Recent ads for the new Left Behind movie – about the Rapture and End Times – featured a quote attributed to Satan, exhorting people not to take nonbelievers to see it. If it weren’t already plain, this made Left Behind‘s intent clear – it isn’t meant as a fun film for faith-based families to enjoy, but rather a stealth evangelizing tool, aimed at…who? Fans of Nicolas Cage movies? Because speaking for myself as one of those, I can say we’re pretty far gone when it comes to knowing good from evil.
That said, it’s a much better film many times over than the 2000 version with Kirk Cameron…which is to say it’s still a slightly below-average movie. It’s a lot more subtle in its message – the Cameron version preached non-stop and in detail, while this new one only offers a vague message that believing in the Christian God is a good idea (a very kind, devout and peaceful Muslim character who prays to Allah is quite pointedly among those left behind, which is about as political as things get). The idea here, perhaps, is that it starts conversations about faith rather than bludgeoning you with an argument you aren’t permitted to challenge.
In order to make it a more conventional action movie, the entirety of the story involves the flight piloted by Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage) at the beginning of the first book, making it the equivalent of a Fellowship of the Ring movie in which the Hobbits never leave the Shire. Eat your heart out, Peter Jackson – the series already has 12 original books, 3 prequels, one additional sequel, and 40 young-adult spin-offs (given today’s market, I’m surprised they didn’t start with those instead). And they’ve made it so it’ll take at least two movies to do just the first book. TV would be a better forum for this franchise, except that nobody will ever fund it because it’s pretty terrible. Books are cheap to print; visualizing the apocalypse is expensive, and the bluescreens are showing their edges already.
Much of Left Behind feels dated – journalists can just walk into airplane cockpits, nobody in the general public actually knows what the Rapture is (in case you’re among them: God teleports the bodies of all the worthy faithful up to Heaven before the Antichrist shows up, leaving their clothes behind), and U2 tickets are considered desirable and hard to get. Meanwhile, assuming we’re following book continuity, nobody seems especially worried that Russia just tried to invade Israel and had their entire air force vaporized by God’s own magic Iron Dome (Russia being the baddies again would be more believable now than in 2000, but they’re unmentioned).
Director Vic Armstrong loves him some terrible sax-heavy score, and never really lets Cage run wild. Early in the movie, as Cage’s Ray speaks to his estranged daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson), you can literally see Cage waiting for his costar to do or say ANYTHING just so he can react; he even prompts her with an extra “What?” During the climactic third act, when it’s just him in the airplane cockpit with Chad Michael Murray’s Cameron “Buck” Williams (a zillion times better than Kirk Cameron in the same role, which is to say he’s okay), you can practically feel Cage’s relief to be with an actor genuinely capable of interacting with him. As Ray’s fundamentalist wife who’s naturally among the disappeared, Lea Thompson gives a great glazed look of the zealous recent convert; one suspects she’s in on the joke.
There’s intentional humor that sometimes works – little-person stuntman Martin Klebba, best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, plays an obnoxious gambler, while Han Soto plays a conspiracy theorist who’s convinced everything is due to aliens. Less intentional is the way Cage’s face is rather ineptly digitally pasted into various family photos, the fact that Long Island is in broad daylight while a plane three hours away is experiencing the middle of the night, or would-be tough guy lines like Ray’s response to the question of whether he’s scared: “I will be. As soon as I have time.” If you’re looking for Wicker Man-level lolz, though, keep looking.
I was hoping Cage would play antichrist figure Nicolae Carpathia – not only are their names similar, but Cage doing a Romanian accent would probably be fantastic. Alas, Satan never shows in this installment, nor do the extreme right-wing politics of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, who had the antichrist praise George Bush Sr. for starting the “New World Order.” The movie never becomes the full-blown caricature ironists want it to be, nor does it dissolve into a terrible sermon like its predecessor. It’s just mild entertainment that you can be okay with if your churchgoing grandparents insist upon putting on something Christian when you come to visit.