Nicolas Cage. Left Behind. Need I say more?
For the uninitiated, Left Behind is the iconic Rapture tale about how the world reacts after God scoops up the Saved souls, leaving the abandoned to face seven years of torment, the rise of Antichrist, and the eventual end of the world. Initially a popular book series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, it was converted into a renowned film trilogy (2000-2005) starring True Believer Kirk Cameron as reporter Buck Williams.
For this go around, lead character duties goes to Nicolas Cage as pilot Rayford Steele (played by Melrose Place’s Brad Johnson in the original) in the midst of a familial crisis because his wife Irene (Lea Thompson, Back to the Future) became born again for reasons not entirely made clear. Her renewed faith has driven a wedge between them, as well as between her and daughter Chloe (a fair Cassi Thomson, Cop Dog), a college student whose arguments against God comes from the Reddit atheist playbook. (E.g. “If God loves us, how can there be tsunamis?”) There’s also the younger son Raymie (Major Dodson, Revolution), doing what he can to bring “dweeb” back in the lexicon.
Although Chloe flew home to celebrate her father’s birthday, Rayford decided to take a six-hour flight to London (one with a surprising number of children on board, which must make for a fun experience in coach) instead of dealing with the stresses of home. The Kirk Cameron character is taken over by One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray, an investigative journalist who is smitten with the over-a-decade-his-junior Chloe and who is on Rayford’s flight. Murray ends up being a step down from the Growing Pains star, as he perpetually seems bored and distracted while he’s waiting to speak his next line.
It takes a long half hour for us to reach the money shot (people, including all the children in the world, finally being taken), and the movie barely picks up steam after that. The majority of the characters with speaking parts spend the entire running time stuck on the plane (and in first class at that) trying to figure out why a lot of passengers disappeared. (NOTE: Mysteries work best when the audience doesn’t know the solution.)
Along with Rayford and Williams, we also get Rayford’s potential mistress/stewardess Hattie (Nicky Whelan, Hall Pass), a knock off of Rich Texan from The Simpsons, and a little person with a chip on his shoulder (Martin Klebba, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). American Idol’s Jordin Sparks, whose name/presence is highlighted as a major selling point on the poster, plays a mother with a lost daughter who spends 80% of the movie whimpering before paraphrasing a monologue from Flightplan (2005) and going back to silence. With the plane unable to communicate with the outside world, the film tries to instill extra drama by having it rapidly losing fuel and needing a place to land thus turning it into a cheap knock off of the Airport movies.
This leaves poor Chloe Earthbound to wander around silently for most of the movie, watching pathetic-looking looting/rioting with her mouth agape acting against no one, as her mother and brother were raptured. Her biggest scene (until the plane-saving climax) involves going into a church and seeing its pastor Bruce Barnes (Lance E. Nicholas) who “survived” because although he preached, he never believed the words he was saying. Less than five minutes long, it’s a storyline and character far, far more interesting than anything else in the film. (I should also note here that it’s pitch black outside in all of the plane scenes but brightest day in almost all of Chloe’s scenes, even though they are happening concurrently.)
With this movie having a more respected pedigree than the original series, I actually thought the Left Behind reboot would have a more secular spin, like The Leftovers or This is the End. Not that the religious aspect of the Rapture would be abandoned entirely, but that Christianity would lay more in the background. Disappointingly, Left Behind tries to have it both ways, leading to a very disconcerting experience. As it says in the Bible, “no one can serve two Masters.”
One of the biggest, if not the only, strengths of religious movies is their belief in whatever it is they believe in. It does not cover up the considerable technical flaws, horrible screenwriting, or terrible acting, but the earnestness makes you treat it with a lighter touch. While it might sound condescending, faith keeps a lot of these films from being a fully despicable experience. Although Left Behind was written by Christian film veterans Paul Lalonde and John Patus (the original Left Behind movies), director Vic Armstrong (a stunt coordinator and assistant director with a career going back nearly 50 years, with connections to some of the biggest films of the past half century) doesn’t instill this movie with the necessary confidence in the Almighty.
Even with the horrid Christian rock soundtrack, there’s a lack of commitment to the premise that holds it back and leaves it lacking for both sides of the theological aisle. While the first, actually more engaging, Left Behind movie goes all in with the Antichrist subplot by having him taking over the UN by the end, this one seems to want to be more of a grounded character drama and revolves solely around the plane and Chloe immediately following the event. While admirable in concept, it doesn’t work when the characters are all one-dimensional and the main point of realization for them is a perfunctory “fine, God’s real, and He did this.” Take the leap of faith and bring on Damien.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
The question was never going to be whether Left Behind is a good movie, but whether it’s a good-bad movie. And it is, to some extent. There’s a lot of mockable moments (including the sub-SyFy-level CGI) with dialogue worth quoting for all the wrong reasons. (After being asked if he’s scared, Rayford answers “I will be. As soon as I have time.”). However, at 110 minutes with barely any plot developments, it’s about 20 minutes too long to be the catastrophic laugh fest you want it to be.