I am not a Christian, and I never thought Left Behind would ever convert me or appeal to my faith, but I hoped I could at least admire the courage of its convictions. Instead, Vic Armstrong‘s adaptation of the best selling novel uses Christianity as nothing more than a ham-fisted plot point in a laughably cheap-looking movie that isn’t reaching movie theaters because of the source material or the premise. The movie doesn’t exist by God’s will. Left Behind exists because, God willing, people might go see Nicolas Cage in a religious picture that’s not all that interested in religion.
Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson) has come home to see her father Rayford (Nicolas Cage), but when they meet at the airport, he’s already got to catch a flight for London. Ray is a pilot, and he’s also having an affair with Hattie (Nicky Whelan), a stewardess. Chloe pouts and stews about her father’s selfishness, although her angst is lightened when she bumps into hunky reporter Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray). However, he also has to get on the London flight, so Chloe heads home to see her little brother Raymie (Major Dodson) and their religiously devout mother Irene (Lea Thompson). Raymie and Chloe go to the mall; the flight to London takes off without incident; and then people just vanish in an instant, leaving nothing but their clothes where they once stood.
Most audience members who go into Left Behind know that the Rapture has just happened, but it takes a large portion of the movie for the characters to figure it out. While that makes sense, Paul Lalonde and John Patus‘ script lurches through the explanation. It’s like no one wants to talk about the Bible, and so every time there’s a reveal, it comes off as laughable. When Ray begins to wonder why his co-pilot has vanished, he starts looking through the clothes and discovers a wristwatch with a face that reads “John 3:14”. And to the surprise of no one, Irene is gone, and all that remains is a crucifix necklace on the floor of a running shower.
This is the second adaptation of Left Behind. The first adaptation starred Kirk Cameron and came out in 2000 followed by two sequels. This new adaptation wants to appeal to a wider audience than just Christians, so Armstrong’s film tries to avoid proselytizing, which is admirable but also impossible. The Rapture is inherently about reward and punishment. Those who were good Christians get to go up to Heaven, and everyone else must feel the wrath of being hit by cars that no longer have drivers. The Rapture is the message, but Armstrong would prefer it to be just a narrative turn.
This results in an unflattering representation of religion because it reduces faith to road signs. Irene keeps bibles lying around and has crucifixes around her home, but does that make her a good Christian? In Left Behind, all that seems to matter is to make sure you own the right paraphernalia or are below a certain age (all children get auto-Raptured). The Rapture is a threat, but because Armstrong doesn’t want to offend, he couches it in the softest manner possible. The world may as well have been divided up into people who like Nike and those who are either anti-Nike or indifferent about sportswear.
Without religion, Left Behind is just another paycheck movie for Cage. He doesn’t do anything crazy or get a catchphrase. It’s in no way a memorable performance, and he’s mostly just putting his head down, being a professional, and trying to maintain his dignity in a movie that’s too timid to be anything more than a bargain-basement disaster film.
After the movie finally gets to the Rapture (and it feels like it takes forever to happen even though there’s hardly any build up, tension, or allusion to the event), the plot is basically chaos in the air and on the ground, and both look laughably shoddy. The production’s biggest selling point is Cage, and they can’t even properly photoshop his head onto the Steeles’ family portrait. The cut-rate production makes Left Behind feel dually exploitative as it wants the people who are thrilled at the prospect of another over-the-top Cage performance as well as those who would genuinely like to see a Christian movie be a crossover hit.
Instead, Left Behind falls into nothingness. It’s a shame because even if you go in knowing you don’t share the movie’s faith, Armstrong still had the power to shake the audience with the ramifications of the event. When a mother on the plane is crying and asking what happened to her children as she clutches their clothes, that feels real and completely removed from who’s Christian or who’s not, and what wacky thing Nicolas Cage might do. But that moment is the exception in movie that mistakes simulacrum for symbolism and punishment for piety.