Director Scott Stewart’s attempt to recast the birth of a Christ-like savior amidst an onslaught of pissed off, God-sent avenging angels recalls recent similar movies that, under various guises, recount apocalypses and Chosen Ones. Though there are moments of genuine awe – some computer-enhanced, some fight-choreographed – the film is striking without being resonant. There’s the good: Stewart and Peter Schink’s screenplay offers an intriguing premise that warms us about the consequences of our foibles (whatever they are, God’s not specific here); Stewart’s pacing is at-times energetic; and the head-to-head acting of the pro-human angel Michael (Paul Bettany) and the dark angel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) is nothing short of magnificent. And there’s the bad: the rest of the acting is uneven; one of the pivotal characters - Jeep Hanson (Lucas Black) - is poorly developed; and the parts that are meant to be adagio are limp and lifeless.
The movie’s set in Paradise Falls (a cliché meant to suggest Paradise Lost), a literally God-forsaken place in the middle of nowhere that’s meant to simulate a biblical desert. Years before, Bob Hanson (Dennis Quaid) speculated and bought a truck stop (gas station, garage, diner), thinking it would appreciate in value when the environs were developed. They weren’t. His wife dies prematurely, leaving Bob bitter and his son Jeep rudderless. Jeep is in love, unconditionally, with Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), a waitress impregnated maculately by some nameless guy.
On the fated day, the diner is as busy as it ever gets – not much - and thence appears the angel Michael, in a stolen an LAPD squad car (like Arnold’s Terminator, he came to Earth in the city of angels). He’s a renegade angel, defiant of a God who wants to exterminate the human race for their errant ways. He comes with every manner of heavy artillery and does his best to prepare the diner patrons (meant to symbolize human weakness) to battle against a slew of first, zombies, who quiver, coolly, with supersonic epileptic spasms and then action hero angel Gabriel, after which time all Hell breaks loose. But Michael’s not there to protect the world or even the people in the diner, he’s there to ensure that Charlie has her child because, yes, said child is going to resurrect the world.
Logic gets stretched. It doesn’t follow that an all-loving, infinitely patient God would undo his human experiment with his own winged warriors; wouldn’t that mandate come from below, from Beelzebub (and why didn’t he join in on the massacre?)? And why the first wave of attackers would consist of zombied humans who could easily be shot and not the jillions of bulletproof angels we saw in Michael’s flashback makes no sense. Nonetheless, the idea that God has sanctioned an unholy war is an awesome and unexpected one. Talk about being forsaken. And the battle scenes burble with biblical awe, as if we were watching enacted a science fiction rendering of a Renaissance painting that showed the world layered with heaven, earth, and hell.
With his British accent, steely eyes, and murderous demeanor, Bettany’s Michael proves an excellent shepherd/bodyguard. He’s complemented nicely by Durand’s Gabriel, who’s brash (and obedient to God) while Bettany is capable (and, here, radical). Their chemistry is pitch perfect. The rest are out of tune. Though Quaid has the best line of the movie (“ I don’t believe in God,” to which Michael responds, “That’s okay, He doesn’t believe in you, either.”), he’s an uneven, unsympathetic atheist. Though she’s about to give birth to mankind’s redeemer, Palicki’s Charlie doesn’t display enough gravity of anticipation. And, the biggest disappointment, Black’s Jeep, who’s to Charlie as Joseph was to Mary, comes across as a whiner who’s unconditionally sympathetic but resolutely unconvincing.