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When Story is Left Behind
Although carrying some solid acting and suspense, Left Behind's plot is a casualty in its message's crusade.

This movie is a work of fiction, and should be viewed as such. Getting the elephant in the room out of the way early, I confess that my study of Scripture and Church history have led me to disagree with the "rapture" theology as commonly understood by many Christians and dramatized in this film. That said, my aim in evaluating the new Left Behind movie, a reboot of the 2000 Kirk Cameron film franchise based on the novel series by Tim LaHaye (which I also confess, I have not read myself), is not to fault the movie for its theology.

As I said before, this movie is a work of fiction. The end credits of the film declare this explicitly. Like any apocalyptic thriller that warns of the end times (and let's be real, Left Behind is neither the first nor will it be the last to offer a tale, Biblically based or otherwise, about the end times), it first and foremost has to stand as simply a story.

Christian movies have gotten the reputation of being cheesy. Some recent hits offer the promise of shaking that stigma, but the opening moments of Left Behind don't exactly inspire hope that this movie will be one of them. The happy-sunny instrumentation aside, the opening bit in which renowned news reporter Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray) is borderline harassed by a group of warning Christians is not exactly the best foot to get off on either.

I am not sure if it was just the heavy-handed script, a lack of belief on the part of the performers, or perhaps a stab at intentional irony, but I found myself (a believer) relating less to the believers (who aren't seen again and come off quite angry) and more to the "unbelievers." Interestingly, the movie goes out of its way to not demonize them. If anything, they are given emotionally believable reasons for their non-belief, reasons often cited by real-life skeptics, and they aren't demonized as simply a bunch of deviant heathens. But still, whenever a movie has a theological theme at the heart that gets too heavy-handed, story often suffers. And for roughly the first half of Left Behind, this is definitely the case.

One big problem with the entire concept applied as a movie is that you know that "the rapture" is coming throughout the entire first act. Therefore, the impending "doom" hangs over the preceding events with a sense of dread. This could perhaps work for a short while, but I think this went on for far too long and stretched the other conflicts way too thin. Essentially, the entire first act was too much obvious setup where little important happens.

But there is a setup, which, essentially, is introducing the movie's main protagonists. While the 2000 film deviated from the novels in favor of the aforementioned Buck Williams, this movie restores the novel's primary protagonist in Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage— yes, more on him later too). His daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) also serves as a secondary protagonist. The setup is that after Steele's wife Irene (Lea Thompson) became a Christian, her marriage to Rayford became rocky. Rayford, a pilot, is often away from home and implied to be at least moving towards a romantic affair with stewardess Hattie (Nicky Whelan).

Chloe is a doubter of God's love, and clings to the old "what kind of God would allow so much suffering" cliché. It'd probably come off as a weak excuse if it weren't so widely used in real life. There's also a little brother in the mix, who serves to check most of the cliché boxes for "lovable little brother who's only slightly annoying." Apparently, Irene has been pushing Christianity onto her family, and it's created somewhat of a rift between her and her daughter and husband.

Unfortunately, the movie relies a bit too much on the inevitability of the rapture, and as a result this conflict is never given proper development. We're just supposed to take it for a given that Irene is right and Chloe and Rayford are wrong. I'm a Christian too, but the movie doesn't really want to seem to work at convincing the unbelievers. Even veiled references to Biblical support for the ideas are just barely referenced and fail to really establish a convincing case.

Nevertheless, we the audience know the rapture is coming. It's all a matter of when. That's another thing that acts as a bit of a distraction in the first act: guessing "who's gonna be left behind" with regard to the secondary characters. It's pretty obvious most of the time, but a few seem like they could go either way. In hindsight, some of the logic behind some of the choices feels quite a bit contrived, and I wish there were some more surprises that would lend solid internal conflict.

By the time it all goes down, it's only mildly shocking when a cute scene is suddenly turned into "here comes the rapture" (although it does serve as an iconic scene in the movie). It felt like it took quite a while to actually get here. A smattering of good character moments aside, the movie felt like it was dragging to get to this point. But now it's happened, so things should finally start picking up, right? Well, yes and no.

From an entertainment perspective, I suppose it does. Chloe's immediate panic in the aftermath of the rapture is compelling, and there are definitely some "let's burn some millions of our budget" special effect scenes that are fairly wowing for a Christian film, even if they aren't exactly plot pushing. The entire panic is effective in conveying horror that such an event would leave the world in, complete with looting, screaming, gridlock and destruction (and lots of empty clothes). If only the scenes could escape the feeling of a movie coasting along.

Things are also dramatic in the other setting to the story, Rayford's plane. A part of me really wishes the entire movie just kept its focus here. The secondary players of the sky actually pose the potential to be interesting, but there are too many "left behind" and not enough time really given to develop any of them properly besides a few scattered minutes that are nice, but left me wishing the narrative allowed for more natural development. Little person Melvin provides needed comic relief. A kindly Muslim man checks the obligatory "nice doesn't save you if you aren't Christian" box. Jordin Sparks' Shasta does well with what she's given, but aside from an out-of-nowhere climactic scene, she's essentially used as just dressing. There's a lot I want to see come of this, but everything's just spread a little too thin.

Of course, the natural implications of a rapture leaving many vehicles unmanned is explored and essentially serves as the main conflict in the second half of the movie, especially in regards to Rayford's plane. I won't spoil all the goings on, but despite definite B-movie feel, it actually felt like the movie finally decided to start offering something at least aiming towards compelling drama with some legitimate suspenseful moments. In fact, I was much more interested in the "Rayford's plane" angle than I was the fairly bland "the rapture is coming" arc. But the latter is strapped into the back seat by the time the plane conflict finally revs up, and it finally starts feeling like a movie and not just a vague lecture on "getting ready."

Now to address another elephant in the room (how did I possibly get this far without talking in depth about Cage?). I mentioned before how Christian movies are often hammy, and how this one often seemed to veer into that lane. You'd think one way to solve that problem is to take a renowned Oscar-winning actor and drop him into the lead role, right? Ah, but what if that actor has himself developed a reputation for being hammy? But at the same time, he's had moments of sheer brilliance in the past (like an Oscar-winning role)? Well, the result is surprisingly low-key.

I've been a Cage fan for a while, if only because Nic Cage has the range to embrace both award-caliber depth and unapologetically hammy cheese. But a few fleeting moments aside, Cage is surprisingly, well, caged. This actually works to the movie's benefit. With a slew of less impressive performances freaking out, Cage's Steele grounds things in a calm and reflective leader. Cage's eyes have always been good at carrying emotion, and the same is true here. He doesn't have to break down crying to show he's upset, but the contrast between a man terrified and a pilot calmly trying to guide his remaining passengers safely was actually legitimately compelling.

While most of the movie offered contrived plot points (even things unrelated to the rapture, like the insta-connection between Buck and Chloe after one brief meeting in the first few scenes), Cage's scenes actually felt like hints at something greater. The movie felt like it was only truly alive when Cage was onscreen. I think it would definitely have served the movie better to focus more on Cage's storyline, even though the climax sort of underscores the importance of Chloe's too. Still, the movie undeniably is most effective when Cage is onscreen, and I think the isolated nature of that setting in the midst of the rapture wasn't given enough development.

There are so many facets I could delve further into. These range from characters who serve no other purpose than to underscore a theological point (i.e. the pastor), the shaky theology onscreen of the rapture (regardless of whether you genuinely believe in that doctrine in real life or not, the movie sort of hides behind its own beliefs to avoid explaining them), the "whys" for who does and doesn't get raptured, the hollow "conversions" of some left behind, or a hundred other topics. Perhaps the most pressing, story-wise, is the overall lack of plot. The entire movie is essentially "the rapture happens and causes chaos," with one example serving as the movie's main climax.

There are a few characters who go through fairly instantaneous growth, but overall, the movie's biggest flaw is that its narrative is too much a prisoner of its message. If you're not the type to nod along in lock step with the movie's theology, the movie doesn't seem to want to offer you much of anything until the last third or so, be that story or legitimate arguments.

In case this seems overly negative, I actually did find myself enjoying the pieces of the movie that worked. There were some nice jokes, a surprisingly understanding portrayal of nonbelievers, tender family moments, some good suspenseful shots, a thrilling climax and a genuinely noble attempt by Cage to give a serious coat of paint to the whole production. I think the movie proved that it could be good; it maybe even wanted to be good. It had most of the ingredients to be good. And to a point, it was okay. It just got a little too wrapped up in itself, a little too focused on message over plot.

Buck has a fairly profound quote early in the film that could be equally applied to many nonbelievers as well as believers, including perhaps the movie. Left Behind will definitely please the Church crowd, but despite being armed with the tools to go beyond that, it boxed itself in as little than more self-reassurance for Evangelicals. Remember, this is a work of fiction– a story. And regardless of thematic nobility, a story has to function properly as a story, even if it means that the theme needs to be handled with a little more finesse.

J.J. Francesco is an aspiring fiction writer who enjoys Christian rock, good movies and TV, good food, and good company.

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