Earlier this week, I caught part of a TV show called Cutthroat Kitchen, a cooking competition show. In one episode, the contestants had to prepare spaghetti and meatballs. One contestant prepared this elaborate three tomato pasta sauce with aromatic spices and savory seasoning. She pureed it and then, when she went to pour it out, she knocked it off the counter. Everything spilled on the floor and into the trash can. Nothing could be salvaged. The clock was counting down. She didn’t have time to make another batch, but then she realized that she had the drippings left in the pan. So she grabbed some water and balsamic vinegar, poured it in the pan, and attempted to make a substitute. She passed it off to the judge as a sauce reduction, though there was hardly enough to even color the noodles. According to the judge, it barely had the hint of sauce, let alone actual sauce.
That is what Left Behind is. Any elements of Christianity, story telling, disaster, and so on are no more than hints. Promises that are never delivered and that actually leave you feeling nauseated.
I hardly even know where to begin on this movie. Left Behind is a reboot of the Left Behind series, and I guess the best way to analyze this is just to dig right in.
First, let’s start with biases. I am a Christian. I’m from the heartland. I am familiar with the Bible as well as various eschatological theories and perspectives. This movie was an enormous disappointment. I had not viewed any of the previews or trailers for this movie. But even so, I found the movie bland, disappointing, and mind numbing. I actually left the theater with a headache. This review may be a little scrambled as I am not entirely sure how to organize it, so I hope you’ll bear with me.
Premises You Must Accept if You’re Going to Enjoy This Movie
Um…I really don’t know where to start on this one. I struggled to find anything good and noteworthy in this movie. If you enjoyed this film and have a perspective to share, please do. As it stands, I think the people who will most enjoy this will be the ones who fill in the blanks with the knowledge that they have and are just excited to see a bigger budget of a story they enjoyed or those who love to watch bad movies.
So, characters are normally the best elements of a story for me. Mediocre stories can be saved by great characters or at least memorable characters. Critical flaws can be covered up with a character who is so real you are drawn in. Firefly, for instance, is one of my favorite series. Even if the stories hadn’t been well constructed, I would have still enjoyed the series because I loved Mal, River, Zoe, Shepherd, and all the rest. But in Left Behind, there is not one developed or memorable character.
The only things that we know about the characters are what we are told. No one is developed. Lea Thompson plays Irene Steele, one of the most clearly depicted Christian characters who has a name and something of a back story. (Though really, the back story is only in comparison to the other characters here.) She does the best with what she has, but we never hear her share her faith. Supposedly, she’s a new Christian who converted within the last year and is a bit of a wacko. Of course, in the one exchange where we hear her talking to her daughter, the only thing that she asks is that her daughter hear her out and that she wants her daughter to be ready. However, the discussion includes nothing about what the daughter should be ready for, why this matters so much to the mother, or even why she chose to convert. Most of the time, later in life conversions are related to some change within that individual’s life. Like a close brush with death or the loss of a close family member or something like that. So what happened? Also why was her daughter so hateful toward her about it? Neither the mother nor the daughter really seemed like unreasonable people, and so the animosity that the daughter had for her mother was quite strange.
The movie itself is divided primarily between Nicholas Cage as Rayford Steele, Chad Michael Murray as Buck Williams, and Cassi Thomson as Chloe Steele. All of the characters could easily be summed up as a stereotype. And none of them added anything. You could have substituted out just about any of them without losing anything. The most memorable individual in the film was Martin Klebba who played an agitated and manipulative character, Melvin Weir, who really didn’t get enough screen time.
Please don’t expect any character development or growth to come out of this. There isn’t even a Nicholas Cage freak out in this movie, though there’s a couple points when it would have been perfect. The pacing of the movie is only appropriate for a deeper emotional drama that looks into the dynamics of a family that is struggling with these new changes, namely the mother’s conversion and the father’s decision to pursue an affair. But that’s not all that this film is supposed to be about. For being a suspenseful nail biter where the audience is kept wondering what’s happening, none of that suspense or tension build up really occurs. It’s like an annoying acquaintance trying to scare you. You see him creeping toward you with the mask on, you wave at him, but he still keeps acting as if he’s somehow going to take you by surprise. It’s really rather sad.
An Example of the Acting
It’s quite incredible how poor the acting is in this film. Most of the time, I prefer to give the actors the benefit of the doubt. In this case, I had only doubt about whether anyone cared about this film. One of the best examples I can think of is how the parents, particularly the mothers, reacted when their children were taken in the rapture. There’s some screaming and crying, but for the most part, they’re remarkably composed. You can clearly tell that they’re acting. In fact, there’s not a single wet eye. Not a single tear. No smeared make up. Relatively little screaming.
Tell me…if you were holding your child in your arms and that child vanished, leaving behind nothing but her clothes, wouldn’t you be screaming and sobbing? I’ve seen mothers who have lost their children, and…you know what…they were hysterical. There was screaming, weeping, barely discernible words, shrieking, and more. The agony that those mothers endured, the terror, the fear of what had happened to their beloved children still tears at my heart when I remember them. Not one of the parents or caretakers of these children demonstrated anything close to that. And putting fake tears in someone’s eyes really isn’t that hard. The absence of tears and the relative blandness of the performances are painfully noticeable. The actors clearly don’t care, so why should the audience?
Chloe should be in absolute agony over what all has happened. Yet throughout the entire film, she remains fairly composed, only showing the most marginal of emotional engagement. When her character is flirting with Chad Michael Murray, it’s probably some of the most engaging moments of the film. There’s a definite chemistry between the two. They’re both trying, and they have facial expressions, body language, and everything! Looking back on it, it’s one of the best points in the movie, even though the two connect way too fast with Chad Michael Murray kissing Cassi Thomson on the cheek before he leaves for his flight, even though they only just met. They act like they’ve been dating for awhile.
Plot Holes and Audience Engagement
Once again, it’s hard to know where to start on this. A number of things are entirely unexplained, and even with my knowledge of the Bible, the Left Behind series, and eschatology in general, I can’t figure out what they were going for. For instance, apparently everyone in charge of ground control with the exception of one operator as well as whoever is in charge of satellites and so forth were all Christians because suddenly there’s no one handling these operations. Characters who were never established as Christians apparently are Christians and are taken in the rapture, and even though supposedly some of these Christians are radically obnoxious individuals who are always trying to force it down people’s throats, no one except Nicholas Cage (and an hour and a half into the movie I might add) even starts to consider that this might be the rapture.
In fact, there really isn’t enough time to go over all the plot holes. Disaster movies with cars trying to outrun earthquakes and tornadoes time and time again are more believable than this. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the movie was actually the three old women sitting behind us. For those of you who are familiar with the Pepper Pots from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, these three old women were a real treat. They had come to watch the movie after church and were planning to go out to a tea shop or some other such place. But throughout the movie, they clicked their tongues, exclaimed in surprise, and provided fantastic commentary every so often. My favorite was the little old lady in the blue and lavender flower print dress and the little black hat. Halfway through the movie, she leaned over to her friend and whispered, “I fell asleep, dearie. Has the plot come yet?” I thoroughly enjoyed those three ladies, and since they didn’t do it through the whole movie, their antics helped make it more palatable.
But back to the engagement with the movie, the story is entirely unbelievable. It struck me as odd that within seconds of the rapture occurring, the entire city shifts into chaos. I realize that looting thugs and chaos are necessary in any disaster movie, but once again let’s go back to all the Christians and children who disappeared. Even in a less than charitable look on religion, one could argue that the rapture, if it took Christians and all children (though who knows what age that cutoff is), would take about half of the world’s population. So that would mean that those thugs and villains would have family members who were all snatched up as well. But apparently the first thought on most of their minds is to grab televisions, gift bags, and clothing. In fact, in that sequence, you’ll see almost hilarious overacting as the extras play tug of war with plasma screen TVs and escape with prom dresses. Hey the end of the world might be coming, but at least they’ll watch it in style in front of the finest television screen.
I need to stop on the plot holes and inconsistencies because there really isn’t time. Suffice it to say, if you pay attention, you will see issues everywhere from the little details relating to consistency of time to the big details like “why was there a need for a slow motion explosion and running shot?”
This movie has been marketed as a Christian film. Now what Christian film means is entirely up for interpretation. In fact, I’d actually like to dig into that later in a separate piece. In general, a Christian film seems to be one that deals with Christian themes, though even that is debatable, and it may be as simple as a film which Christians developed. But in any substantive sense, this movie is not Christian. The fruit of this tree is bad, even for bad movie standards, and any association with Christianity and spirituality is little more than the faintest hint.
At one point in the film, a random character who seems to be full of conspiracy theories suggests that perhaps the rapture (which incidentally is never named or if it is, I never caught it) was actually an alien abduction. For all the development of God we’re given, this might as well be the case. In fact, God is given about as much attention as any of the other conspiracy theories that in the know viewers will know is not the case at all.
Questions central to Christianity are asked by the atheists and agnostics. Good questions that should be asked. One of the best is how a compassionate God can allow suffering and tragedy. Early in the film, Chad Michael Murray, while chatting with Cassi Thomson, recounts the story of a woman who survived a tsunami with her infant though she lost her other three children. She immediately fell to the ground and praised God for saving her, but she refused to leave the village and was then killed that night in a mudslide. Chad Michael Murray uses this point to explain why he does not believe in a compassionate God. No one ever responds to him, unless you count the clearly crazy airport lady who simply says “it’s a fallen world that’s no longer perfect.” There’s no response to the obvious questions that even that statement raises. And don’t get me wrong the question of how a compassionate God who supposedly loves His creation can allow such things to happen is vital. What shocks me though is that there isn’t even an attempt to engage in this discussion. Not one!
At another point, a passenger on the plane suggests that they pray. Martin Klebba’s character at once jumps up and demands to know “whose God?” It’s a valid question that actually is more poignant now that I think back on it. What God is being represented in Left Behind? The easy assumption is that it’s the God of the Bible, since we do see the Bible and all. But God is never really portrayed, developed, or revealed in anyway. This God character could be practically any god.
Even more shockingly, Jesus is not mentioned at all. At least not that I recall. John 3:16, (the reference alone, not the full verse) appears on a watch in what is supposed to be a dramatic moment. In fact, God is portrayed in such a way that is actually quite cold and distant. The aliens in Independence Day and War of the Worlds are more engaged than God is in this story. The taking of the children and infants in the rapture is not portrayed in such a way that suggests mercy. It feels like they’ve been stolen. Now, many Christians will defend this as the pastor mentions that they were taken to be saved from the coming hardships and persecution. But that is barely touched upon. And it’s not even clear why the children and infants are taken nor is it made clear that only the Christians are taken. If you don’t know anything about Christian eschatology, you’re going to be extremely confused by this film because nothing is explained.
And frankly, if you’re going to do a story about the end times using Christianity as your base, Jesus is one of the most vital components. The end times are all leading up to the end of the world when Jesus Christ returns! Other key components include the plagues, tribulations, the antichrist, and far more. But none of this shows up in the story.
Most of the time in disaster movies the first few minutes are spent building up what’s going on in the world. You know…establishing the setting. Take World War Z for example. In the opening sequences, a series of shots establishes that something strange is happening in nature. They use news reports and bulletins to establish a feel for the world and some context. Into the Storm uses the opening shots to show a strange tornado occurrence with later events depicting the increasing oddity of this particular storm cell. Left Behind starts off with a very strange woman who comes across as a creeper. She references a verse from the Bible saying that there are “wars and rumors of wars.” Here’s the problem…there hasn’t been a period in history where that hasn’t been the case, so what is it about this time that has her convinced that things have changed?
This world is vague and empty, white and bland. Christian movies as a whole can be quite badly put together and badly acted, but at least I often feel that the people involved cared. Here, there was no investment in the process, no passion in the creation, and not even the faintest attempt at integrity. Much of the time, it feels like the movie wants to be deep and surprise the audience, but it never provides enough information for those who don’t know anything about the subject to even begin to unravel what’s happening and it doesn’t provide a twist for those who are intimately familiar with the content. In fact, at the end, it fades to black and then reveals a Bible verse, Mark 13:32…of all verses…it’s not that the verse is the worst choice. I suppose they could have referenced Jeremiah 17:2 or Numbers 11:9. At least Mark 13:32 is connected to the end times. However, that verse only references what did happen, and provides no hook for continuing forward or wanting to see the next film. Revelations is filled with many more enticing and gripping verses that would have been more appropriate.
Anti Christian Bias from Reviewers and Critics
Before I went to see this film, I heard from a number of friends that critics were panning this movie because it was Christian. That they hated it simply because of the subject matter. In fact, I was even urged to go see it so that I could support it and tell the film makers to keep making movies like this because “the world needs more!” I actually didn’t go to see the reviews first because I wanted to see the movie with as much of an open mind as I could.
Let me tell you this. Whether an anti Christian bias exists is irrelevant for this movie because the movie is so bad that even Christians will have a hard time defending it. From a quality standpoint, it is amateurish, clunky, and poorly developed. I have nothing against slower movies. I love a good atmospheric character study, but those types of movies let you know individuals. They don’t just present stereotypes. To say that the reaction is just an anti Christian bias is to be blind to the numerous issues with this film.
I know that a number of well meaning Christians have tried to support this movie and even give it positive reviews without having seen the movie. I beg you: do not review or support this movie until you go to see it. There’s an ethical issue there first of all that I can barely believe has to be addressed. But second, this is serious egg on the face for Christians. While the budget is bigger for this film and the overall quality in terms of resolution and camera steadiness is a step up, the movie as a whole is embarrassingly bad.
After seeing the review, I stopped by Rotten Tomato and a couple of other sites to see how people who liked it were reviewing it. Shockingly, most of the positive reviews were exceptionally general and sounded as if they had been bought from a PR firm. They said things like “greatest blockbuster of the year” or they went on and on about how clearly the rapture is presented and how this will serve as a warning. Listen, in all seriousness, the only warning that your non Christian friends are going to take away from this (absent a miracle from God) is that they should never agree to go see a Christian movie with you again, ever.
Make sure that you see this movie before you recommend it. Recommending any movie without seeing it and without being upfront about that is bad to begin with as well as irresponsible. But recommending this movie is particularly bad because of its quality and its message. Care for a real life example of how bad this is? One of my friends has been struggling with her faith. After she saw this movie, she said that she found the arguments presented by the atheists to be more persuasive, and she is questioning her faith. That’s the kind of movie this is.
Potential Discussion Questions and Possible Teaching Moments
So if you decide that you still want to go and see this film and use it as a conversation starter here’s some possible ideas. The purpose of these questions is to get everyone thinking, regardless of where he or she stands in faith or outside of it.
1) What is a Christian movie? What separates it from others? (And seriously, the lack of quality should not be one of the things that separates a Christian movie from all the others.)
2) Why does a supposedly righteous and compassionate God allow pain and suffering to exist? Bonus points if you discuss why people today suffer even though they did not participate in the original sin (i.e. the eating of the fruit).
3) Is suffering a good thing? How can it be discussed if it is without resorting to cheap platitudes or without becoming cynical and bitter if it isn’t?
4) Should Christians support bad Christian movies just because they’re Christian?
5) Does the presentation style affect the meaning of the message, and if so, how?
6) What should be the foremost point in telling a good story in a Christian film? The story or the point? Why? And if the point, how do you avoid turning it into a legalistic sermon that annoys non Christians?
7) How can you tell a Christian from a non Christian? Would it be apparent that you are or are not? Does it matter? Why or why not?
8) Would the world really go insane and enter mass chaos if all the Christians vanished? Why? Other religious individuals and even atheists and agnostics are not all horrific people who have no moral compass. Most people do live their lives based around some central core of ideals.
9) How would you respond to an atheist like Chloe? Chloe articulates some very strong positions among atheists and agnostics. Cheap trick answers wouldn’t satisfy a person like her. So how would you answer her questions and engage her in conversation?
10) Could people who genuinely believed that they were saved be left behind?
11) And if you’re really feeling brave, what does the Bible ACTUALLY have to say about the end times and the rapture? What comes from Scripture and what comes from church tradition? And is it problematic that the majority of the so called knowledge surrounding the rapture does not actually come from the Bible but from Jesuit priests a couple centuries ago?
12) What are other perspectives on end times? A significant number of Christians do not actually accept that the rapture is biblical because of the history and the full context of the verses used to support it. What do you think? If you find yourself feeling particularly defensive and frightened by the concept that the rapture is not as biblically supported as you thought, why? Are you placing your trust in the rapture?
13) Every generation of Christians has believed that they are the generation who will see Christ’s return. The Apostle Paul even had to tell Christians to go about living their lives! So are we really in the end times? Why do you think so? The most commonly cited verses used to justify this are general enough that they could be true of any point in history? So why now? What’s different?
Additionally there are two moments that might be considered teachable or effective moments. The first occurs when Chloe encounters her pastor in the church. He like all the non Christians was left behind, and he has to face the fact that he never really believed himself. Chloe confronts him on this and demands to know why she should believe when he himself never did. That little scene alone is a poignant question that many should ask themselves.
Jordin Sparks, at the very end, sings the song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The structure of that scene and the image of the survivors standing in front of the flaming plane could be considered a teaching moment. It certainly leaves something of an impression and is rather haunting. But it would need to be set up better than this movie set it up. Though in fairness, the thrill I felt might have been more related to the fact that the movie was over rather than that it was good.
Personally, I think even those moments are somewhat weak, but I’m trying to be charitable.
One Possible Explanation
This movie truly boggles my mind, both in how bad it is and how the people involved could actually think it would be any good. I discovered an article in the Blaze in which the film makers stated they saw this as being the first movie in a series of movies where this first one would set up the characters. This was just the introduction, folks. The really good stuff is yet to come….This entire movie was basically a preview…A one hour and fifty minute preview.
Here’s the problem: the characters weren’t interesting, and there’s no incentive to return to theaters to see what becomes of
them. No hints were given except for vague generalities about it being the beginning of the end. But what does that look like? What does that mean? This movie should have first established the reason that the characters were in the end times, what that meant, and what was happening to support the belief that this was the end times. In fact, it should have also established the characters beyond the cardboard caricatures. We didn’t need all those scenes of Cassi Thomson walking, contemplating suicide, and staring vaguely into the distance.
Here’s the other problem: what kind of a Christian would put this story together and claim that it has anything redemptive? Why ask the hard questions and then never even attempt to answer them. This movie is more persuasive as a case for deism or an absent God. Left Behind misses the entire point of such a story. In fact, it misses the entire point of any story. Stoney Lake Entertainment is an offshoot of Cloud Ten Production, I believe, which was involved with the original Left Behind. And while the original Left Behind was nothing spectacular, it at least had some attempt at heart, explanation, and passion. In my opinion, this movie was made for one reason: making money.
In fact, this is why I feel that the movie is so incredibly offensive. There’s a place for bad movies. Not every movie out there has to be Citizen Kane, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or the Ten Commandments. But the thing about most enjoyable bad movies and popcorn flicks is that they know that they’re bad movies. They don’t pretend that they want to say something profound. They don’t act as if they hold some deep secret. Oftentimes, their actors play over the top characters who are more fun to laugh at than relate to or they depict mass carnage in increasingly unbelievable circumstances. Transformers 4, in my opinion, was nothing short of a cash grab and was actually a fairly poor movie, but it didn’t pretend that it was going to be anything deep. It delivered what it promised. So bad they’re good movies are generally upfront about what they’re offering. Left Behind promised something spectacular. A bigger budget and more revolutionary version of the original Left Behind movie that would leave the audience in suspense as the tableau of the end times unfolded. But what it was was a lazy account of a possibly adulterous man who is also a bad father trying to land a plane in difficult circumstances.
So if you’re considering taking your youth group to this film or
a group of friends or hope to take your non Christian friends to it to start a good conversation, I recommend skipping it unless you know what you’re getting into. You can make good conversations come up from this, but you’re probably going to have to spend just as much time explaining why Christians make such crappy movies and why God doesn’t care.
Of course, if the people in reality were as dull and simple as the ones in this movie, it’s little wonder that God wouldn’t care. I know I didn’t.