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.
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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.