With Nicolas Cage, Lea Thompson, Chad Michael Murray, Nicky Whelan, and Cassi Thomsen; Written by Paul Lalonde & John Patus; Directed by Vic Armstrong; Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements, violence/peril and brief drug content; 110 minutes.
I love Nicolas Cage, and not in that smarmy, ironic way you see from people who get all excited about “Sharknado.” No, I genuinely adore his bug-eyed, wild physicality and cuckoo line readings. Employing a tactic he himself has dubbed “mega-acting,” Cage’s peacock performances are able to enliven even the most terrible movies – which is a good thing, because that’s all he seems to make these days.
A series of unfortunate financial events, mostly involving back taxes, expensive alimony arrangements, and foreclosed-upon Fortresses of Solitude, have banished this one-time box office titan to the dregs of direct-to-video garbage. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: every turkey saps his star status and lowers Cage’s asking price, which means he has to keep starring in more and more of them to stay afloat.
He’s bottomed out big-time with LEFT BEHIND, the chintzy reboot of a Christian movie franchise from the early 2000s that previously starred noted Stephen Hawking-debunker and evangelical pest Kirk Cameron. Based on a series of twelve novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, “Left Behind” is a sprawling tale of dispensationalist forewarning, beginning with God rapturing all the true believers into heaven and leaving the rest of us on Earth to suffer a century or so of pestilence and torment. Also, the Antichrist becomes Secretary General of the United Nations.
But you won’t find any of that goofy Antichrist stuff in this new-and-improved version. (No Kirk Cameron either, hashtag blessed.) Sticking to early chapters of the first book, it’s basically just a shoddy disaster movie that pauses occasionally to proselytize. Cage appears exhausted as Captain Rayford Steele, a sad-sack airline pilot whose wife Irene (Lea Thompson) has driven him to adulterous yearnings after converting to hard-line Christianity. “If she had to leave me for another man,” he sighs, “it might as well be Jesus.”
He’s flying a 747 to London when half of the passengers (and his co-pilot) abruptly and instantaneously vanish into the Grace of God, leaving nothing but piles of clothes in their seats. (Apparently everyone is naked in Heaven.) With the help of hard-nosed investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), Captain Steele does some awesome detective work to figure out where everybody went, and the two try and find a place where he can safely land the plane now that civilization has collapsed into chaos.
One might assume that a sudden disappearance of all the End-Timers would make our world a much more peaceful and tolerant place, but “Left Behind” posits the opposite. On the ground, Captain Steele’s skeptical college student daughter Chloe (Cassi Thompson) is attacked by roving motorcycle bandits and dodges mobs of shrieking looters. Most of the extras here seem to have been instructed to just run around screaming, and in the movie’s least convincing performance (which is saying something) the New York City borough of Queens is portrayed by Baton Rouge.
Director Vic Armstrong is best known for being Indiana Jones’s stunt double, and his helming here suggests he may have taken a few too many bumps to the head during his previous career. “Left Behind” has the flimsy sets and tinny synthesizer score (not to mention the character names) of a 1980s porn flick. The cutting patterns are genuinely bizarre, with long gaps of dead air after every sentence rendering the scenes inert. There’s a truly weird dissonance in an Academy Award-winning actor stranded in cheap-jack amateur-hour evangelical propaganda executive produced by Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” infame, and Cage’s embarrassment comes through in the performance.
He dials down the “mega-acting” to a droll result, deadpanning ever-flatter in response to the increasing hysteria around him. I died at his nonplussed reaction to being informed that the plane was on fire, as well as at an earlier disinterested mutter: “either I’ve gone crazy or the whole world is insane.” Nic seems really unhappy to be there, so at least we had that in common.
The producers of “Left Behind” ran a cheeky ad last week with a pull-quote from famous movie critic Satan, asking: “Please do not bring Unbelievers to this movie.” I understand films like this are designed first and foremost as recruitment tools, but I’m at a loss to find a conversion narrative here. According to “Left Behind,” God’s rules for rapture are entirely dogma-based, having nothing to do with being a good person or kindness toward your fellow man. This leaves all our heroes we are supposed to like and care about damned from the very first act of the film, not to mention the poor, devout Muslim passenger who now must suffer for eternity because he chose the wrong brand of God. There’s nothing being conveyed here besides childish gloating about all the pain we’ll endure after the filmmakers are whisked away to their eternal reward, and that doesn’t feel like a particularly Christian attitude to me.
The only prayers “Left Behind” inspires are for Nicolas Cage’s career.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.