This theme concerns messages (in the form of texts or oral legends, sometimes visions) that foretell happenings in the future. Almost always prophecies are cryptic in nature and foretell events in clouded reference and symbol. Often in fantasy stories, prophecies foretell the coming of a Chosen One that will come as saviour, a series of events that will occur or else items that need to be assembled in order to defeat the Big Bad of the show. In horror, there is often the theme of one who is predestined as a sacrificial victim.
Prophecy is also different to the theme Films About Clairvoyance and Precognition. The clairvoyance theme refers to people in the present who have visions that are able to foretell events in the short-term future. By contrast, prophecies are usually remnants from the past – a few years or decades to several hundred years and millennia or more – and concern events far into the future from the lifetime of the prophet. Clairvoyance films are usually focused around those having the prophecies whereas the films discussed here are about the unfolding of predictions.
Films dealing with prophecies of the Biblical apocalypse derived from the Book of Revelations concerning the coming of the Antichrist, The Rapture etc are so numerous they get their own theme under Films About Biblical End Times Prophecies.
Most depictions of prophecies are taken from real world examples. The two most famous examples of prophecy in the real world are The Book of Revelations in The Bible, which foretells the coming of the Anti-Christ, The Rapture and the end of the world. The other is the writings of Michel de Nostradamus (1503-66), the 16th Century prophet who wrote numerous cryptic verses that have been interpreted as predicting real world events. In more recent years, one could add the prophecies based on the Mayan long-count calendar that were interpreted to predict that the end of the world would occur in 2012.
In looking at the frequently crackpot writings that have emerged purporting to interpret these, one can see the pitfalls of prophecy in the real world – that prophecies only makes sense or seem to come true in hindsight. It is easy to see from past attempts to interpret prophecies – Biblical End Times prophets that have variously interpreted the Book of Revelations as referring to the Soviet Union, the EEC, Barack Obama; of various claims as to the date of The Rapture (when all true Christian believers would be bodily taken up to Heaven before the end of the world) that came and went without event; that the Mayans predicted the End of the World would occur in 2012; and that Nostradamus stated that nuclear war would break out in 1999 – that the very cryptic and symbolically wrapped nature of the prophecies leads to open-ended interpretation.
In most cases the interpreters are plain wrong or have conducted logical leaps and contortions to try and fit real world details of the moment to them. A perfectly good example is Jeane Dixon, the psychic who supposedly predicted the assassination of John F. Kennedy, interviewed by William Shatner in the documentary Mysteries of the Gods (1976) and claiming that Earth will be visited by aliens the following year.
To assert the sceptical point-of-view, one would state that it is not possible to predict the future, that any seeming successes are either coincidence or facts cherry-picked and made to fit events. No such misinterpretations or ambiguities ever seem present in the prophecies that appear in fiction.
In a side note, it is perhaps worth noting that the only films listed on this site that bear the word prophecy in the title have nothing at all to do with prophecy. Prophecy (1979) concerns a mutant bear, while The Prophecy (1995) and sequels concerns a war between angels.
There is little on film about real world prophets. Of these, Nostradamus occasionally turns up – we received a biopic Nostradamus (1994), which tried to argue he was a progressive thinker of his time, and an Orson Welles narrated documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981), while his severed head turns up in Man Without a Body (1957). The tv series Alias (2001-6) featured the hunt for the artifacts of the fictional prophet Milo Rambaldi, clearly modeled on Nostradamus, where his very detailed prophecies about events came true over the course of the series.
One work that does deal with religious prophecy is the Stephen King novel The Stand (1978), badly filmed twice for tv as The Stand (tv mini-series, 1994) and The Stand (2020-1), where the survivors of the apocalypse receive prophetic dreams that draw them between two camps, one led by an old woman who receives visions from God, and the other a demon for a final showdown in the ruins.
Prophecy is a common device in fantasy where a protagonist – frequently a visitor from another realm – will find that they have stepped into a foretold role as a Chosen One who is to redeem the world from the Big Bad. Prophecies are usually cryptic and refer to a series of happenings, some mark or sign that will show the denizens of the world how they will recognise the Chosen One (or else the rise of evil forces). Either that or a series of omens that will indicate the pathway or items that need to be assembled for good to triumph. Equally common are prophecies that exist as auguries and warn of dire consequences if certain things are not heeded.
Fantasy films in which prophecies feature include Watership Down (1978), The Beastmaster (1982), The Dark Crystal (1982), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Golden Child (1986), Willow (1988), Legend of the Overfiend (1989), Jason and the Argonauts (2000), Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2001), The Scorpion King (2002), Earthsea (2004), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Hercules (2005), Eragon (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), 300 (2007), The Secret of Moonacre (2008), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Age of the Dragons (2011), In the Name of the King: Two Worlds (2011), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013), Pan (2015) and The Last Dragonslayer (2016).
There are a lesser number of examples of prophecy in science-fiction with The Fifth Element (1997), Gandahar/Light Years (1988), The Matrix (1999), 10,000 B.C. (2008), Mutant Chronicles (2008), Dark Metropolis (2010), Planet Hulk (2010) and The Northlander (2016), although in these the talk of Chosen Ones and predestined saviours is no different from fantasy treatments.
The most notable example of prophecy related in science-fiction terms was Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory as appears in his Foundation novels, which ended up changed a great deal as the tv series Foundation (2021- ). Psychohistory is a fictional science that treats large populations (in this case of a galactic empire) mathematically allowing the very accurate prediction of socio-political behaviour thousands of years into the future.
Horror films often depict people (usually women) who are selected by some foretold sign as a chosen victim or perhaps to bear The Devil’s bride or presage the Devil’s rule on Earth. Examples of this appear in Santo vs the Vampire Women (1962), Servants of Twilight (1991) and The Initiation of Sarah (2006).
The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) is one of the most thematically substantial of these films about prophecy concerning a group of mediaevals travelling through time to the present to fulfill a vision that will deliver their village from the Black Death. Knowing (2009) concerns the opening of a time capsule from the 1950s that holds very accurate predictions of all major disasters since the 1950s.
In Life or Something Like It (2002), news reporter Angelina Jolie receives a prophecy she is going to die in seven days and is forced to revaluate her life. The Simian Line (2000) more routinely concerns prophecies about the future of relationships. A peculiar variant was Sex and Death 101 (2007) in which Simon Baker receives a list of all the women he will ever sleep with due to a heavenly bureaucratic error.
There is also a minor subset of films that deal with doomsday cults that everybody dismisses until the prophecies they follow start coming true as in Servants of Twilight (1991), Bless the Child (2000), Believers (2007), End of the Line (2007), The Reaping (2007), the Safe Haven episode of V/H/S/2 (2013), Where the Devil Hides (2014) and The Invitation (2015). Other films concern prophecies of imminent apocalypse as in 11: 11 (2004), The Fades (2011), The Last Man(s) on Earth (2012), Jeruzalem (2015) and Terminus (2015). Take Shelter (2011) concerns one man (Michael Shannon) who has prophetic visions of doom and the effects this has on the people around him who regard him as mad.
The notion of prophecy was roundly spoofed in Good Omens (2019) as well as Killer Tomatoes Eat France (1992). In a more unserious vein, both The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009) and Call Girl of Cthulhu (2014) feature girls with birthmarks sought by occultists for sacrificial rituals.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) depicts prophecies as being so numerous that a special archive has been created to house them all.
- Watership Down (1978)
- The Dark Crystal (1982)
- The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)
- Alias (tv series, 2001-6)
- Knowing (2009)
- Take Shelter (2011)
- Good Omens (2019)
A full list of titles can be found here Prophecy