I grew up in the shadow of the preacher pulpit’s fire & brimstone. The end was near, and hellfire was waiting to consume me for my sins. I sat in Bible class and chapel where I was forbidden to wear pants (because as a girl, it would be considered going against my God-given gender) or allowed to mention any art, music, dance or literature that did not reflect the glory of God. One morning, my science teacher called me to the front of the class to apologize to my classmates and read a verse from 1 Corinthians. My sacred crime was vanity for cutting my hair.
It was during these fearful times that I was introduced to the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The series was all the rage on campus, since it was one of the few permissible titles outside the Good Book. The Left Behind series follow a group of compatriots after they missed the faith ticket to heaven known as the Rapture. The books read like fanciful Book of Revelation fan fiction, but they were taught in class with the solemnity of Shakespeare. Evangelical extraordinaire Kirk Cameron starred in the 2000 movie adaptation and its two subsequent sequels. We watched the first movie in Bible class, and I remember there being a post-screening quiz.
Fourteen years later, I’m watching the end of the world again. It probably takes less than 15 minutes for the first Bible verse to be thrown down at the feet of journalist Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray, in a strange beard that fluctuates in length and patches throughout the movie). Unlike in the first adaptation, Buck is second fiddle to adulterous pilot Raymond Steele (Nicolas Cage). He takes off for a sexy London romp (and U2 concert) with his mistress Hattie (an ineffective Nicky Whelan), leaving behind his born-again Christian wife (Lea Thompson), upset daughter Chloe (Cassi Thompson) and younger son. All’s well in domestic drama when the Rapture strikes, calling all the Christian believers and innocent children to the heavenly dance floor. Steele’s plane is only halfway to London when a fourth of his passengers disappear and chaos reigns in coach. Back on earth, his daughter frantically searches for her brother, who only moments before disappeared in her arms. All hell breaks loose.
The movie unravels in its own destruction. Every effort to milk the tragedy of the apocalypse is met with terrible music, acting and effects that soak (and drown) the pathos in camp fare. The sound levels felt out-of-whack and consist of all-Christian pop music, even in non-Christian’s cars. The effects are only a few notches above the low-budget details of Veggie Tales. In Left Behind, the plane looks straight out of a cheap training video, with the cockpit proportions incredibly out of proportion, and Capt. Steele’s cockpit controls resembling modified iPad minis. Houston, we have a problem.
Stuntman Vic Armstrong traded in his Indiana Jones fedora for a director’s chair, and the result is not pleasant. This movie foregoes nuance or subtly, preferring instead to broadcast every movie cliché you can conjure. Steele’s infidelity is revealed to the audience by the removal of his wedding ring, and before a character attempts suicide, of course the phone rings with intervention in the moment of truth, despite not having worked for hours before. The editing is shoddy, and the bouncing plot from plane problems to earthly woes is dizzying. More than once, the audio was out of sync, leaving characters speaking with no lip movement, and the continuity ruined from sloppiness. Who cares if Green Mountain Coffee gets a 20 minute ad out of Left Behind if by 45 minutes in, the movie grinds to crawling pace?
The movie keeps one of the ideals fundamentalists hold onto: that unless you believe in Jesus as your personal savior, there’s no chance of reaching the pearly gates. This xenophobic belief is repeated with the example of a devout Muslim on board the plane. Although he confronts other passenger’s racists beliefs (cringe-worthy post-9/11 attitudes preserved on film as anthropological record, if you will), the reason why he, a seemingly religious person, didn’t disappear with the rest is because his prophet of choice is Muhammad, not Jesus. This is almost as awful as the mean short guy character created merely to be an antagonistic sideshow or Jordin Sparks’ tantrum on her fellow passengers.
Left Behind is a disaster, and not because it’s based on an outdated interpretation of Revelations. It’s barely an improvement over the wooden Kirk Cameron vehicle with a larger budget of $16 million. Aside from Cage, who emerges at the end looking tired as we are, most of the other actors overreach their way through various emotions to varying degrees of failure. Little suggests any real technical skill behind the camera other than the ability to mind the lens cap. There’s no real sense of place, since that is the cleanest version of New York City (actually, Baton Rouge) ever committed to the screen. Plus, just like in the first Hobbit movie, you’ll have to return for the sight of big baddie Smaug—I mean, the antichrist.
For believers out there, the movie only holds a measly three mentions of Bible verses. The in-your-face Christianity of the first movie is watered down to appeal to secular audiences but then risks distancing the books’ loyal fan base. This movie with a mission cannot pretend to serve two audiences, secular and Christian. It’s a strange crisis of faith to have, one that the filmmakers should sort out before the next sequel. So sayeth the Lord in Revelations: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”
Director: Vic Armstrong
Writers: Jerry B. Jenkins, Tim LaHaye, Paul Lalonde, John Patus
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Lea Thompson, Cassi Thomson
Release Date: Oct. 3, 2014
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Brooklyn. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.