Left Behind: The Movie (2000)
Kirk Cameron (Buck Williams), Brad Johnson (Rayford Steele), Janaya Stephens (Chloe Steele), Gordun Currie (Nicloae Carpathia)
“How do you describe both a beginning and an end? We should have known better, but we didn’t. What does it matter what we think we know? In the end there’s no denying the truth.” – Kirk Cameron, opening narration.
On October 3rd, that new movie about Nicolas Cage reacting to things is going to hit theaters like an out of control plane piloted by a crazed Italian-American film star. So far buzz is pretty low despite a trailer that looked five times better than Into the Storm and if you weren’t around in those dark days of 2000 you might wonder why that is. So you (hypothetical person who is disgustingly young and knows nothing of the world) have probably never heard of the Left Behind series.
Left Behind is a series of 16 books (Plus 40 young adult books and 7 spin-offs) by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins based around the (sort-of) biblical prophecy of the end times. This series spawned three straight-to-video movies produced by Cloud 10 Pictures (a Christian-themed indie company) and starred former child star and Crocoduck denier Kirk Cameron. This movie (as well as its sequels) is why nobody is happy to see the trailer for Left Behind with Nicolas Cage, no matter how not-awful it may look.
Now before we move on, let’s address the elephant in the room. The rapture has been a hot button issue in the last 14 or so years because the fundamentalist crowd have just gone absolutely nut-shit over the end times being upon us. The cultural upheaval over what’s called rapturephobia (by me, just now) is an interesting subject worth an article of its own but I’m a lowly movie reviewer and that’s above my pay grade. What you need to know is that rapturephobia caused a fire sale on Christianity that goes on to this day because everyone knows that the only thing separating a filthy non-believer from eternity at the Lord’s side rather than years of strife and suffering under the Antichrist is a smug passive-aggressive threat from a friend or family member. This call to action for the purpose of saving as many people as possible has kind of propelled the Left Behind series and its various tie-ins into fame and though that’s cooled down in the past 14 years, make no mistake that it’s still seen as a powerful piece of propaganda to Christian organizations nationwide.
As I said, I don’t want to talk about the cultural side of this beyond how it informs this movie because I’m looking at Left Behind as a pure form of entertainment as well as a social commentary on the world. We all know this movie is going to be preachy and the “it’s propaganda” argument is fair, but also intellectually dishonest if we’re looking at doomsday stories as entertainment. Here’s a little secret, they’re pretty much all propaganda. Nuclear war, robots, zombies, global warming, disease, overpopulation, these are all topics used by one writer or another to wag their finger at people who support nuclear energy, warmongering, destructive living practices, chemical warfare, or the desire to give a machine chainsaws for hands and a soul. And the rapture is a perfect doomsday scenario because even when we’ve all moved on from the message of these stories, the rapture remains rad as shit.
Just in case you weren’t raised Christian or tend to just tune your aunt out every Thanksgiving, the rapture involves the Abrahamic God calling all his believers home to sit at his side as the world goes to shit. The four horsemen (Death, War, George, and Ringo) sweep across the face of the earth and cause all kinds of vile things to happen, a charismatic bastard known as The Antichrist brings about peace and prosperity and elects himself God-Emperor of the human race, giant locusts with scorpion tails and humans faces boil from within the Earth, a gargantuan hippo thing and a fire-breathing sea dragon fight to the death (sometimes there’s a bird, too!), a star falls from the sky and poisons two-thirds of the drinking water, Jesus shows up and takes all the people who changed their minds, and then the world burns. That is metal as fuck; Ragnarok looks like the subject of a Simon and Garfunkel song compared to that. The rapture is an awesome apocalypse and its religious connotations only add a greater dramatic and thematic potential. Unfortunately, Left Behind is the On the Beach of rapture movies.
Our hero is Buck Williams: intrepid journalist and, in highschool, voted most likely to have his name precede “…the Adventure Begins” on the cover of something. Buck is in a tiny farming village in Israel doing a report on a scientist who has discovered a formula to feed the world (my guess is it’s this one) when hundreds of fighter jets appear out of nowhere and head to firebomb Jerusalem. Buck and the scientist run past goats into a half-collapsed building where they get in an elevator that leads to the war room from Dr. Strangelove. All the planes mysteriously blow up over the city despite the fact that nobody is shooting at them.
At the same time, half a world away, Rayford Steele (who is surprisingly not a grizzled 1940s private detective) prepares to leave for work. This is a source of contention to his family because he is an airline pilot and today is his son’s birthday party. After callously skipping out on his family, throwing his pastor some shade, and fighting with his wife, he cements his standing as a complete asshole by making out with his favorite stewardess mid-flight.
This is when the rapture happens and even though this movie has all the production values and overall quality of a Full Moon feature, it works exceedingly well. People frantically look for children and loved ones, fighting and shouting and just general chaos and confusion, it’s very upsetting and it’s a good way to kick off an apocalypse. Unfortunately there’s only about a total of 10 minutes of this kind of scene in the movie (even though it’s talked about throughout) which lends to a rather cozy-catastrophe sort of feel.
The movie gives up showing the on-the-ground struggles of people in this universe and instead focuses on Buck as he travels to the United Nations to unravel a conspiracy and the rise of the Antichrist. Meanwhile the movie takes an almost thirty minute sermon break. After Rayford returns home and finds his wife and son missing, he goes to the church and finds his un-raptured pastor giving a poorly acted expository argument with God about how he’s been left behind because “knowing isn’t believing” (Which is stupid because yes, it is) and then he and Rayford sit down and watch a tape that another pastor made to be watched in case the rapture happened. The pastor actually made and “in case of rapture, play” tape explaining everything to the audience/characters! Show, don’t tell! Something as disturbing as a bunch of people disappearing works better if there’s a bit of mystery to it and especially if the characters have no idea what’s going on. The audience knows when they’re being preached to and if they wanted to hear that message it would be moot because they would’ve already heard it in church.
That’s the major problem with Left Behind, it doesn’t know what audience it’s for. The express purpose of this is to be a propaganda to the “unsaved” but the lack of violence, language, or even baseline conflict for most of the movie is clearly intended for a Christian audience. The point of telling people about the rapture isn’t to remind Christians they’re on the right path, it’s to scare non-Christians into becoming Christians. Making this movie for Christian sensibilities isn’t propaganda, it’s a self-congratulatory circle jerk.
If schadenfreude was the purpose of Left Behind, then why all the pandering? An explanation of the situation is necessary for storytelling (somebody always has to show up and explain vampires even though the audience figured them out ages ago) but it feels the need to explain things that anyone raised around talk of the rapture should already know. This is why something like The Ten Commandments works better than something like Fireproof; it doesn’t pander to its audience or over-explain itself, it just focuses on telling a story and both sides of the audience enjoy it more as a result. For better or worse, 2014’s Left Behind seems to have eliminated these problems (if the trailer is any indication), and if that’s not an endorsement then the fact that author Tim LaHaye hates it should. “There is no redemptive value to this movie,” he continued, while acknowledging that “it’s got a lot of intrigue.”
Aside from a confused message and general bad writing, Left Behind suffers pacing problems. The rapture scenes are great and the finale where the Antichrist is revealed works quite well (even if he looks like a youth pastor and has a generic Eastern European bad-guy accent). The rapture happens toward the beginning and the Antichrist uses his force powers to confuse the masses at the end, but in-between it’s nothing more than literal sermonizing and Kirk Cameron taking 40 minutes to figure out who the bad guy is. That’s something the audience figures out the moment a character named Nicolae Carpathia is introduced. (Could there have been more of a blatant bad-guy name? Krieger Nastybastard? Moriarty Lucifersatan?) 80% of the story is a Sunday-school caliber character drama and a z-list political thriller plot.
When I set out to review this movie I figured one of two things was possible. Either Left Behind would be comically bad or offensively patronizing; but it actually almost manages to work in its own right as a pure form of entertainment until it’s hamstrung by its agenda, which is so tepid that the only emotion it made me feel was embarrassment for everyone involved. Left Behind is less some imposing pastor screaming Hell and brimstone scripture and more a shy child trying to get up the nerve to ask you to come to a revival. Its method of delivering its message at face value makes it a pretty worthless movie to start with, but its inability to work in its own context makes it a complete waste of everyone’s time.
Now, I know the obvious expectation is for me to review the next two movies in the series. I will do that at some point but I really need a break to watch something a bit more fun and I think it’ll be more entertaining for you guys if I stagger these instead of doing all three in a row. So next week will be about the furthest thing from Left Behind that I can come up with.
Left Behind is available on DVD and on Amazon instant video. It’s also available on Netflix.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Who was that… large cocked man?”