Roger Ebert once famously panned Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny by saying that he'd rather watch a video of his own colonoscopy than sit through Gallo's film again. It's a good line, if a little bit mean; Ebert later took back the remark (though only after Gallo recut the film). It's hard to blame him for being harsh; some movies are so bad that excoriating them is a defense mechanism more than anything else. I know now how Ebert must have felt: after suffering through Left Behind, I too would rather watch Roger Ebert's colonoscopy than repeat the experience.
I'm writing a full review, but really, only one sentence is needed to condemn the latest film adaptation of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's bestselling novel. This is the sentence: Nicolas Cage is boring in this movie. Six months from now, when someone finally gets around to writing one of those “what went wrong here?” postmortem articles, the first question they’ll have to wrestle with is why the producers of Left Behind bothered to get Nic Cage if they weren’t going to take full advantage of his unique screen presence. Everything that one hopes to see in a latter-day Cage performance—the famed “Cage rage,” oddly paced line readings, ludicrous hair—is absent here, replaced by a sort of drowsy, flop-sweat anxiety. Imagine a business VP who has stayed up all night preparing for the big meeting at work, who steps into the board room and realizes that the USB drive containing his Powerpoint slides is sitting on the desk at home. Then watch Cage act in this movie, and behold the Hollywood-actor equivalent of that fear. It’s the stuff of prosaic nightmares.
“Prosaic nightmare” is a pretty good description of the film as a whole. Responsibility does not lie solely at Cage’s feet; there are plenty of examples of dismal craftsmanship to be had in just about every other area of the film too. One struggles to contain the impulse to spend an entire review enumerating them all. How about the slack editing, which utterly fails to build momentum within and among the film’s scenes? Or the score, which in the tradition of soap-opera music is simultaneously overbearing and forgettable? Or the bland cinematography and production design, neither of which give the eye anything to do during the interminable dialogue scenes? During a living-room scene between Chloe (Cassi Thomson) and her mother (Lea Thompson), the set, the lighting, and the actors were so white and hygienically tidy that I half-expected the characters’ conversation to be interrupted by a voiceover suggesting that I ask my doctor whether Zoloft would be right for me.
As for the story itself, it is what it is. Interested parties can find a synopsis elsewhere easily enough. Suffice it to say that the story—adapted by screenwriters Paul Lalonde and John Patus—is profoundly silly, with characters who have names like “Buck Williams” and “Rayford Steele.” Buck Williams is an investigative reporter whom other characters inexplicably treat like Bono rather than a slightly more attractive John Stossel; strangers embark on theological discussions before even learning each other’s names. After the Rapture occurs, the entire planet accelerates from zero to anarchy in twenty minutes flat.
All that said, it seems only fair to grant Left Behind its premise. Hermeneutical quibbles aside, a strictly literal reading of Revelation provides the raw materials for a compelling apocalyptic narrative. Prophecies, warfare, global conspiracy, monsters—what else could you need? LaHaye and Jenkins’s novels read like a poor man’s Da Vinci Code, but people who are deeply bothered by that are not going to buy a movie ticket anyway. Raiders of the Lost Ark’s story is every bit as ridiculous, and it is a masterpiece of popcorn entertainment. Execution is everything. If there is any way for Left Behind to work at all, it would have to be as a pulpy thriller that does not take itself too seriously.
Pulling off the tonal balancing act required of such thrillers is harder than it looks, so one desires to extend some modicum of grace to the director, Vic Armstrong. But it’s nearly impossible to maintain a charitable attitude in the face of directorial choices so poorly judged that they border on the perverse. The scant humor that the film has to offer is implemented with maximal clumsiness; there’s a little-person character who is such an offensive caricature that he makes Mini-Me look like Tyrion Lannister. Any time the plot threatens to become the slightest bit interesting, Armstrong undermines it with a generous portion of cheese.
More often, though, the film swings to the opposite extreme, which is to be no fun at all. Nic Cage’s performance reveals itself as the film in microcosm: flat, earnest, and bereft of vivacity. In a couple of places we can sense a self-aware B-movie stirring just beneath the surface, yearning to burst free—but the filmmakers’ staid sensibilities keep it securely shackled. Armstrong seems to have little desire to surprise his audience in any way. More than that, he seems to fear failure so much that he avoids taking any risks whatsoever. For a movie with an ostensibly built-in audience, Left Behind is strangely timorous.
What is it so afraid of? Whom is it striving so desperately to avoid offending? Is it the same Christian audience that Stoney Lake Entertainment is courting with this adaptation? If so, that is a sad state of affairs for two reasons. First, it speaks poorly of Christian filmgoers that even the slightest whiff of irreverence or artistic liberties is enough to lead to a pearl-clutching outcry. (Exhibit A: the tempest that swirled around this year's Noah.) Second, and more damningly, it suggests that Stoney Lake's true priorities are no different from the Hollywood studios whom Stoney Lake purports to oppose.
The classic studio approach to blockbuster filmmaking is to appeal to as many people as possible while alienating as few as possible. The primary goal is financial success; artistic excellence is secondary. This is the business plan that brings us the generic schlock of sequels, reboots, and movies based on board games. This is the mindset that has produced the Transformers franchise. And its stench is all over Left Behind.
Consider a seemingly throwaway moment about halfway through the film. Airplane passengers, panicked by the sudden midflight disappearance of dozens of people, are casting about for explanations. A Muslim man in first class (whose two-dimensional characterization here smacks of tokenism, but never mind) suggests that everyone calm down and pray. A suspicious passenger sneeringly confronts him: "You say pray to God. Whose? Mine? Yours?" The Muslim (and the movie) can offer only a shrug: "Just ... pray."
The script never revisits this moment, nor is the theme of religious pluralism ever addressed again in any capacity. Lalonde, Patus, and Armstrong may have thought they were injecting an intriguing note of ambiguity into their film, but their shallow equivocation is immediately evident. If we can't have a decent film, we may hope for a sermon in its place, but Left Behind denies us even that final courtesy. Touched by an Angel evinced a more robust spirituality than this film.
Is this what the Christian film industry has to offer us—this watery spirituality married to risible craftsmanship? We deserve better. Left Behind is limp, utterly impotent to either move us or instruct us. It just lies there like a set of empty clothes, with no flesh or spirit to animate it. If the project ever had a creative spark in it, that spark has long since been raptured away. We who sit in the theater have been left behind. At least we can take comfort in the fact that that creative spark is somewhere else now, in a much better place than we are.