Big time TV reporter Buck is interviewing a Jewish guy in a field when he is horrified, absolutely horrified, to see CGI planes attacking overhead. How had these CGI planes escaped the bounds of computer screens? Naturally, his fear of CGI planes sets him off to London on a plane (which isn’t CGI from the inside) flown by Rayford Steele (possibly the gayest name on the planet, which is ironic), who just ran out on his son’s Christian-themed birthday party. Suddenly, millions of people disappear, leaving behind their clothes (if only this was the story of those clothes that were *LEFT BEHIND*). Buck sets out to uncover what’s happened while Rayford prays for the next hour of screentime. Could everything be tied in to all-around-swell-guy Nicolae Carpathia’s plans for world peace? Might it be connected to the rebuilding of a temple in Israel? Will the UN destroy society? Does Kirk Cameron need acting lessons? Is it all pretty much down hill after the 35 minute mark? The answer to all of these questions is yes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger as a librarian. Gwyneth Paltrow as a deformed dwarf. Sylvester Stallone as a diction instructor. Steve Buscemi as Superman. These are casting decisions that are just wrong. They won’t work. The reasons are legion, not that it matters. What counts is that if you make these kinds of choices, your movie will fail. Add to that list Kirk Cameron as an action reporter and news anchor. I can’t for the life of me think of a role he would be suited for, but let me assure you, this isn’t it. At least the part didn’t require him to engage in macho fistfights… No, that would have been better because then I could have laughed.
But you might still find plenty to laugh about in Left Behind, a feeble end-of-days melodrama based on the never ending series of Christian books, graphic novels, t-shirts, note pads, stickers, greeting cards, and lapel pins. Considering the result, I’m betting the film was primarily based on a note pad. As a humble film critic, I can’t judge how faithful (a term that pops up a lot) the movie is to that note pad, or even the first Left Behind noveloid, as I’ve never read any of the source material. You see, no one has kidnapped me, put a gun to my head, and screamed that they’ll pull the trigger if I don’t read them, and that’s what it would take.
The idea is that everything connected to liberal politics is really a tool of the Antichrist, and that God has sucked all the good people to heaven so they won’t get beat on for the next seven years. The first would be silly if so many fundamentalists didn’t believe it. The second kills any suspense in the picture. If you went it not knowing why people disappeared, there might be a reason to watch till the end.
Is this right-wing, fundie, love-fest the worst thing ever put on film? Surprisingly no. There are moments when it looks like it might be mildly entertaining. The setup (even with those CGI planes) has a solid apocalyptic feel. There is a nice mystery with the head of the UN and the openly evil bankers trying to control him, and the rapture, shown almost entirely by its effects on a plane in flight and one multi-car accident, has substantial tension built in. There’s even an emotional moment when a preacher, who has been Left Behind™, realizes he’s been a fraud all his life.
But Left Behind shoots its wad at the rapture. After, there’s nothing with any energy or interest. The story splits into Buck’s investigation and Rayford Steele’s conversion. The spy stuff just doesn’t hold together. It makes no sense (why does an assassin shoot at Buck in a house, and then the assassins put real effort into not killing him a few scenes later?) and is less entertaining. Perhaps if someone other than Cameron was there to put some weight into the role…but perhaps not. The conversion subplot is far, far worse. I’m not sure that any conversion story is going to be engaging if there is nothing else involved, and this one offers nothing. Rayford sulks around, reads The Bible, and prays. Even if you are a huge fan of scriptures and prayer (and sulking), watching someone else do these things isn’t a trip to the amusement park. Brad Johnson lacks any sensitively, which might have helped slightly. He plays the role like a WWII Ranger (picture Clint Eastwood with his hands clasped and you’ve got the idea).
The direction is TV movie-of-the-week quality. The occasional Christian pop-rock song cheapens the production even more. But the dialog would sink this puppy even if everything else was brilliant. Script writers McElroy, Lalonde, and Goodman are hacks of the lowest order. Let’s take a look at what they consider acceptable:
Evil Banker 1: Dirk Burton. He used to be an info-tactics ferret at the Pentagon before he joined my Manhattan office. Regrettably, he’s found it hard to give up his meddling ways.
Evil Banker 2: Well, I’d say that Mr. Burton will have to sacrifice his pension (evil pause) and his health benefits.
What the hell! Say those sentences out loud. Try it. Can you do it without giggling? And the entire film is filled with gems like those.
Left Behind is a mess that promotes its message to the detriment of the story, artistry, and sense. Fundie Christians that give it high marks (and those are the only ones who do) are blinding themselves to the quality of the work simply because it agrees with their delusional world view.
While Left Behind is poor entertainment, it is sweet ambrosia compared to its loathsome sequel, Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force.