God's Action Hero
With his passion for war zone news reporting and action hero’s name, journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron—remember him from Growing Pains?) seems destined for great things. And indeed, at the beginning of Left Behind, he finds himself in the middle of an amazing story, a story so momentous and planet-changing that at first he has trouble believing it.
But young Buck is out of the loop. The story he stumbles on—or rather, the story that stumbles on him—will actually be very familiar to readers of the Left Behind book series (and they are legion), as well as to readers of the Bible. It begins with the disappearance of millions of people around the world, vanished in the blink of any eye, while driving their cars, eating their dinners, watching their tvs, or, like Buck, taking an airplane. Those who remain can only wonder at the bizarre remains of their neighbors, parents, teachers, or people whom they happen to be sitting next to—sad little piles of emptied-out clothing, and maybe a wristwatch or a necklace. Where have they gone, all these suddenly gone folks? And what does it mean that everyone else has been left behind!?
These are the questions that drive Buck Williams—who fancies himself a relentless seeker of truth—through the rest of Left Behind, a Christian fundamentalist film styled as a grade-B sci-fi action thriller. It’s based on the first of eight books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a series that not incidentally sells like the proverbial hotcakes, 18 million books and counting (along the way, spending some weeks on the New York Times bestseller list). Now, the books’ success—unprecedented for a Christian series in the mainstream market—has led to equally impressive video sales. Vic Saren’s film of Left Behind, the very one that’s opening theatrically this weekend, was released on video by co-producers Cloud Ten Pictures (based in Ontario, Canada and headed by brother Peter and Paul Lalonde) and Namesake Entertainment (Kentucky) last October. By the beginning of November it was the number two video seller, just behind Toy Story 2, and this at $22-$33 per video, more than double the cost of the typical priced-to-sell video release.
Following on the heels of Providence Entertainment’s successful grass-roots marketing campaigns for its theatrical releases (1999’s The Omega Code and Revelation), the Lalondes’ plans are looking even more ambitious: they hope to open the film in 2500 theaters on February 2 (some 2200 more than The Omega Code), and so unleash a Christian blockbuster, proving to Hollywood bottom-liners and infidels that Christian entertainment has an audience who will put their money where their mouths are. The idea is unusual, to say the least. It’s something of a given in the movie industry that you don’t release a film to video and then take it to theaters, after everyone has already had a chance to watch it in the comfort of their own homes, etc. But here the thinking appears to be that viewers who loved the film so much that they bought it will be willing to schlep out to theaters—and bring their loved ones along—in order to support the cause, or, at the least, to enjoy the full impact of the film on a big screen.
The problem—which appears to be irrelevant to viewers’ support for the video, at least—is that this full impact is rather weak. The plot unfolds as you might expect, with Buck seeking answers and finding them, not believing them quite at first, and then, finally, coming to an understanding that the Biblical end times are coming to pass and that only believers will be saved. Lucky for Buck, several secondary characters appear to help him on his journey.
Looming tallest is square-jawed airline pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson), on whose jet Buck is riding when the trouble begins. Rayford has his own baggage, most strikingly his lack of commitment to the Bible and to his family, manifested in his recent adultery with a flight attendant, Hattie (Chelsea Noble, who happens to be the real life Mrs. Kirk Cameron). When things go zooey, Rayford heads on home to find his wife’s pajamas in a little body-less pile in the bed, set off by her shiny gold crucifix. His son is also gone, but his rebellious teenage daughter Chloe (Janaya Stephens) is full of rage and resistance. Rayford realizes that his dedicated, vanished Christian wife has been right all these years, and helps his daughter to see this as well.
And oh yes, Buck too. Somehow he’s included in this domestic drama, along with a convenient instructor they know, someone who can cite chapter and verse, as they say—one Pastor Barnes (Clarence Gilyard, whom you’ll know as Chuck Norris’ loyal, cowboy-hat-wearing sidekick on Walker, Texas Ranger). With his new understanding, Buck is almost ready to proceed with the rest of what appears to be his mission, involving a microdisk containing information vital to the evil forces that will prevail at end times, something to do with engineering food supplies and ruling the world. Buck ends up at the United Nations, where he confronts the Anti-Christ Himself, Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), who shows off some fearsome mind-control powers, alarming Buck and opening the door for the sequel.
Buck’s capacity to be alarmed makes him a useful hero; after all, if he had all the answers, he wouldn’t be leading you on this particular journey. And so, his learning curve becomes yours, except that you’re likely to be ahead of him at every step. Then again, this doesn’t appear to matter.