If you see just one thriller this year in which a climactic car chase is followed by the director-star breaking character to deliver a five-minute sermon straight into the camera — followed by three more minutes of Mike Huckabee leading viewers in prayer to accept Jesus into their hearts, before the end credits roll — then make it “Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist,” the latest in a series of apocalyptic films based on the bestselling Christian book series.
Although “Rise” is the sixth feature derived from dozens of rapture-iffic novels and spinoff novellas published under the “Left Behind” banner in the mid-’90s through mid-2000s, it’s the first in the film series to have Kevin Sorbo as a leading man as well as director. Where past installments were relatively coy about their evangelistic purpose, Sorbo opts to add a literal come-to-Jesus epilogue. You may recall that the last actor to portray heroic pilot Rayford Steele was Nicolas Cage, in 2014’s “Left Behind” (a reboot to which the new film serves as a direct sequel). Cage did not end his turn in the franchise by breaking the fourth wall for an altar call, something the actor’s fervent cult may now look at that as a missed opportunity.
Midway through “Rise of the Antichrist,” Sorbo’s Steele, a non-believer who’s finally starting to see the light, consults with pastor Bruce Barnes (Charles Andrew Payne) about a biblical prophecy that is about to come true, in the version of “pre-trib,” premillennial theology that first grew in popularity among many Christians in the 20th century. On a whiteboard, the minister — who got left behind because he was, at the time, a phony believer — addresses a prophetic question that the filmmakers consider important: whether the clock on the seven-year Great Tribulation starts with the Rapture, or whether it really won’t commence until a great temple is rebuilt on the Temple Dome in Jerusalem. Eschatalogically inquiring minds want to know.
This exact schedule of the protracted apocalypse isn’t really a major plot point, but it does get you thinking more about timelines, not just for the End Times but for film productions. Like: where in the heck are we in the chronology of “Left Behind” movies? Kirk Cameron starred in the first three films, starting in 2000 and ending with 2005’s “Left Behind: World at War,” before producer/co-writer Paul Lalonde, the only constant in all of the productions, started afresh with the 2014 remake of the original, starring Cage. (In between, there was a little-noticed 2016 spinoff, “Left Behind: Next Generation,” based on the 40 “Left Behind: The Kids” books.) The new sequel starts off six months after the events portrayed in the reboot, albeit with not a single cast member returning from the previous film.
In this sequel, we’re told the world is quickly going to hell, following the disappearance of all the world’s true Christians, although there’s not much filmic evidence of that beyond the sight of trash bags adrift in the streets on the rare occasions the Canadian shoot ventures outdoors. The chaos is established via CNN-style newscasts conducted by the film’s other leading man, chiseled, cocky TV anchor Cameron “Buck” Williams (Greg Perrow), who, having been established as the one principled newsman alive, starts looking into the nefarious forces trying to seduce and subject the United Nations and entire globe.
In real life, Sorbo is a polarizing enough personality that there could be a few non-evangelicals sneaking into showings for the purpose of a hate-watching. (The actor is so dedicated to right-wing trolling that, on release weekend, he made yet another sneering joke about the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi.) But anyone showing up in search of unintended laughs, because of his participation or because they have fond memories of snickering at no-budget Christ-sploitation movies like 1972’s “A Thief in the Night” at church camp, may be disappointed to find that “Rise of the Antichrist” rarely rises to pure camp.
It sports attractive lensing, dialogue that occasionally has a little snap to it, and even some decent directing of a few of the performances … including Sorbo’s own. That’s especially true in one nicely low-key, church-set scene where the actor performs alongside his real-life wife (Sam Sorbo, very good), both playing characters who lost their spouses in the rapture. His screen presence here has a naturalistic sweetness that feels at surprising odds with the snarky meanness of Sorbo’s social media persona as God’s Angry Man.
Much of the film is spent implicitly or explicitly painting the government’s and news media’s pandemic-era policies or reporting as hoaxes, establishing public fear or gullibility that provided a nice setup for Satan to really do his thing in end-times to come. (In this universe, there’s not even a Newsmax or an OAN left behind to question, let alone own, the libs.)
When the principal antagonist, in the form of Romanian big-wig Nicolae Carpathia (Bailey Chase), finally shows up for what amounts to only about 10 minutes of screen time, we know he’s the Antichrist because a thrilled television reporter tells viewers he’s getting the most enthusiastic greeting of anyone since Obama. (Boo, hiss.) Actually, Carpathia doesn’t appear to have any of the charisma expected of a guy who’s going to seduce the world; he resembles a much more hard-assed Ron DeSantis, crossed with a Bond villain.
One of the most obvious problems with how thin “Rise of the Antichrist” is on any kind of movie rapturousness is how it denies audiences from spending very many minutes with the guy in the title, or even secondary baddy Jonathan Stonogal (Neal McDonough, playing the leader of the world’s biggest social network, in a production filmed well before such a figure became a major hero to conservatives). The belief, probably, was that moviegoers’ eternal souls will benefit more from hanging with its godlier characters. It’s always easier to scare audiences with the sight of empty suits, after all, than to face the frightening prospect of coming up with a budget for the Battle of Armegeddon.