Every child who’s thrown a tantrum, packed a bag and plotted to run away has shivered with the same vengeful thought: I wish I could see how sad they’ll be when I’m gone. The Left Behind franchise implies that evangelicals haven’t grown up.
This new film version, the latest in a series of novels and flicks that date back to 1995, is a drama for the religious and by the religious, with bright colors and inspirational soft rock. But the story itself tracks the nonbelievers left behind on an ordinary afternoon when God blips a few million chosen people to Heaven. What remains on Earth — and in the sky, where adulterous Captain Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage) is piloting a plane of saints and sinners — is chaos, confusion and regret. And puddles of clothing, which ironically also resemble the remnants of the Wicked Witch of the West, as though an omnipotent Dorothy had doused the devout with water.
Who are these divine nudists? First, children, which is perplexing for anyone who remembers the torment of seventh-grade bullies. The age cutoff isn’t clear, though God appears to be operating on the modern legal definition of 18, instead of the biblical standard of puberty. When the Rapture happens in a suburban shopping mall, director Vic Armstrong pans up to mourn the suddenly ownerless balloons that bonk against the ceiling. And on Captain Steele’s flight from JFK to London, panicked parents pat down the plane as though their kiddos could be hiding naked in the overhead compartments. (Not shown: the grumps secretly thrilled to be on a child-free transatlantic flight.)
As for the adults, Left Behind makes an interesting distinction. Good and bad are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is faith. While the captain’s religious wife (Lea Thompson) is immediately zapped to heaven, plenty of nice nonbelievers remain on earth, including the captain’s estranged daughter and our heroine, Chloe (Cassi Thomson); a newscaster porntastically named Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray); and even, embarrassingly, the local priest (Lance E. Nichols). When he attempts to console Chloe, she snaps, “’Listen to you? Why should I! You didn’t even listen to you.”
The film tsk-tsks at the truly wicked, who loot the forsaken purses of the pure. Yet it doesn’t scold atheists — it seems to think of them more like the sad dog we glimpse in the background, dumbly watching over its owner’s abandoned shoes. In large crowd shots, they rush around in senseless panic, acting less like sensible humans than like an anthill terrorized by a vacuum. But boy, do the nonbelievers get a raw deal, from the kind old woman who gets God-widowed in a blink, to the hapless car passengers speeding to their deaths after their drivers disappear. The perverse implication is that you shouldn’t be friends with spiritual people, or at least never let them steer.
Oddly, unlike the first film in the series, a 2000 Kirk Cameron cornball classic, this Left Behind barely mentions the Rapture. There’s one conversation at the start when an airport wacko asks Buck if, as a journalist who covers natural disasters, he’s read Matthew 24:7? (“And there shall be famines, and pestilences and earthquakes, in diverse places.”) Chloe rebuts that she doesn’t understand why God would destroy the people he loves. The movie allows her to make the point, and the Christian slinks off. Perhaps to appeal to the nondevout, or at least not frighten them off, this remake has half the religion and half the plot, reducing the Biblocalypse into a straightforward disaster movie: Can Captain Steele safely land his plane when the Eastern seaboard is in shambles?
The first film solved that puzzle halfway through, with enough spare time to introduce us to the Antichrist and his plan to rebuild the Temple of Israel. Neither get mentioned here. Instead, the running time is spent avoiding religion to such a loony extent that no one explains that this mass vanishing is God’s work until the film is nearly over. It’s almost as though screenwriters Paul Lalonde and John Patus believe people might buy a ticket to Left Behind and not know the twist, like someone sitting down to watch Godzilla and being shocked by the entrance of a giant lizard.
Who is this movie for? It can’t be designed only for the pious, as the religious characters spend their on-screen time being dismissed as nuts, and then poof without a pause for applause. Yet it’s certainly not for anyone who just wants to see Nicolas Cage freak out and fight the Devil. He’s uncommonly calm — he’s practically the voice of reason. Helming a doomed jet, Cage delivers lines such as “Mayday mayday” as though he’s asking a waitress to refill his coffee. Even the howler “Either I’m going crazy or the whole world is insane!” is said matter-of-factly.
Perhaps Cage flipped a coin before Armstrong called “Action!” and decided to play this role straight. Alas, he has robbed the irony-attuned audiences of their only reason to go. And so the Christian filmgoing audience will remain as insular as it has been for years, only semi-preaching and semi-pleasing to the pre-converted, such as those who confessed to Left Behind‘s message board that they feared God would Rapture them before they’d have a chance to see the movie. He hasn’t. The Lord works in mysterious ways.