Though faith-based movies did a lot of business at the box office in 2014, Christian groups are still struggling to find their blockbuster thriller. This kind of thriller is one that isn’t just a small-scale drama specifically about Christianity; in short, there has yet to be a Christian movie that does what Hollywood does. (Hollywood, in turn, seems happy to abdicate a sizable chunk of the small-scale drama business to religious groups.) Less widely seen than purportedly smaller movies like God’s Not Dead or Son of God (a feature cut together from TV miniseries footage), Left Behind comes closer than most — and in doing so, only seems further from a real movie, in its own weird way.
The studio execs responsible for Left Behind hired Nicolas Cage, not so long ago a bankable movie star, and director Vic Armstrong, who in a very specific context looks like a big Hollywood guy. Armstrong has coordinated stunts for James Bond, Steven Spielberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others; he’s also served as second-unit director on movies like Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man. Together, they manage to make a movie that looks and sounds significantly lower-rent than even the other low-rent thrillers Cage has been doing lately.
Films based on the popular series of Left Behind books were first released in the early ’00s. The first entry, which shares some plot details with the new version, came out on DVD in 2000 before receiving a limited theatrical release in 2001. The 2014 edition simplifies the story to center primarily on a commercial flight piloted by Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage), who is married to Irene (Lea Thompson) but teetering on the brink of an affair with a flight attendant — and teetering on the brink of being discovered by his daughter Chloe (Nicky Wheelan). Before she realizes what may be happening, Chloe and Ray have a sad talk at the airport about how Irene’s religion has made their relationships with her difficult. This scene would be a touching moment if the movie didn’t turn out to consider both of them secularists who don’t understand.
That lack of understanding on the part of the filmmakers and the screenwriter that leaves Ray flummoxed when, during the flight, some of the plane’s passengers vanish into thin air, leaving their clothes and possessions behind. At its core, this is actually a potent thriller premise, worthy of investigation by Mulder and Scully, or perhaps Liam Neeson. But by following Chloe’s own uncomprehending investigation on the ground, the movie both treats the rapture as a given and a mystery, seamlessly merging faith-based and skeptical/heathen audiences into a single thrill ride.
But Left Behind is a ride that barely moves. The movie’s scenes don’t really progress; Armstrong seem to think cross-cutting means bringing every section, however short, to some kind of wan resolution before cutting away to something else. As a result, surprisingly little tension builds in what is supposed to be a disaster movie depicting a global shock. Even more surprisingly, the filmmakers embed the rapture hooey so deeply into their material that they fail to even preach to the choir. This is a movie that preaches to the choir half an hour before mass begins. No one really grapples with faith; they just run around panicking or, late in the movie, stare with concern at the plane’s wing. Perhaps the eeriest thing about Left Behind is that the producers seem to think they’ve cracked the Hollywood code. This, apparently, is what secular entertainment looks like to them.
Throughout this disastrous (and often boring) imitation of a movie, Cage doesn’t seem to be holding his nose, or even acting out the role’s campiest possibilities. This will disappoint Cage cultists; it certainly wounds my theory that the actor can enliven basically anything by showing up and committing. But he does commit his sincerity, if not the full or even a suitable fraction of his talent. On the DVD’s meager features (separated into “special features” and “bonus features” with the distinct ring of producers who have heard about how DVDs work but have not seen one for themselves), he even implicitly attempts to answer the question of why the hell he’s in a low-rent Left Behind revival. For Cage fans, those interview snippets may prove more compelling than most of the actual movie. He notes that he’s always been interested in movies with a spiritual angle, citing the vastly superior City of Angels and Knowing as two favorite projects. (Knowing even has a better plane-crash scene, without actually being about a pilot or a plane.) He also mentions his brother, apparently a pastor — and ultimately demurs to him on the (unspoken on-camera) question of what he’s doing there. “I would talk to him about it,” he says.
But it’s not on Cage’s family to answer for Left Behind — or even Cage himself, who has done movies that are nearly as bad as this, though rarely so low-rent. Really, it’s just a shame that there are producers who try to serve a Christian audience not through thoughtful storytelling or sophisticated filmmaking, but by piecing together something that’s slightly less of a cheesy non-movie than Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas and then calling it a day.