Film Review: ‘Left Behind’

Nicolas Cage Left Behind

Nicolas Cage has rarely looked more miserable than in this dreadful update of an already dreadfully adapted faith-based property.

In what was surely a first in the annals of motion-picture marketing, an early ad for “Left Behind” featured a quote taken not from a film critic, but rather from Satan himself, who allegedly quipped, “Please do not bring unbelievers to this movie.” This presents a rare scenario in which Christian moviegoers ought to feel perfectly secure heeding the advice of the Devil, as this faith-based thriller is likely to inspire far more dorm-room drinking games than religious conversions. With a “Sharknado”-inspired visual style and a deeply weary lead performance from Nicolas Cage, “Left Behind” is cheap-looking, overwrought kitsch of the most unintentionally hilarious order, its eschatological bent representing its only real shot at box office redemption. The film hits theaters this weekend, but as for when believers can expect to see the tenets of their faith reflected with any sort of sophistication or intelligence in a mainstream genre film, we still know neither the day nor the hour.

Appropriately for a film about the Second Coming, this is not the first attempt to adapt Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ massively popular 16-novel series of biblically inspired speculative fiction (call it “Bi-fi,” perhaps). Back in 2001, a bargain-basement version starring Kirk Cameron limped in and out of theaters, followed by two direct-to-video sequels. With a considerably larger budget and wider release strategy, this year’s edition can expect to do better business, though it will have to put in a very strong showing to avoid becoming the alpha and the omega of the rebooted franchise.

Directed by Vic Armstrong, the screenplay by Paul Lalonde and John Patus substantially strips down the plot of the series’ first novel, zeroing in on three characters as they pass the first few confused hours following the Rapture, when all virtuous Christians are abruptly beamed up into heaven, leaving the unbelievers down below. Cage stars as a hotshot airline pilot named Rayford Steele (because “Jackbuick Ironmuscles” would have been too on-the-nose), who has just ditched his newly Christian wife (Lea Thompson) for the weekend to carry on with a flight attendant (Nicky Whelan), whom he plans to seduce at a U2 concert after a flight from New York to London. Ray’s daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is a dewy-eyed religious skeptic frustrated by her mother’s abrupt conversion and fed up with her absentee father. And investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray) meets cute with Chloe at the airport, managing to score her number before boarding Ray’s plane.

As soon as the plane is over the Atlantic, a slight jolt sees all the children onboard, as well as some scattered believers, vanish into thin air, leaving their clothes and possessions behind. Chloe, meanwhile, is at the mall when her younger brother goes missing, and must make her way on foot through the mildly unruly mob scene that has engulfed Long Island (unconvincingly played by Baton Rouge) to find her family. Sadly, the film never speculates on which U2 members, if any, were raptured from their London soundcheck.

From here, “Left Behind” toggles back and forth between the two scenes, typically using such phrases as “What is going on here?” and “I think I know what’s going on here!” as cues to cut. In the air, Ray struggles to deal with mechanical failures and the disappearance of his copilot, while passengers in the first-class cabin  including the fearless Williams, a fashionable drug addict, a kindly Muslim, an antagonistic little person, a bolo-clad Texas businessman, an Area 51 conspiracy theorist, and Jordin Sparks  bicker and kvetch. On the ground, Chloe does quite a lot of running and gasping, seemingly at a loss for how to fit herself into the story.

There’s nothing wrong with using the trappings of a disaster movie to attempt to spread a Christian message beyond the already converted, but “Left Behind” fails on several counts. Its spirituality manages to be both irritatingly sanctimonious and doctrinally vague; viewers who go into the film unfamiliar with the contentious Scriptural interpretations behind the series’ apocalyptic visions will leave scarcely better informed at the end. On a technical level, the pic’s touted $16 million production budget actually seems high considering what made it onscreen, with Armstrong’s leaden pacing and chintzy visual effects sapping the action sequences of all tension or believability.

One hesitates to dwell too much on the performances, given the material the actors have to work with, but there are several howlers throughout. Poor Sparks, so likable in 2012’s “Sparkle” remake, has a dramatic scene that’s so misjudged it’s difficult not to laugh. And as for Cage, he’s certainly been in worse movies than this, but he seems too cowed by the story’s religious underpinnings to embrace the crazy-eyed scenery consumption that helped make his late-career turns such guilty pleasures; here, he simply looks tired.

The issues with Cage’s performance may point to the biggest problem with the whole affair. There is nothing in the Scriptures that prohibits the good-natured enjoyment of schlocky B-movies, no reason faith-driven audiences can’t have a “Showgirls” or an “Army of Darkness” to call their own. Had the filmmakers embraced even a little bit of the plentiful camp value here, “Left Behind” at least could have been entertaining. As it stands, only the cheeky marketing person who thought to quote Satan in the film’s ads seems to have really understood what this pic’s proper tone should have been.

Film Review: 'Left Behind'

Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, Sept. 30, 2014. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Freestyle Releasing release of a Stoney Lake Entertainment presentation in association with Entertainment One and Olla Prods. Produced by Paul Lalonde, Michael Walker, Ed Clydesdale. Executive producers, Bill Busbice, Jason Hewitt, J. David Williams, Bryan Wright.

Crew

Directed by Vic Armstrong. Screenplay, Paul Lalonde, John Patus, from the novel by Tim LaHaye, Jerry B. Jenkins. Camera (color), Jack N. Green; editor, Michael J. Duthie; music, Jack Lenz; production designer, Stephen Altman; art director, Jeremy Woolsey; set decorator, Barbara Haberecht; costume designer, Abby O’Sullivan; sound (Dolby Surround 5.1), Mark LeBlanc; re-recording mixer, John W. Frost; visual effects supervisor, Matthew T. Lynn; assistant director, Artist W. Robinson; casting, Dean E. Fronk, Donald Paul Pemrick.

With

Nicolas Cage, Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thomson, Lea Thompson, Nicky Whelan, Jordin Sparks, Georgina Rawlings, Martin Klebba, Gary Grubbs, Lance E. Nichols, Alec Rayme.

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  1. Kenyaone says:

    Its brilliant. The theme takes over from the screenplay. Utterly thought provoking. It’s first film I’ve seen that shows what a will happen exactly as it’s written in Bible, no discussion, no appeals, no US special forces to the rescue. Just. It’s happened. Deal with it! No mercy, no wrath. Just bad luck. We didn’t make it. God is done with those left behind. They have to sort themselves out. Not easy when you realize 1. God and heaven are real and 2. You blew it. 3. Your kids are in heaven and they WON’T miss you. The ending is fantastic just as it will be.

  2. Jerry Cook says:

    After reading all of the other comments (including my own) I finally realized something I should have preceded my last comment with: None of us should forget the OPINION of the reviewer is just that; HIS OPINION!
    The same, of course can be said about every other comment here–they are OPINIONS (incuding my own) that are”flavored, if you, will by one’s own beliefs, and therefore should be treated as such–OPINIONS!

    I usually find reviews interesting when I have the opportunity to see the movie myself and form my own opinion——Until they begin to get biased, and especially derogatory. Come on people, can’t we just accept that movies are supposed to be entertaining and not life changing–that we can enjoy them for the story they (try?) to present and understand the reviewer is getting paid (usually) to present his opinion that may possibly be influenced by the person or group paying him to write his review?

  3. Jerry Cook says:

    I have now seen all 3 versions of this movie and am sad to say this is far from the best! I heard the entire audio book series, and enjoyed them. The first version of the movie with Kirk Cameron (as Buck), and real life wife as the stewardess was much closer to the book and much more entertaining.
    I do not claim to be a Christian, but am a believer in GOD and Jesus Christ.
    I also got to see the second installment of the book series but felt it drifted away from the book slightly.

  4. Jon says:

    It was the worst film I have ever had the misfortune to see, so bad I had to keep watching to see if it could get worse. It did. I am stunned, lost for words. All the amazing art humans can create, then there is this.

  5. Irene says:

    I’m an atheist who has noticed that a Christian movie can’t seem to get a positive review from Variety. At least this review doesn’t dwell on the fact that, yeah, the plot left some people behind, but it still seems the reviewer is too afraid to admit there were some wonderful aspects to this movie. He also collectively insults Christian movies in this same review! Movies with too much scripture run the risk of being boring. How many Americans are truly entirely unfamiliar with the concept? This is the first movie that has portrayed most atheists as likeable and only one as intolerable, to the point that he annoys the others. The college age girl, who we presume was raised atheist, is so sweet that I must admit I’ve never met an atheist college kid who was quite that sweet. This girl, presumably raised atheist, is trying to single-handedly hold together her family. I wanted to cry for her when Cage read her message in the ticket envelope: “this is the saddest day of my life”. It’s clever (and endearing) that the only reason she argues about religion with her mother is because it is chasing her father away, and that she still tries to hide any symptoms of family conflict (including any disrespect of her mother) from her little brother. Given the circumstances, I did figure suicide was unlikely for anyone to risk, so that part struck me as unrealistic. However, the special effects were excellent, bringing you into the anxiety, but I’m not sure why the author of this review thinks Nicholas Cage should be “crazy eyed” about the discovery that his wife was correct all along, and he has been left behind with his daughter and his fling (who is also an “innocent” atheist, unaware he is married). It’s true he could have shown more shock, but sadness and exhaustion is what you would expect after a day like what he suffered. I think it was intended to be a sad discovery, and too much action from him would have made it seem more comical. Another clever aspect is how the boy points out that their father thinks the pastor is “washing Mom’s brain” and that, sure enough, we discover that their mother’s pastor doesn’t personally believe what he is preaching. It is likely that skepticism that the father picked up on. He thought her pastor was a con artist. But I also liked how, when the pastor explains the situation to the daughter, she responds with “the God my mother told me about would never do that!” Apparently, her mother was so desperate to get the girl to convert that she candy coated the religion. This movie picked up at the point where most Americans are. Atheists rarely complain that nobody ever explained the concept of salvation and end times to them. This movie’s creators know that most of its audience has heard the story by now. I appreciated the Bible verse at the end reminding Christians that nobody knows when the end times are. I am an atheist, after all, but this verse helps protect Christians from fraudsters trying to steal their money by claiming they know. This movie had a great deal of emotion and sweet sentiment, and the atheists on the plane debating their theories regarding their predicament was funny. Admittedly, I’d probably do that, but I wouldn’t be the kind that scoffs at everyone else. Even I’ve noticed that some atheists answer every theory with “Come on! Can you believe this guy?”

  6. kelly gallagher says:

    I love all the comments, good or bad. As a pastor, I am interested in the fact that Nick Cage took this part even though I doubt he is a real believer. From the angry midget tossing to the ludicrous secret rapture concept, this movie is more humorous than an effective soul winning device, but it will stir debate.

    If I am wrong, I hope my pilots are atheists..wait..it won’t matter for me!

  7. Paula says:

    I saw the movie yesterday and loved it. Nicholas Cage was superb as well as the rest of the cast. I was on the edge of my seat, and even got goose bumps several times. I keep thinking about the powerful message and would love to see it again. I really enjoyed it. <3

  8. O.A. says:

    As an evangelical Christian, I think this review is extremely fair, and I agree with nearly all of it. It’s a shame that “The Apostle” and “The Passion of the Christ” are the only two good Christian movies.

  9. Reblogged this on Soontobeangel and commented:
    Incredible review from Variety’s Andrew Barker, a favorite critic of mine. Enjoy his loquacious wordplay and his on-point wit.

  10. Paula says:

    I have enjoyed all the left behind movies low budget or high budget. I look forward to seeing this Nick Cage version very much. However it appears to me that some folks just came here to mock Christianity and leave ignorant comments for their own benefit. Tell me this, if this had been a Muslim, Buddhist or any other faith based film , would everyone start bashing them? No they would not out of respect, but Christianity seems to be the only faith where everyone can disrespect it, bash it, and no one says a word. Why this double standard? I would encourage anyone to become open to the amazing word of God and start a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Blessings to all. †

    • Rex says:

      Are you serious, Paula? If any — I repeat ANY — Muslim, Buddhist or any other faith based film were as cheaply made and sanctimonious as the entire Left Behind series, yes, everyone WOULD start bashing them. Those religions don’t get free passes; why should Christianity? Bad movies deserve bad reviews. For some reason, Christians (and undoubtedly believers from all faiths) seem to think that ANY film that is simply reflective of their magical thinking should somehow automatically be above reproach, and that wil NEVER happen for religious films any more than it does for mainstream movies. If you’re so incenced at the widespread negative critical reaction to Left Behind, I’m sure there are other Christian movies that are given a more respect from secular AND religious critics because they EARN it by not a) preaching to the choir or b) trying to come off like big budget disaster epics on budgets that would barely cover the inevitable court costs of your average televangelist. There’s even some new flick out right now about a country singer or some such, and it’s been getting MILDLY favourable reviews. Hey, it’s a start, but movies like Left Behind will continually ensure that any Christian film (finally) worthy of being viewed by a greater non-Christian audience will simply stumble at the gate because everybody simply expects it to be another sermon barely in disguise.

  11. I almost did not see this movie based on the reviews. I’m glad I decided to see for myself because it was very good, true to the book, and the cast did a great job, especially Nicolas Cage.

  12. Dick says:

    Variety’s Andrew Barker (aka Snarknado) pontificates with disdain about a topic that is deep stuff to Christians worldwide. This is not a movie review, but an attack on the beliefs of hundreds of millions of Believers that those who do not willingly accept Jesus Christ as Savior will actually be left behind when others are “caught up together… and meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) The Rapture may be a lot of things, but it is neither sanctimonious or doctrinally vague.

    • Rex says:

      Oh, shut UP, Dick.

    • Dana W says:

      This movie is only entertaining to the converted, to the rest of us, its pathetic and sad, and a bit funny. The only people who can watch this movie without laughing or sleeping is evangelicals. The vast majority of Americans see it for what it is, silly ideas for crazy people.

  13. Ron says:

    You sir are a scared, pathetic, minuscule man. obviously running from anything dealing with your soon demise. You will pay one day sit. there is a. GOD!!!!!!!!

  14. rocky-o says:

    i’ve always liked nick cage and i had hoped this film would get, at least, better reviewed…who knows exactly what the box office will be like…the movie itself is interesting, simply in the fact that, throughout the series of ‘left behind’ books, the ‘hero’ of the story is buck, the reporter, and rayford the pilot is actually kind of a peripheral character..so why is it that the star, nick cage, is playng a basically minor role, or has the script flipped its ‘lead’ to the pilot rather than the reporter…i’d like to see this flick just to answer that question alone…but commentors are right when they say hollywood has lost all originality…reboots and remakes rule because they insist on hiring young writers who, for the most part, haven’t got a clue as to what they are doing there…i got a suggestion for them…stop hiring pre-puberty uninformed untalented writers and actors, and hire someone like me, who is not only a writer, but someone who actually was alive when good films were still being made…

    • Rex says:

      Dude, the Steele character was anything but peripheral in the first crappy Left Behind movie, so why would he be in this crappy one? Especially when you can get such a fine upstanding human being as Nic Cage to play him? But hey, if you wanna waste a ten-spot to “answer that question”, you go right ahead. ;-)

      And as I write this, the new crappy Left Behind is officially a turkey at the box office. But did anyone REALLY expect a different result?

    • raymond59 says:

      You’re right when you say that “….Hollywood has lost all originality…reboots and remakes rule because they insist on hiring young writers who, for the most part, haven’t got a clue as to what they are doing there…” One of mt favorite movies is the 1941 movie, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” which is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benét. This retelling of the classic German Faust tale is based on the short story “The Devil and Tom Walker”, written by Washington Irving. Benet’s version of the story centers on a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and is defended by Daniel Webster, a fictional version of the famous lawyer and orator. I can never get tired of watching that movie.

  15. raymond59 says:

    I’ll stick with the originial versions of the “Left Behind” series. Better acting, better Directed and Produced, and probably more close to the Book series. Personally, I don’t need a Hollywood copy-cat version. When Hollywood has to remakes of originial movies, you know that they have no new ideas for coming from the Writer’s Vault.

  16. Bob C. says:

    The intended audience will flock to this movie and have rapturous orgasms as it truly will be a religious experience for them. More sophisticated audiences will avoid it in droves and dismiss it as a joke. But it DOES fill a void for people who crave this kind of entertainment as it should be.

  17. DimoDammit says:

    Pretty sure everybody in U2 gets raptured except for that insufferable Bono.

  18. Well written. Thank you!

  19. Vic Armstrong has worked on movies since the 1960s and they have taken a total of well over $30 billion globally. Over 200 movies which have all made profit, big profit or giant big profit.
    Nicolas Cage is the biggest star in Asia in the past few years and his reputation outside the USA is higher than ever. He has become the new Jack Nicholson, Di Niro, Pacino, Bogart, Jimmy Stewart and Cagney. People watch the movie because Cage is in it.
    The reviewer misses the fact he is playing the role as written, just as he played a dying alcoholic to win an Oscar.
    Little hinges can control the biggest doors. Hollywood used to control global box office. In the 1990s over 80% was North America. Post Avatar (only 27% from North America) in the box office champ, Hollywood is stumped viz what the global box office wants because it is not what the small Hollywood circle wants. The values, beliefs, assumptions considered 100% normal in the small Hollywood circle are now totally out of whack with the North American customer base let alone the much bigger world market. People want to go out and see must-see movies on the big screen, but there are so few. Hollywood has lost its capacity to anticipate what people want and to understand their tastes including moral tastes. It will soon be time to switch the lights out on Hollywood as people leave rather than move to it, in an attempt to advance their career. Only the losers will be unable to leave and left behind,
    Sadly Variety – once a jewel in film review and film business news crown – will be among those left behind.
    It used to have its finger on the pulse and be trusted must-read but is now an uninformed, unreliable, unwilling to learn tired publication. Will the last one to leave kindly turn the lights out.

    • Rex says:

      Hey Jonathan, if the “values, beliefs, assumptions considered 100% normal in the small Hollywood circle are now totally out of whack with the North American customer base,” then WHY IS NO ONE GOING TO SEE ‘FROM BEHIND’ NOW THAT IT’S IN THEATERS? It’s officially a dud. Are you going to tell me that all those Christians like yourself who think film publications like Variety are unreliable and tired ACTUALLY LISTENED TO ALL THE HEATHEN REVIEWERS WHO CALLED ‘FROM BEHIND’ AS THE PIECE OF CRAP IT IS AND STAYED HOME??? That would never happen, would it? Get out there, pops, and start injecting your money!

    • H.M. says:

      You have just described your own version of a Variety & Hollywood ‘rapture’ Mr. Stuart-Brown. Can’t say that I didn’t find your fevered pitch entertaining. I can envision Martin Short for some reason saying this same manifesto you have as a character he would create. “Nic Cage is big in Asia!”. Does that mean they would be spared?

    • ChrisM says:

      With all due respect, having “worked on” well over 200 movies since the 1960 is not the same as having directed and/or been directly or creatively responsible for them having taken in billions of dollars. It is highly unlikely that anyone outside of Vic Armstrong’s family attended any of the Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman or other titles Mr. Armstrong “worked on” solely because of his involvement. “Left Behind” is, I believe, only Mr Armstrong’s second feature a the credited director with “Joshua Tree” being the first and a third one either currently in production or post-production. Taking nothing away from Armstrong is, even with well over 200 highly respectable credits to his name, to the general public at least, still virtually unknown as a director. This movie will not play well in many markets outside of the USA where the rapture is not a part of their religious beliefs. China is a huge non-Christian market were this movie, if it plays at all, will be handled as science fiction.

  20. Jeff Tanner says:

    The rapture is not a universally believed scenario in mainstream christian theology, be it Roman Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox circles. It IS a popular belief in many US protestant churches, so let’s keep the proper perspective on this. A final comment to anyone who is inclined to ridicule that they even decided to make a movie about LaHaye and Jenkins’ book, let’s see that “all-inclusive, open mindedness / I’m ok, you’re ok, we’re all ok” spirit you apply to the latest new age trends Hollyweird types gravitate to and stick to critiquing the actual movie instead.

  21. Albi Crass says:

    Please let’s not make “bi-fi” a thing. Please.

  22. luca says:

    Hahahahahahaha!

  23. guest says:

    typical review from typical hollyweird

  24. I hope all believers in the “Rapture” go to see this movie. At least it will give them a chance of experience their spiritual fantasies in a sort of vicarious way, maybe for a couple of hours. Then the movie will end, they’ll hopefully deposit their empty popcorn boxes in the trash rather then leaving them on the floor of the theater, and then they can go back to living in the REAL world.

    As for Nick Cage, I feel sorry for him. He’s done great work in the past. “Adaptation,” “Wild at Heart,” and especially “Raising Arizona” all come to mind. But it seems he’s hit rock bottom with THIS movie.

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