Nutshell: I’d give Left Behind a B-. It’s heart is in the right place, and it walks the fine line between Sunday school and pop culture nicely, but it’s movie-of-the-week look may put folks off. Director Vic Armstrong needed a stronger hand guiding his actors to quality performances, but it’s the amateurish soundtrack and clunky bits of dialogue that hobble a promising film.
Christian fiction usually gets ignored by the gen pop. But the apocalypse is everywhere right now, and folks are eating it up. So why not hit folks with the apocalypse classics? The Left Behind series, 16 books in all, deals with the Rapture, The Antichrist, Armageddon, and basically the end of the world as we know it. But can Nicolas Cage, Lea Thompson, Jordin Sparks and Chad Michael Murray reboot the series and get the masses into the theaters with stuff like The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games already firmly entrenched? Depends on how much you’re into the premise, and how forgiving you are of low budget cinematography and dialogue that can sometimes feel forced. If you’re cool with that kinda stuff, Left Behind is actually kinda fun. If you’re hoping for a finely tuned film that makes the most of a big screen? Well….
For folks who are wobbly on the premise, Left Behind is a story about airline pilot Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage) his wife Irene (Lea Thompson), son Raymie (Major Dodson) and grown daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson). Mom decided to become a Grade-A bible thumper about a year ago, and it’s put a strain on the rest of the adults in the family. But guess what? She was right, and as Ray flies from JFK to London, a strange sonic-implosion sound occurs and suddenly, poof! A bunch of people — men, women, kids, babies — vanish. Human beings being what they are, everyone stops, rationally discusses what happened, and decides to make the world a better place. Gotcha! Looting, fear and mistrust become the rule of the day, with empty cars crashing off the roads, parents frantic to find their missing children, and planes falling out of the sky. Lucky for Ray’s passengers he didn’t get caught up in the rapture-boom. But how’s he gonna land that plane when all airports are one big cluster-rapture? And how’s Chloe going to go on when the world around her is literally going to hell?
I can say this about Left Behind; it’s a whole lot better than Left Behind: The Movie. (A’yup, there was a trilogy of films based on the book series, and they were a doozy. Sorry Kirk Cameron. #notsorry) Luckily, this Left Behind not only jettisons the reverential tone of the original films, it understands it’s budget limitations. So instead of Ghostbusters-level mass hysteria, there’s a bus crash here, an unmanned plane falling there. That could be due to the $16 million budget, which had producers focusing on story rather than shelling out for spectacle. (It could be worse; it could have had Sharknado-worthy graphics and really gakked things up.)
Let’s get to the not-so-great. There’s a “family photo” of the Steeles, and it’s about the worst bit of Photoshop I’ve ever seen in my life. They couldn’t just get the actors together during the read-through and have ‘em pose? And then there’s the dialogue, which can get clunky at times. “You’ve never spoken about God before.” Yeah, a twenty-something atheist talks like that. Then there’s the mind-numbingly bad soundtrack, which cements that Lifetime-movie vibe.
The ensemble cast is intriguing, but they’re pretty much here for the Steele Family Drama. (Young Jeremy Sisto) Alec Rayme plays the token Muslim on the plane, Jordin Sparks plays a passenger named Shasta (no, seriously), and there’s a few other folks who serve as “see? If you do [insert bad stuff here], you won’t go to heaven!”, like the angry gambler, the freaked druggie, the greedy businessman, and the slutty stewardess. And a few times line delivery felt as if the actors were just cut off after the first take.
The good? Left Behind manages to tell it’s story without getting all preachifyin’. That’s a nice change from the typical “Christian movie”. The actors did a good job overall, barring some of the more leaden dialogue. I really liked the way Thomson played Chloe, especially immediately after the Rapture. She’s not hysterical, and yet she’s not suddenly Wonder Woman. She’s just a gal who’s confused, scared and trying to figure out what’s happening. Cage even dials it back here, and it’s good to see him chill. This won’t get him another Oscar, but it’s a welcome change to his usual uber-stoked performance in action flicks of late.
The climax was just believable enough, as the story focuses on Chloe and Ray rather than going overkill on FX. But my favorite thing is the way Left Behind lets cell phones be cell phones. Kinda iffy, sorta crappy with the service, and yet the apps can really come in handy. Bonus: no product placement, with phones or anything else! Getting a brand shoved in my face every 30 seconds is a pain, and rips me out of the story. Here, they keep props low-key, and that was really refreshing.
I saw Left Behind as an at-home screener, and letting it unspool in the comfort of my own movie cave was a good fit. The FX seemed to fit the small screen nicely, and I could shrug off a lot of the production low-balls as typical for the medium. I’m sure that church groups, fans of Nic Cage and Left Behind aficionados will be there opening weekend, but at-home worked perfectly for me. Plus, I got discounts on popcorn and Twizzlers.
Two Left Behind sequels are already scheduled, with Thomson, Murray, and Whelan already signed on. Maybe lean more on producer Jason Hewitt (Odd Thomas) and R. Bryan Wright (The Butler) and much less on Paul Lalonde, John Patus, and the rest of the first trilogy gang. And hire a real scriptwriter. Let the guys that have experience beyond Christian films develop a product that will draw in and…enrapture the masses.