is something beyond earthly life? Widen reminds us of Lucifer, a fallen angel who rebelled against God and His love for humanity, and attributes this motivation to Gabriel. The former was cast into the abyss, and the latter seems to be heading in the same direction. It’s no wonder that Gabriel is portrayed as a destructive force, devoid of any scruples, calling humans “talking monkeys,” proud, jealous, and convinced of his own superiority. But at the same time, Gabriel cannot understand his place in Heaven, questioning his own existence and God’s decisions, which he cannot comprehend.
Christopher Walken, who portrays Gabriel, revels in his role, going all in with a performance that can captivate many. However, he also knows when to maintain gravitas, especially when confessing that God no longer speaks to him, bearing the weight of that revelation. Nonetheless, even in his role as an angel, he doesn’t measure up to humans. Even in the war they wage, they need a human soul, the worst one possible, to show them how to defeat their enemy. There’s an irony in this, even apparent to Gabriel. The cause of the conflict is a human, an object of God’s love, the most perfect being with a soul, but at the same time, capable of destroying, defiling, and committing heinous crimes. Gabriel aims to use a non-living war veteran, a war hero who skinned people and committed other heinous acts during the Korean War. We don’t know why Gabriel needs him, whether due to his savage nature, battlefield experience, or strategic acumen (the lack of knowledge is somewhat frustrating, just as the absence of insight into the war in Heaven or its underlying principles is). What is significant is that the angel will never surpass a human in being evil, and this is another reason to despise human beings. Not because they are immoral and unworthy of God’s adoration, but because of their potential for development, change, to become better or worse, without any limitations. Meanwhile, an angel is constrained.
This doesn’t mean that The Prophecy can’t surprise you. Gregory Widen cleverly constructs his non-human characters, having the morally ambiguous good guy Simon perform a rather controversial act by transferring the soul from one body to another through a “kiss” between an adult man and a little girl, regardless of its narrative justification. On the other hand, Lucifer prefers to help humans rather than witness Gabriel taking God’s place. “Two hells are one too many,” he explains, becoming a somewhat reluctant arbiter in the war between the angels. Viggo Mortensen is phenomenal in this role because he doesn’t shy away from portraying Lucifer as a genuinely evil character, with whom even the possibility of conversation seems like an insurmountable challenge for a human.
It’s a shame that the human characters in The Prophecy aren’t as fascinating as the angelic ones. Detective Thomas Dagget initially appears as the perfect foil to Gabriel – he’s lost his faith, and he doesn’t understand the “divine plan.” But after a while, his dilemmas are replaced by behavior fitting the standard action movie hero archetype. Katherine, the schoolteacher who tries to protect her student, faces a similar fate – apart from an attempt to blow up the evil archangel, her role in the story is quite marginal. Both Koteas and Madsen are underutilized, providing background not just for Walken, Mortensen, and Stoltz but even for Adam Goldberg and Amanda Plummer, who make cameo appearances as lively, assisting henchmen to Gabriel. This pair adds a lot of black humor to this surprisingly serious storyline.
Since the release of Widen’s debut in 1995, there have been four sequels, each seemingly worse than the last, as well as other genre films that freely draw from the biblical, specifically angelic, tradition (such as the irreverent Dogma, the comic book adaptation Constantine, or the bombastic Legion). However, The Prophecy remains an example of perhaps one of the most interesting depictions of celestial characters. It gives them a voice, motivation, and character, and it’s a shame that these angels, including Lucifer, haven’t received a better story. The title of the text comes from the film itself – the main character recalls words supposedly attributed to the Apostle Paul in the Holy Scriptures. In reality, those words cannot be found in the Bible, but it’s tempting to believe in them. Similarly, it’s the same with Widen’s angels. They probably don’t wear long coats, hunt children, and fight on the streets of a modern city, but it’s an intriguing thought that they, too, ponder their own existence.