The Christian film industry has burst out of church basements and into the multiplexes over the past few years. It was only a matter of time before that expanding market got a semi-blockbuster, and one has finally arrived in a reboot of the inexplicably popular ‘Left Behind’ series. Thankfully, that movie also stars Nicolas Cage, so there are no illusions about its quality.
For those who don’t know, ‘Left Behind’ was a popular Christian novel series that was given the direct-to-DVD/church basement/Kirk Cameron treatment for a trilogy of silly films throughout the 2000s. With the Christspoitation market having recently jumped into mainstream movie theaters with surprising success (‘God’s Not Dead’ made $60 million theatrically last spring and ‘Heaven Is for Real’ brought in $90 million over the summer, both from tiny budgets), the genre’s flagship franchise has gotten a big-ish budget reboot. With the dependably insane Nicolas Cage headlining, the project on paper seemed to offer insane campy thrills. Sadly, the reality is much less fun. ‘Left Behind’ is still a bad movie, but also a deeply bland one.
The biggest surprise for an unfamiliar non-believer like myself is that ‘Left Behind’ is secretly a very traditional airplane disaster picture. A more accurate title would be ‘Airport 2014: The Rapture’, since the filmmakers so rigidly stick to a disaster movie structure that the Zucker brothers parodied into irrelevance 34 years ago.
Cage stars as a commercial pilot who has to leave his family for a flight on his birthday and has secret plans to kick off an affair with a sexy stewardess. (Whoah! Shocking!). Cassi Thompson plays his daughter, and together they playfully mock his wife/her mother’s (Lea Thompson) Born Again Christianity. Oh, if only they knew how right she was! You see, on the day of the flight, that pesky Rapture hits and all of a sudden half of the passengers (and the co-pilot) on Cage’s plane disappear, along with Thompson’s brother, mother and hundreds of others in her hometown. Suddenly, Thompson is caught in the middle of an anarchistic panic (well, as much as a small budget can afford and strict Christian content limits will allow anyway), while Cage has to keep everyone on his plane calm and figure out how and where to land with virtually no support from Ground Control, who apparently all left to party with Jesus and the boys in the sky. From there, it’s a straight-ahead run through the tired conventions of 1970s airplane disaster movies with few surprises and even less excitement.
The biggest problem in this movie filled with problems is simply that it’s so punishingly dull. Plenty of stuff happens, stuff that in normal action movies can even feel exhilarating. Yet here, everything is so small scale and poorly paced that the entertainment factor never kicks in. Legendary Hollywood stuntman Vic Armstrong was hired to direct, which means that the five or six stunts that the production could afford are perfectly professional and the shooting style is entirely adequate. The flick hums along at a measured paced and looks professional, yet never really feels like it goes anywhere even though it’s an apocalyptic disaster movie. The saddest part is that the movie is never even insane in its incompetence, stupidity or propaganda. It just goes through the motions and does everything expected without a single surprise or digression into magical failure. Even the CGI is mediocre. You can’t laugh at it, nor will you be impressed.
It’s a shame, because as the pieces are being slotted into place over the first 20 minutes, the movie has the potential to fly wildly off the rails in a way that might at least give it camp value. A character is set up to provide scientific analysis of the religious event, who is not only stereotypically Asian, but believes in crackpot alien theories to immediately discredit him and science in general. That could have been a fun role, but the character barely registers in the background. Likewise, the requisite tough guy on the plane whose role is to yell at everyone and become suspicious of the generically Arab passenger is inexplicably played by a Little Person (Howard Stern regular Martin Klebba). Could have been insane, but nope.
Finally, there’s Nicolas Cage at the center, a man for whom no performance is too big and an actor who can turn any B-movie swill into camp comedy through his insane commitment to over-the-top characterization. Surely he’ll go crazy while fighting against the apocalypse, right? Nope, Cage’s performance is just as sleepy and half-assed as everyone else’s. And if you’re wondering how the producers could afford him, it’s because at least 85% of his role is in on the same cheap cockpit set and shot from the same three generic angles. It’s unlikely that he worked on the movie for longer than a week or two despite kind of having the lead.
‘Left Behind’ is an unexciting disaster movie, a piece of Christian propaganda that never really devolves into enjoyably excessive sermonizing, and a Nic Cage vehicle in which Hollywood’s wildest star never gets to cut loose. Anyone hoping for a camp classic will be disappointed. Sure, the movie has plenty of horrible dialogue, amateurish filmmaking, unconvincing action, dated CGI and terrible acting, just not the fun or campy kinds. It’s just a deeply dull attempt at making a Christian disaster movie that’s just as politely misguided and inoffensive as it sounds.
The die-hard Christian audience might enjoy it if they haven’t tired of the story after all the books and the previous film series. Sadly, for everyone else, ‘Left Behind’ just a bad movie offering little fun. Even the target audience would spend their money and time better with a non-denominational blockbuster that promotes Christian values without direct Biblical references. There’s no greater sin in cinema than boring your audience, and sadly everyone involved in ‘Left Behind’ has committed that deadly sin. Let’s hope their actions get the sequel sent to development hell.