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Left Behind's Gross Miscalculation: Too Little Eschatology, Too Much Disaster

<i>Left Behind</i>'s Gross Miscalculation: Too Little Eschatology, Too Much Disaster

DVD Release Date: January 6, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 3, 2014
Rating: PG-13 for scenes of mayhem, destruction and disturbing images
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 110 min.
Director: Vic Armstrong
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Cassi Thomson, Chad Michael Murray, Lea Thompson, Jordin Sparks

For movie critics, there are only two types of movies: good and bad.

When it comes to reviewing "Christian movies"—films made by Christians, with a primarily Christian audience in mindthe same division applies. A Christian movie is either good or bad. There should be no double standards for such projects, no grading on a curve because of the film's message or the filmmaker's intentions.

Within that framework, most Christian movies I've seen—and I've seen many of them—rate "bad" rather than "good." Some might view that verdict as evidence of elitism, but Christian movies are, on an artistic level, no different than mainstream releases, most of which are also bad. Good movies, it would seem, are hard to find, no matter the audience they're hoping to attract.

The job of the critic is to point out what elements in a movie—any kind of movie—work well and which don't, helping readers to determine which stories are worth their time and money. In the case of Christian film production companies, which haven't been refining their craft as long as the major studios have, constructive criticism is, at its best, a help in pointing out areas where those studios' products can be improved. It does no one any favors—not the audience, and certainly not the makers of sub-par movies—to cheerlead for movies that don't deliver.

Which brings us to Left Behind, a project with the potential to bring together Christian and secular audiences for a memorable viewing experience. The Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins book on which the film is based is the first in a series of 16 novels that have sold more than 65 million copies—reaching well beyond the core religious readership interested in the book's Rapture-driven end-times theology.

However, this Left Behind is not a good movie—Christian or otherwise. A reboot of an earlier franchise that starred Kirk Cameron, this new attempt from producer Paul Lalonde (who co-wrote the screenplay for this adaptation as well as the previous Left Behind) has a $16 million budget (compared with a reported $3 million budget for original) and a major star (Nicolas Cage, Season of the Witch) taking over the lead role of pilot Ray Steele. But rather than a timely, relevant story, this Left Behind plays like a throwback to the 1970s, when disaster movies were all the rage. It's mainly an airplane-in-peril drama rather than a thoughtful treatment of the story's theological underpinnings.

Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson) flies home to surprise her dad, Ray (Cage), only to learn from her mom, Irene (Lea Thompson, Back to the Future), that Ray has been called into work. While waiting at the airport in hopes she'll cross paths with her pilot dad, Chloe meets Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, A Madea Christmas), a reporter who's waiting to board Ray's next flight.

The attractive Chloe and Buck seem to be on course for a romance, but Left Behind doesn't go that route, focusing on the romantic troubles of Ray instead. He's grown distant from his wife, whose fervent talk about God has also alienated Chloe.

"If she's going to run off with another man, why not Jesus?" speculates one character. But it's not only Irene who's flirting with the idea of running off with someone else. Ray is wooing a flight attendant (Nicky Whelan), and she's receptive to his flirtations. Things haven't progressed to the next level yet, but the flight attendant tells a co-worker that she's ready to take that step.

And then, in mid-flight, the Rapture occurs. People on the flight simply disappear, leaving behind their clothes and other material belongings (contrast to the way the lifeless bodies of saved souls remain below in another recent Rapture movie, The Remaining). The bewildered passengers still on the flight cry, scream and wonder what happened. One mother (Jordin Sparks, Sparkle) waves a gun at the other passengers and demands to know where her daughter is.

The chaos onboard is surpassed by bedlam on the ground below, as driverless cars and busses careen off overpasses, thieves rifle through the pockets of the clothes worn by those who have been raptured, and pilotless planes crash into parking lots. Ray's own co-pilot has been taken, and the plane is running out of fuel. Further complicating the situation, the nearest runways are cluttered and there's no way to clear a path for landing.

Just when all hope appears lost, a call from the cockpit makes it through to Chloe, who, in a scene that feels like an outtake from an old episode of CHiPs, hops on a motorcycle, tears across town, switches to a pickup truck before ending up in a construction vehicle, all in hopes of clearing a cluttered road for her dad to land his plane.

Although the plot has been streamlined for this new version of Left Behind, the idea of the Rapture is little more than a sketch. Ray slowly comes to terms with the reality of what Irene has been telling her family, and a pastor, professing his own previous unbelief (a trope this film shares with The Remaining), explains to Chloe that the Rapture is God's way of protecting his people from what's to come. Still, anyone without prior knowledge of the Bible's prophecies about the end times—not to mention the differing interpretations of such—is not going to find the film's Rapture explanations entirely coherent. The filmmakers have chosen to concentrate instead on the plane-in-peril narrative, giving Chloe and Ray relatively few moments to express their frustration with Irene's religious fervency—and to accept her vindication.

The casting of Cage gives the film star wattage and a familiar presence, but it's Chad Michael Murray who comes across as the most natural, engaging performer among the cast. The rest fare rather poorly. Cassi Thomson doesn't do much with the dialogue she's given, although she can't be held responsible for the last half hour of the film, which turns her into an action hero. Her character's behavior during the finale would look ridiculous coming from the most seasoned performers. Watching, you can't help but feel sorry for the actress.

Other casting decisions are more puzzling. The always appealing Lea Thompson is given few scenes before she vanishes. Although her character dominates discussion between Cassie and Ray throughout much of the film, such discussion isn't the same thing as the presence of a veteran actor onscreen, especially when many of the other performers do so little with their admittedly one-note roles. American Idol winner Sparks, for instance, is top-billed but says nothing for most of the film until one big scene in which she breaks down in front of the other passengers.

While those constraints keep the new Left Behind from ever rising above mediocrity, the film is, for a while, tolerable. Then comes a horrendous final 30 minutes, which play like a bad TV show. Theological quandaries, never given detailed exploration amid the confusion experienced by the passengers on Ray's plane, yield to stock disaster-movie tropes and an absurd finale. Although the filmmakers seem to think they've delivered a genuinely terrifying conclusion, the only frightening moment is an utterance from one surviving character: "I'm afraid this is just the beginning."

If so, let's hope the next chapter improves—dramatically.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: “Oh, God”; “suck”; discussion of a urinal
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: A flight passenger asks for scotch; a flight attendant plan’s to get Steele’s attention include a bottle of champagne; a woman tries to convince herself that the Rapture is just a “bad trip”
  • Sex/Nudity: None
  • Violence/Crime: After the Rapture, mayhem includes a driverless car crashing, man takes money from a purse, a plane hits a car and explodes, a bus drives off a bridge, a pilot-less plane clips the plane piloted by Steele, a man is shot by a robber who points his gun at Chloe; Chloe breaks hospital-door glass; a woman waves a gun at other passengers before turning it on herself; a woman comes close to taking her own life
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: A quote from Matthew 24; skeptical expressions about God and God’s love; Steele leaves his wedding ring in his car before a flight; Chloe tells Buck her mom is “wacko” because of her religious beliefs; Chloe’s mom says she’d been praying for Chloe to come home so they can talk; Chloe is angry with God; a character is a described as “a betting man”; a Muslim passenger says, “Allahu Akbar” and is later seen in a prayer posture; a sign stating “The End Is Near” has the “Near” crossed out and replaced with “Here”; framed, carved reminders to pray; a Bible appears to be marked with a piece of paper that has a list of people to pray for; a Bible is hurled; a pastor explains God has done just what He promised to do; Steele tells passengers that if they believe in prayer, “now would be the time”;  passengers pray together

Publication date: October 2, 2014