When I was a churchgoing teenager, the Left Behind book series seemed like the most popular thing on the planet. Nearly every member of my church was reading the series – at the very least, nearly every member of the church had an opinion on the series. Many copies of each volume were kept in stock at the church library, and new copies were sold in the lobby. Sermons were preached incorporating lessons from the series, and kids too young to read the actual books devoured installments from Left Behind: The Kids. Granted, the series didn't have quite the impact on the world at large that it did within the walls of my church, but it's still one of the few pieces of Christian media to really gain widespread recognition across the pop culture landscape in recent years (several installments landed at #1 on the New York Times best-seller list).
I read the first few installments of the series, but a combination of my evolving worldview, increasingly sloppy writing and increasingly bloated storytelling drove me away. Despite some questionable philosophical content (never mind the theological content, which is hotly-debated even among tried-and-true believers), the early books were engaging page-turners that felt a whole lot closer to the works of popular mainstream writers than most Christian fiction. Alas, it didn't take long for the series to turn into a massive, overextended cash cow that produced all sorts of uninspired stuff. There were graphic novels, radio dramas, a couple of spin-off series (the aforementioned Left Behind: The Kids produced a whopping forty books), a laughably bad PC strategy game and a series of three poorly-reviewed movies starring Kirk Cameron. By the time the book series wrapped up, Left Behind was just another Christian entertainment brand synonymous with dumb, heavy-handed sermonizing.
Still, the entertainment industry is always hesitant to let a familiar brand go to waste, so it was determined that Left Behind would get a remake. With a bigger budget ($16 million in contrast to the original's $4 million) and a much bigger star (Nicholas Cage in contrast to Kirk Cameron), it was hoped that this would be the Left Behind that would actually capture some of the novel's pulpy thrills. Alas, what we wound up with is a movie that somehow feels even sloppier than the Cameron flick.
Cage plays the marvelously-named Rayford Steele, an airline pilot whose marriage has been a little strained lately. Rayford's wife Irene (Lea Thompson, Howard the Duck) has become deeply religious in recent days, which has been a source of frustration for both Rayford and his daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson, Switched at Birth). Meanwhile, Chloe has begun developing a friendship – and perhaps even more than that? - with esteemed TV newsman Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray, One Tree Hill). Then, it happens: midway through one of Rayford's flights, countless people just disappear – not only on the plane, but all around the world. Men, women, children... all sorts of folks (including Irene). As the world below erupts into chaos, Rayford and the remaining passengers attempt to figure out what happened. Is this a hallucination? Some sort of terrorist attack? Or... wait, could this be the rapture?
The idea of a Book of Revelation-inspired apocalyptic thriller starring Nicholas Cage sounds sort of amazing on paper, but it proves terminally dull in execution. There's a brief bit of chaos around the thirty-minute mark which sees mysterious disappearances, car crashes, plane crashes, bus crashes and mental crashes – but other than that, Left Behind is nothing but a sea of bland dialogue. The conversations you'll hear are an unsavory blend of faith-based preachiness and B-movie cliches. A sequel-teasing sample from the film's final act:
Character A: “Well, this is finally over.”
Character B: “Actually... this is just getting started.”
Cage's long history of wild, over-the-top, meme-ready performances have begun to define his reputation in recent years, but the real Cage is beginning to show signs of fatigue. He's found himself at the center of entirely too many cheap, formulaic thrillers lately, and he's seemed increasingly bored and disinterested in each of them. That's certainly the case here, as Cage quietly sighs his way through his lines, demonstrating a basic level of competence and nothing more. That's more than can be said for some of the members of the supporting cast, who tend to overplay each scene. The performances aren't helped by Vic Armstrong's sloppy, indifferent direction – this is one of those movies where many shots seem to last a couple seconds longer than they actually need to. Nor are they helped by the film's atrocious score, which overplays its hand just as eagerly as the actors (a triumphant brass fanfare accompanies the simple action of a plane taking off, probably because, hey, something's actually happening for a change).
Left Behind differs from your average Christian movie in some strange ways. This one seems less interested in preaching a message of salvation than in indulging a dark, faith-based revenge fantasy: “Okay, heathens, you're making fun of us now, but guess what happens to you while we're all in heaven?” Though the content is pretty tame by modern standards (there's no swearing or sex, and the violence is at the light end of the PG-13 rating), this is a dark movie which basically spends the majority of its running time pointing its finger at those who don't hold a very specific set of beliefs. The devout, kind-hearted Muslim who gets on his knees and shouts “Allahu Akbar!” when things start going crazy? Yeah, that guy's getting left behind. Chloe spends many of her scenes asking Theology 101 questions about how a merciful God can permit bad things to happen in the world. The movie – intentionally or otherwise – provides a simple answer: maybe God isn't actually that merciful. I suppose it's only natural that a movie about judgment day feels awfully judgmental.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA RATING: PG-13
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 2014