Let’s be clear, this review could be subtitled “or How I Stopped Worrying About IMDb Tricking Me Into Thinking This Would Be a Sci-Fi Movie and Learned to Accept This Bomb.” Left Behind, based on the bestselling novel series from Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, is, at this point, a well-known apocalyptic tale steeped in religion and disaster, and I knew going into it that the entire film would be a deus ex machina. Still, I hoped for some kind of a genre subversion that earned the attached “sci-fi” label, but that, too, was left behind.
The titular description, at least according to some people, applies to those who remain on the planet after an instantaneous mass disappearance occurs, vanishing everyone around the world who was devoted to their faith. The concept is inherently frightening to me, no matter what the context. (HBO’s The Leftovers plays this plotline in an entirely different way.) The main problem with Left Behind is that this story’s focus flops around like a fish out of water, unable to exist as an action movie or a religious movie or even a thriller. This is a film that uses a little person (Martin Klebba) for little person jokes, and Nicolas Cage plays one of the only characters who keeps his sanity throughout. What the hell is this?
Cage plays Ray Steele, a married pilot trying to spend his birthday on the job, having a better time than he would with his wife Irene (Lea Thompson), who spent the last year as a reformed Jesus lover. Ray’s daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) came home specifically for the celebration and is dismayed to see that he chose to work (and play) instead of doing family things. Ray is flying a plane full of strange stereotypes to London, with sexy flight attendant Hattie (Nicky Whelan) and investigative reporter Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who steps into the co-hero shoes once the shit disappears in front of the fan.
The first chunk of Left Behind is spent telling this backstory of family and frustration, all while laying it on thick that Chloe doesn’t believe in God, because why would anyone believe in something that only brings people pain? (Roughly her words.) She’s uncomfortable with her mother’s faith and she doesn’t mind telling her new friend Buck all about it.
And then…poof. Everyone is gone, and everyone else starts to panic. I’ll give Left Behind a lot of credit for presenting scenes and sequences that are atypical of disaster films and their ilk. Director Vic Armstrong doesn’t aim for the jugular in showing us the massive damage that occurs all over the world. Sure, there are stunts and explosions, but it isn’t a full-on CGI cacophony.
It’s a lot weirder than that, and the bonkers feelings that the disappearance sequence incited within me had a lot to do with the film’s soundtrack and score, which sound as if they were created by people who only write hospital elevator music. There are scenes that go from a touching moment (heart-tugging strings) straight into an action beat (drums and guitar) right into a racial joke between the people in first class (light piano). Honestly, the bizarre shifts in tone, and the musical accompaniment, are two of the main reasons to watch Left Behind. You’ll never say, “Surely this isn’t happening,” so many times in your life.
It’s strange that screenwriters Paul Lalonde and John Patus, the latter of whom also wrote the original Kirk Cameron version, chose to just hinge this entire film on Ray’s flight and Chloe’s ill-fated search for her little brother, one of those who disappeared. It gives Cage virtually nothing to do besides pull on cockpit knobs and unsuccessfully try to communicate with airports, and Thomson is no leading lady. I didn’t expect anything too left field here, but when Cage is playing the most levelheaded character on screen, something has been lost in translation. He does get a few moments of glory, however. When asked if he’s scared, Ray says, “I will be, as soon as I have time.” I wish that line was Ray’s mission statement in life.
So many choices in this film, like making Jordin Sparks an overly fraught woman who poses a minute threat, are impossible to comprehend, with the religious angle being the most obtuse of all. Before the faithful people disappeared, we mostly heard Chloe bitching about God and her mother for following God; after they’re gone, all we see is a world full of sinful people, only some of whom actually start behaving more virtuously. (People start looting and thieving immediately, go figure.) The big event does get tied to God at some point, but not in a “this was the bad guy all along” kind of reveal. You get the feeling that everyone behind this movie wanted people to go, “Man, that God fellow sure is a dick. But wait, if he’s helping all of these disappeared people out by sending them to heaven, maybe he’s not so bad after all.”
Things are presumably being set up for a sequel (there’s a whole series of books), where we’ll now get to experience the world trying to rebuild itself. (And then God can look at Ray in the eyes and say, “Ray. (heavy breathing) I am your father,” and then there’s a lightsaber battle.) Don’t watch Left Behind if you want to see the next great airplane-centered disaster movie, or the next great Christian values movie. See it if you want to witness the fifth-best comedy of the year, and bring lots of your friends. What the world needs now is Tribulation Force.