While distribution of The Record Keeper remains suspended by the General Conference, supporters joined members of the cast and crew for a screening of the web series in Portland on July 13.
When shown back-to-back, The Record Keeper's eleven episodes, originally intended to be released individually, become a two-hour film that imaginatively explores events and ideas in the Conflict of the Ages series from the perspective of angels. Larus is a fallen angel, among the one third who have followed “the General” in his rebellion. Cadan, though initially drawn to the General, has ultimately remained loyal to heaven and “the Prince,” and still hopes to persuade Larus. The film opens as another angel, Raina, a record keeper appointed to chronicle the events of the ongoing conflict, takes the unusual step of interviewing Larus and Caden together.
The Record Keeper is, save a few rough edges, visually impressive throughout. The steampunk costumes (think Victorian-era clothing with clockwork doodads and a heavy dose of whimsy) are fine work. These angels don't swish around in flowy white robes, and this departure from common portrayals is refreshing. The costumes convey the serene order of heaven when they're clean and pressed, and they become appropriately ripped, rumpled, and besmirched as the conflict progresses. The makeup work on the General's angels, most notably Mangkukulam and Manisilat, makes them look menacing, but the light eyeshadow and metallic powder a few of the minor unfallen angels get just makes them look silly. Perhaps this is a subtle reminder from the filmmakers that cosmetics are, after all, a tool of the devil.
In addition to some solid stunt work and parkour sequences, post-production visual effects are used to show the angels' superhuman abilities. Characters vanish and appear, teleporting from place to place. Lightning arcs from their palms. Evil angels telekinetically hurl tables, chairs, and each other about the room. Good angels rocket into the night sky to form the Star of Bethlehem.
Speaking to the audience before the film began, director Jason Satterlund mentioned that much of the remaining visual effects work unexpectedly became his sole responsibility when funding for the film's post-production was cut. This means that the effects are a mixed bag, quality-wise. A few looked unpolished, particularly on a large theater screen, but others wouldn't be out of place in a big-budget superhero film. When Cadan and friends zap out of Raina's office in heaven, zooming to Earth to protect Noah's family in the Ark, the sparks and swirling embers they leave behind look decidedly cool. Cool-looking angelic teleportation is, admittedly, not the most important element in an evangelistic film. Perhaps it's like high-quality scary artwork of prophetic beasts in traditional Adventist evangelism: not necessary, but it certainly can't hurt. Yet it's a shame that not all the visual effects could be completed as originally envisioned.
Like the costumes, the heaven set, consisting of Raina's office and adjacent corridors, has a steampunk aesthetic. Damask wall coverings, arched doorways and alcoves, checkered tile, and numerous intriguing mechanical contraptions make it an oddly beautiful visual treat. The fallen angels' spartan turf (which is never implied to be “hell”) is all angles and glass. Several of the exterior locations the filmmakers chose are stunning. The slot canyon setting of one of the episodes is particularly notable.
All these largely successful visuals are captured with skilled cinematography. In his introduction and during the post-film Q&A session, Satterlund had a lot of praise for The Record Keeper's cinematographer, Federico Verardi.
The actors in main roles give strong performances. JuneSoo Ham (Cadan) and Dennis Hill (Larus) have increasingly emotional interactions as their choices and the events of the Great Controversy pull them farther apart. Their character arcs are compelling. In one episode, Ayanna Berkshire (The Counselor) projects wisdom and authority in a uniquely challenging role. In another, Rigo Sanchez (Titan) conducts a genuinely chilling interrogation for the General. Gilberto Martin del Campo (Atlan) tries, as Raina's fastidious assistant, to keep everything running smoothly for her during increasingly chaotic times, creating some humorous moments. Lindsay Frame (Raina) is highly impressive as the Record Keeper herself. She brings as much to her scenes through subtle reactions in eyes and expression as she does when delivering her own lines. There are moments of weaker acting, but they are few. The overall standard is high.
The actors are aided by writing which exploresevents in the Conflict of the Ages series in fresh, imaginative ways. Each episode has a distinctive flavor—Satterlund describes one as an Ocean's 11-style heist and says the rapid-fire dialogue in another is like The West Wing in heaven. One episode, in which Cadan and Larus report to Raina separately after witnessing Christ's temptation, is particularly effective. Quick cuts between Cadan's and Larus's reports splice the two accounts together into a single narrative, revealing their conflicting perspectives in clever and insightful ways.
The writers play with languages, and the angels use twenty of them during the film, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Tagalog, Hebrew, and American Sign Language. Speaking after the film, Satterlund described this as an attempt to ensure that The Record Keeper isn't just an American story. The film reaches its polylingual highpoint when a representative from the General's Office of Displaced Persons barges into Raina's office and a “how-many-languages-do-you-know?” verbal battle ensues. The script is, at times, witty. The line that got the Portland audience laughing hardest comes, in a bold move by the writers, from the Holy Spirit.
One odd writing choice comes when the General (off-screen, as always) addresses the cosmos in a speech. He uses numerous lines from the Gettysburg Address, modified slightly or not at all. It's not clear how this fits within the logic of the film, since the General is supposedly delivering his speech thousands of years before Lincoln's birth, and it seems unlikely that the filmmakers are suggesting that Lincoln sought occult guidance as he prepared his remarks.
The Record Keeper has drawn a great deal of flak for playing fast and loose with Adventist theology by commenters who haven't seen it in its entirety, so it was surprising how many calculatedly orthodox theological points come up in a viewing of the entire film. Several are Adventist doctrines not shared with the majority of other Christians that one might not expect the filmmakers to address, even in a film inspired by the Conflict of the Ages series. At one point, Larus is commanded to appear to humans, impersonating a dead person. He questions why, and his superior explains the confusion and doubt that can be sown by an inaccurate view of the state of the dead. In another scene, Larus refuses to believe that the Prince has really come to Earth as a human, stating that his physical body must be some sort of illusory disguise. Cadan and Raina disagree. When a character demands that Raina grant access to her records, she replies that they are sealed until the appointed time, referring to the investigative judgment. These theological points are integrated into the film such that they don't jerk the story to a halt. The filmmakers clearly took the theological content of the film seriously.
That being said, the script does not call for the angels to spout theological formulae with every line of dialogue. When Larus, broken and confused after witnessing the crucifixion, cries out that he was expecting to be pardoned, Raina and Cadan don't break into an explication of the various theologically kosher models of the atonement. The Record Keeper would be a very different sort of film if they did—one that would not work nearly as well. Similarly broken and only slightly less confused, they say that the Prince's death “was the pardon.” Though this line is among those which members of the Biblical Research Institute (BRI) found wanting, it is both theologically and narratively appropriate at that point in the film. This is a script that would raise productive theological discussion among viewers, not confuse them into heresy.
Beyond that, the episodes were not planned to stand alone theologically. Satterund notes they were “to be used in 11-night evangelistic campaigns that lined up with the 11 chapters of [The Great Controversy]; the plan was to show an episode, preach a sermon on the theme of the episode to help clarify the theology of it, and invite people to one-on-one Bible studies, and then invite people to get baptized at the end of the series.” The Emmanuel-Brinklow Seventh-day Adventist church used The Record Keeper this way successfully.
In their document criticizing The Record Keeper, members of the BRI contend that “the power of evil and the violence that goes with it are predominant throughout the series, while the critically important message that 'God is love' hardly appears.” At least one generally enthusiastic reviewer who attended an earlier screening agrees this may be The Record Keeper's greatest fault. C. S. Lewis, reflecting on his book The Screwtape Letters, found a similar problem. He writes that he had “a sort of grudge” that it wasn't “a different book which no one could write.” Though he felt that Screwtape's demonic correspondence should be countered with letters written by an unfallen angel, Lewis dared not attempt to write them, since “every sentence would have to smell of heaven.” In his Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis notes how easy it is for writers to create convincing evil characters, such as Milton's Satan, who are worse than themselves. Such characters, he writes, are “always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives.” In Lewis's view it is nearly impossible, on the other hand, for anyone to successfully depict characters who have the “real high virtues”that few can consistently practice, since creating such characters requires us to “do what we cannot and become what we are not.” Those suggesting that writers Satterlund, Sigamoney, and Caldwell failed to portray strongly enough the perfect joy of heaven or the consummate goodness of unfallen angels may not have fully considered what they are demanding.
Even so, the filmmakers make a valiant effort to portray unportrayable good, and there are moments in The Record Keeper when they movingly succeed. Cadan and Larus regale Raina with a story of their former angelic hijinks, forgetting for a moment that they're on opposite sides of the Great Controversy. Raina confidently asserts that she is discerning because she has “spent a lifetime looking into the eyes of truth.” The Counselor, the film's depiction of the Holy Spirit, comforts a character who is weary and uncertain. Angels seem genuinely thrilled when God gives the Ten Commandments at Sinai, and they plot with righteous glee to ensure that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem goes as decreed. Satterlund suggests, “Perhaps, in an effort to make evil seem ugly, scary, and unappealing, not enough time was spent focusing on God's love.” But he also cites evangelists who have expressed that The Record Keeper makes no more missteps than the church's other evangelistic efforts. In any case, there are many bright moments in what has been described as a very dark film.
Regarding The Record Keeper's future, Satterlund says he will attend showings planned by others (several are in the works, internationally and stateside), but his focus is now on future projects. He has begun work on another story involving angels and spiritual themes, this time working independently. While the General Conference owns the rights to The Record Keeper and its characters, this new project will be internally consistent with The Record Keeper, taking place in the same storytelling universe so that Satterlund can integrate the two if he can ever obtains The Record Keeper's rights.
In the meantime, a useful evangelistic tool and an enjoyable, well-crafted, thought-provoking film languishes in the vaults of my church.
Caleb Rasmussen teaches sixth grade at Chico Oaks Adventist School. He lives in Paradise, CA with his wife, Launa, and daughter, Eden.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6149