So I Just Saw Left Behind

I have something of a bizarre love for Nicolas Cage.  I know that most movies in which he has appeared in the last two decades are not particularly good films.  I know that despite showing a lot of promise as an actor when he was younger (he won an Oscar for Best Actor!), his performances vacillate wildly between absurdly manic (what his fans call “mega acting” because over acting is too diminutive a term) and painfully wooden.  There really isn’t a whole lot of nuance in between those two modes that I’ve seen in the Nic Cage movies I’ve watched (and with summer getting geared up, I’m ready for another round of Nicolas Cage Match).

Nonetheless, I love watching Nicolas Cage.  He’s someone who clearly has some talent in his chosen profession, but due to various personal reasons (I understand his finances are constantly a shambles) he ends up taking whatever silly role he’s offered in order to pay the bills.  I like to think of him as one of the most famous “working actors” in Hollywood (that’s in comparison to superstars who are paid and handle their finances well enough to be choosy in what roles they take).

Left Behind (2014) Poster

“What have I gotten myself into this time?” (Image credit: IMDb)

I’m including all this preface because it’s important to understand my opinion of Nicolas Cage now, a little over two years after I first heard that he was going to star in the Left Behind reboot.  It was learning of his part in that movie that piqued my interest in Nic Cage as a personality and led to me having seen far more of his movies than is strictly healthy.  Finally getting a chance to see this train wreck is a kind of culmination to an infatuation that’s been going on longer than my blog.  Everyone knew that Left Behind would be bad, and Nicolas Cage’s involvement only served to get my hopes up that it would also be entertaining.

Unfortunately, Cage doesn’t really make the movie more entertaining (we’ve rolled the dice and come up with a wooden, stoic Cage performance).  He’s playing Rayford Steele, an airline pilot who is supposed to be something of a silver fox in the Left Behind novels (partly due to the authors’ persistent delusion that their two protagonists are in any way interesting, likeable, or attractive), and perhaps the only good thing I can say about the performance is that Nic Cage really commits to portraying Rayford as the boring creep he actually is.

Beyond that, Left Behind is one of those movies that you go into expecting it to be bad, and you’re surprised to find it’s not horrible.  Then the disappointment sets in as the whole thing unfurls in a kind of unremarkable mediocrity that leaves you with pretty much nothing to say except that you saw it.

Then you remember that this is a movie built around one of the most persistent pieces of speculative fiction in American culture, and you think of a bunch of things you can say about the premise itself.

Let’s just put it out there: Left Behind is a story about the Rapture, and somehow it manages to assert repeatedly that the Rapture is ultimately a good thing (if you squint your eyes a bit and look at it sideways) without explaining why, exactly, that is.

Let’s back up for just a moment and discuss the Rapture as a concept.  The Rapture is a piece of pop theology that’s gained prominence in the last century as an explanation for all the weird visionary stuff that’s described in the Books of Daniel and Revelation in the Bible.  It’s a particularly popular concept in American evangelicalism and has taken hold of the popular culture conception of what Christianity’s apocalyptic literature is ultimately about, especially in the last forty or so years with the advent of books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins’s Left Behind novel series.  The premise of the Rapture is that at an unspecified time, God will snatch up all faithful Christians to heaven (plus innocent children in some versions) and leave the rest of humanity to suffer as the world draws to an end under the malevolent guidance of the Antichrist, a world leader who’s working to carry out the will of Satan in the final years before Christ returns and establishes an eternal kingdom.

Left Behind is a movie that supposes what would happen in the hours immediately following the Rapture if it were to occur.

Besides Rayford’s perspective, which deals directly with the problems of managing such a crisis while in transit across the Atlantic Ocean, the movie also follows his college-age daughter Chloe, who is on the ground dealing with the sudden disappearance of her younger brother and her recently converted mother.  Chloe’s story is the far more interesting one, though it continually baffles me with its logical leaps and unsupported assumptions.  As she’s dealing with the sudden panic and looting that sets in once all the children and Christians vanish (panic I can understand, but looting?), Chloe works through the explanation of what’s happened (just accept the premise that this is a world where no one outside the circle of believing Christians has ever heard of the Rapture) and has a very intense one-sided argument with God about how this scenario really isn’t loving at all.  Chloe is our resident straw-atheist, and to the writers’ credit she actually does ask some important questions regarding why God would employ anything as insane as the Rapture to make themselves known.  Unfortunately, because this is a movie that’s really targeting true believers instead of trying to converse with skeptics, God and their advocates never offer a really satisfactory explanation, but instead browbeat Chloe into conversion through a series of emotional traumas that leave her asking for forgiveness as she’s about to jump off the top of a bridge because this world and its God suck.

To paraphrase George Carlin, this world’s God will kill your family, leave you to die violently in a torrent of pain, anguish, and hellfire along with all the other people who don’t believe in them, offer you no explanation for why all this stuff is happening other than vague platitudes that you deserve it, and then when you’re at the point of breaking swoop in to say that they love you.

The Rapture is some screwed up stuff, and Left Behind hangs on with both hands as it tries to make the concept believable.  It’s too bad that the source material isn’t so good, since there’s the possibility of a mediocre thriller buried in the whole mess.

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