A plague upon thee, Swank

In 'The Reaping,' biblical plagues teach a small town a thing or two about heavenly wrath.

swank film 88 298 (photo credit: Paramount Pictures)
swank film 88 298
(photo credit: Paramount Pictures)
Cataclysms come and cataclysms go, but in the world of the Hollywood blockbuster, the Bible's Ten Plagues remain a regular event. The movie industry's been bringing rivers of blood and swarms of locusts to the big screen since at least 1923, when Cecil B. DeMille released his first take on The Ten Commandments - the second, more widely seen Charlton Heston version came out three decades later - and filmmakers' infatuation with the plagues continues to show no signs of letting up. Pessah 2007 at the movies will be no different than in many previous years, with Warner Brothers set to release another special effects showcase inspired by the Biblical drama. But the new film, which will arrive in American theaters April 5, differs from the traditional Exodus story in a number of ways. Set in Louisiana rather than Egypt, redemption in the new film, The Reaping, comes not for ancient Israelite slaves but for Katherine Viner, a lapsed Christian missionary played by Hilary Swank. After losing her family in a car accident years earlier, Viner has abandoned religion to the point of turning against it, devoting her life to debunking previously unexplained phenomena attributed to God. "I've investigated 48 'miraculous occurrences' [and found] 48 scientific explanations," the character says dismissively in the film's trailer. Viner's conviction in her own cynicism is soon shaken, however, after her arrival in a small Louisiana town that's been made somewhat less picturesque by a nearby river now running red with blood. Without a defiant Moses or recalcitrant pharaoh to blame, many of the townspeople are convinced that responsibility for the plagues lies with Loren, a demonically blonde local girl played by Anna Sophia Robb, whose previous film work includes turning into a blueberry in 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "Are you going to kill my baby?" the little girl's mother asks fearfully. "Why not?" Originally set for release at the end of last year, The Reaping hasn't been widely previewed and appears less theologically-minded than like a mish-mash of The Exorcist, the bug scenes in Indiana Jones and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (see Swank in a tank top, glistening with sweat, once the going gets tough). In the little advance publicity given the film so far, Warner Brothers seems to have targeted horror and sci-fi fans as the movie's potential audience, sending the film's stars and director to the Comic-Con comic book festival last summer in San Diego. But the film's actors and director haven't written off religious moviegoers either, speaking in interviews at Comic-Con about their take on the old religion-vs.-science debate. "Part of the story [was] about loss of faith, and about how, I think, sometimes fundamentalist thinking - whether it be moral, political or religious - is destructive," director Stephen Hopkins said in an interview. Whatever its theological ambitions may be, The Reaping will strike many film fans as an odd choice for the 32-year-old Swank, who won her second Oscar for best actress in 2005 and was seen teaching The Diary of Anne Frank to a class of underprivileged high school students earlier this year in Freedom Writers. The new movie may be an attempt to expand the Million Dollar Baby star's fan base and earning power, but success seems less than guaranteed after similar previous attempts - including the forgettable thrillers The Gift and The Core - fell flat. For now, however, the box office can wait. The Reaping may use a story about enslaved Jews as a means for redeeming a lapsed Christian, but its promotional Web site ( www.thereapingmovie.com) is already set up to help potential Israelite viewers get into the holiday spirit. Scan the left side of the page and you'll be able to "Send a Plague," a link that dispatches visitors to a second Web site located at www.aplagueuponyou.com. Once there, visitors can do a little pre-seder Hagadda reading ("And the LORD said to Moses . . . smite the dust of the land") before inflicting a plague or two on any Internet-savvy Egyptians in their e-mail address book. Victims receive a personalized e-mail message accompanied by animated images of one of the plagues. These being litigious times, however, visitors to the Web site are more constrained in conveying God's wrath than was Moses on the banks of the Nile. Warner Brothers is happy to help Reaping fans e-mail each other frogs, flies and hail, but as far as Death of the Firstborn is concerned - sorry, but you're on your own.