Left Behind (dir. Vic Armstrong)

Posted: October 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

The new filmic adaptation of “Left Behind” is actually less enjoyable than the first one from 2000.  The 2000 version was cheesy, inane, horrendously acted, amateurishly made, and overall a laugh riot from start to finish because of how poorly put together the whole endeavor was.  That makes it a wonderful ironic comedy.  With stories that deal with epic events like the End of the World, the small Evangelical Christian Film Industry’s reach often exceeds its grasp.  Sure, they have enough money to stage films about marriage problems (“Fireproof”), football (“Facing the Giants”), or evil college professors (“God’s Not Dead”), but even those films never look more polished than a Hallmark or Lifetime TV movie.  I refuse to believe there isn’t a single devout Christian that can’t direct a decent-looking movie, but the evidence thus far is pointing me in that direction.  You can’t blame budgets. There are plenty of independent films that cost almost nothing (Aronofsky’s “Pi” comes to mind) that look wonderful.  Perhaps talent is too elitist for this group?

The new “Left Behind” has a much bigger budget than the previous version (a reported $16 million), has more star power (instead of devout has-beens like Kirk Cameron, we get people like Nicolas Cage, whose IRS woes have lead to this, and Nicky Whelan, whose only previous work I’ve seen is her role in “Hall Pass” which is only memorable due to her topless scene), and is very clearly aiming not at the already-believers, as the original was, but at the non-believers.  This was a severe mistake, to believe that both non-believers have not heard the fairy tale of the Rapture, and that a poor excuse for a disaster movie could scare people into being Christian.  The result is a film that doesn’t have the courage of its convictions and tries to dial down the preachiness, up the “action” and “suspense” (yes, quotes are needed), and try to pretend they are slipping some innocuous Christianity into what is really just an action movie.  Nice try. Well, actually, not a nice try.  The filmmakers failed miserably, and created a film that, while still often unintentionally funny, lacks the goofy awfulness of its predecessor and is thus not as enjoyable while simultaneously being better made from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint.

The trips to Israel and badly accented Romanian Antichrist shooting up the UN are not to be found in the new “Left Behind”.  Instead, we’re treated to an opening 15 minutes that largely consists of people talking to each other in an airport in various combinations.  For a while, I thought the entire movie would take place in the airport, but later the film diverges into two main plot threads: one of them on a plane that looks much smaller than a real passenger jet from a major airline (and much smaller than the poor model and CGI versions of the exterior of the jet we see in establishing shots), and another following a young blonde girl (Cassie Thomson) running around town as post-Rapture looting and rioting takes place, though the film doesn’t provide enough extras to sell this and it’s unclear why some people disappearing would cause immediate looting.  Shots of mothers crying over their disappearing children and dogs sitting by their masters’ clothes I get, but people on motorcycles slowing down to rip backpacks out of girls’ hands?  Yeah, I don’t think immediate looting would happen everywhere, especially committed by older middle-class white women in a suburban mall where not all of the security guards were Raptured.

The young blonde girl is Chloe Steele (between her and Anastasia Steele from “Fifty Shades of Gray”, we need to put a moratorium on bad writers giving their protagonists the last name “Steele”), daughter of pilot and Nicolas Cage-portrayed Rayford Steele.  She’s a non-believer who in the film makes some good points against religion when a crazy woman starts asking questions in an airport, and later when the Rapture pretty much proves God’s existence in the film she makes good points about God being a huge asshole for doing this.  Weird that this Christian film can’t provide any good counterpoints to why God is not a huge evil dick for leaving people whose only sin may be not believing in him to suffer.  It’s possible that Christians secretly want non-believers to suffer and have no empathy for them, instead egotistically satisfied that they will of course be saved from it since they’re better, what with their faith and all.  Perhaps that’s being too cynical about Evangelicals.  Regardless, it seems rather purposeful and cynical that young Chloe Steele wears a loose-fitting shirt with a low collar, and then proceeds to have her lean forward or crawl across sugar glass so we can see her cleavage.  Okay, you may think this is unintentional and I’m just a pervert for noticing this.  But we also have the Nicky Whelan character, a saucy blonde flight attendant on the cusp of having an affair with Chloe’s father who spends the entire film with the top three buttons of her uniform undone.  In addition, we have a blonde heroin addict character on the plane (Georgina Rawlings) with some obviously giant breasts.  For a religious movie, it sure is odd that they filled their cast with stacked blondes.

In the airport, Chloe chats up a famous investigative reporter, Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, whose acting is wooden yet still better than anyone else’s in the film), and after a mere 5-10 minutes of on screen conversation seem to really care about each other.  It seems abrupt and comical how overly familiar they act with each other when they’ve only really engaged in small talk while Buck waits for his flight.  The screenwriters seem to be oblivious as to how real people talk in real situations, and instead provide us with exposition dumps and unusually straight forward probing questions between characters.  One wonders if they’ve ever engaged in real conversations before.

Then Nicholas Cage enters the film, and loses his self-respect.  Okay, that’s probably too mean.  He lost his self-respect with the “Wicker Man” remake.  Sadly, we don’t get over-the-top “Wicker Man”, “Ghost Rider” or “Bad Lieutenant” Cage in this film.  Surely I would have thought a film about the Rapture would allow Cage to let loose and really explode on screen.  Alas, it’s clear from the get-go that Cage is embarrassed to be a part of this mess, and took the job because all he really has to do in the film is sit in a fake airplane cockpit and talk to people next to him or on a PA system.  This was a really easy paycheck for Cage.  The last time I remember seeing him spend most of a film on an airplane was in the delightfully absurd “Con Air”.  Here, the only con is the one the filmmakers are pulling on the audience.

Why do I call it a con?  Because even though the filmmakers are clearly and explicitly aiming this film at non-believers, the only people who would want to see this film for reasons other than to laugh at it are the Christians who liked the book series this film is based on, and what they get is an (I’m told) unfaithful adaptation that uses Christianity as window-dressing (a Jesus Fish necklace here, a wrist watch with “John 3:16” engraved on it there) in what is really just a really bad disaster movie on a plane which is really only a smidge better than the ones the SyFy channel plays regularly.  To say this film has the special effects quality of “Sharknado 2” is both unfair and untrue.  To say that this film’s production values are up to the level of other films released on 1,500 theater screens would be a lie.  This is a TV movie-quality production all the way, and one wonders where the $16 million of this film’s budget went, because it’s certainly not on screen.

So yes, we spend a lot of time on a plane set, with a first class section that looks nothing like a real first class section, and a coach section that looks way too small for the plane we are supposed to be on.  In first class we’re treated to a colorful assort of supporting characters, including a Muslim guy (Alec Rayme) who the film thankfully treats more respectfully than “God’s Not Dead” treated its Muslim characters.  Still, it speaks volumes that Christians deem it necessary to show that no matter how nice or religious you may be, God will still punish and torture you for not believing in him correctly.  We also get a conspiracy theorist (Han Soto) who postulates that the Rapture might have been due to alien abductions or a wormhole in space/time, both theories that the film pretends aren’t just or even less crazy that an omnipotent superbeing zapping people to Heaven without their clothes.  Oh, and let us not forget the little person (Martin Klebba) who is a complete asshole, and is later pushed down an emergency slide as punishment.  I guess the filmmakers saw “Project X” where Klebba played the character of Angry Little Person (seriously, that’s what he’s credited as) and just HAD to have that same character in their Jesus movie?

Also, while I understand both the novel and the original “Left Behind” film where made before 9/11, I expect a film made in 2014, and which takes place in the present, to have some knowledge of post-9/11 airline regulations. A passenger, for instance, cannot walk into the cockpit before flight and hand concert tickets to the captain.  The captain cannot leave the cockpit willy-nilly, nor can flight staff and passengers come in the cockpit, with the captain merely buzzing them in at his discretion.

Don’t worry; this film is stupid in any number of ways.  Why would communications with air traffic controllers be out during the Rapture?  I assume not all of them are Christian, and their radios aren’t susceptible to cars with Raptured drivers careening into telephone poles.  Why wouldn’t satellite phones work?  The Rapture wouldn’t kick satellites out of orbit.  Why does the plane only have two flight attendants?  Why does Chloe think flashing the headlights on a truck will help illuminate a makeshift runway for an airplane 30,000 feet up in the air and miles away? (That one had me trying to contain hilarious laughter so as to not disturb other patrons in the theater…all 3 of them).  Why would a motorcycle driven by a Raptured person tip over gently and undamaged, so that it may be picked up and immediately driven by Chloe, who the film gives us no reason to believe has ever been on a motorcycle before?  Why does Chloe have to clear lightweight plastic road barriers in order for a plane to land safely if she can push them safely with a pickup truck?  Why does every parked vehicle in this film have keys in the ignition? (You can’t say the drivers were Raptured, because then the vehicles would be running and/or suffering from a dead battery).  I could ask many logical questions about this film but the answer would likely be the same: the screenwriters are morons.

So are the director and editor.  There’s a shot early in the film where we see Nicholas Cage’s cuff and hand as he removes his wedding right.  We then cut to a hand opening a tube of lipstick.  It eventually pans up to show the flight attendant putting it on, but this is so poorly edited that for a good 5 seconds we expect Nicholas Cage to apply lipstick to himself, a scene which I would have loved to see in this film.  Also, common techniques, such as having an off-screen character speak before cutting to them so that dialogue overlaps and the editing feels less ping-pongy, are not used in this film.  Characters are often shot from angles that are too close, too far, or poorly composed.  The entire movie feels like it was lit the same way.  The lobby of a mall at noon with sunlight pouring in has the same lighting as the cabin of the airplane at night.  It was as if the DP used the same amount of light in every interior scene and said to himself “You can see everyone, my job is done”.  Let’s not even discuss how at 8:17PM, according to a digital clock in the film, New York is having bright sunlight, but approximately 2-3 hours away on a flight from NY to London it is pitch black night time.  The filmmakers don’t seem to know how time zones work.  At least when Eli Roth had time zone issues in “Hostel Part II”, it was to satirically point out how ignorant, ethnocentric Americans don’t concern themselves with the rest of the world.  Here, I doubt the filmmakers noticed their flub.  They probably also didn’t think it was sexist that Buck asks Chloe to read off the “little numbers” on her phone’s compass app because, hey, women-folk don’t know what coordinates are.

I haven’t even mentioned the weird incestuous undertones between Ray and Chloe, or Chloe and her brother (Major Dodson, who may be the worst child actor I have ever seen, and that’s saying something).  Or Lea Thompson, who went from making “Back to the Future” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” to this garbage?  What happened?  Or why this film features the slowest crash landing I’ve seen on film.  Or how every religious person Raptured had at least one article on them that demonstrated their Christianity.  Or why this film, which isn’t a horror film, has 3 jump scares in it for no reason.

The 2000 “Left Behind” may be worse on most levels, but at least it had the courage to be what it was, Christian Apocalypse Porn.   This “Left Behind” is poor rip-off of the “Airport” movies from the 1970s (you know, the ones “Airplane” spoofed and ultimately became more popular than the films it made fun of) with a sprinkling of religion to try to fool non-believers into thinking they’re seeing an action film (with pointless explosions and all) so that they can convert before it’s too late.  Last year a mediocre film called “Prisoners” came out.  It was released by a major studio, starred serious actors (Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal) and was well-made.  It was also Christian propaganda.  The film opens with the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer and the film is a murder mystery where the killer is an atheist who murders children in order to cause people to lose faith in God.  Because no one knew the film was Christian propaganda (the filmmakers, to the best of my knowledge, have never expressed any religious sentiments publicly and almost none of the reviews or coverage of the film pointed out how religious the movie was), it slipped under the radar, got decent reviews, made decent money, and probably infected some audience members with its morally repugnant message.  The makers of “Left Behind” should have taken that film as an example and not adapted a property known to non-believers and attempted to use that as a conversion tool.  They also may want to try selling screenplays to real studios and not make these movies themselves, as they are not technically capable and non-believers know before a frame has been shot what it is.

So this remake is better made and less preachy than the original, but as a result less fun to watch ironically, and thus kind of worse for being better. D

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