The Left Behind franchise is coming for your children

So, we need to talk about this: Vanished: Left Behind the Next Generation is coming to theaters in September. Because religious tribalism means even very bad, money-losing movies get to be a franchise. Let’s look at the trailer.

You may recognize Tom Everett Scott in that trailer. Ever since loving That Thing You Do! I’ve almost always been glad to see him getting more work, but in this case it saddens me. It also means that everyone else in this movie now has a Kevin Bacon number of 3 — still higher than that of Kirk Cameron (a 2, via Sean Astin).

I was at first equally disappointed to see Josh Jackson listed in the film’s cast, but then I realized that was the character’s name and not an indication that Pacey’s career had taken a disappointing turn after he was so much fun to watch in Fringe. The character Josh Jackson is played by Mason Dye, a young actor previously best-known for Flowers in the Attic, so he’s really carving out a niche for himself in movies based on trashy-yet-inexplicably-popular books. Rounding out the leads are a pair best known for Teen Wolf (the MTV series) and Nicolodeon’s Haunted Hathaways, both of whom were probably surprised to find themselves on a project with lower production values than they had on basic cable.

Alone at last, our young heroes still leave room for the Holy Spirit.
Alone at last, our young heroes leave room for the Holy Spirit.

Oh, and there’s also a child actress playing the part of a small child — whose post-Rapture presence in this story seems to recalibrate the whole age-of-accountability business in the books. (Watch that kid in the trailer and remind yourself: She has earned all this tribulation, painful death, and eternal damnation. Every child her age has.)

I have mixed feelings about learning that Randy LaHaye — Tim LaHaye’s grandson — will be playing the part of Nicolae Carpathia. On the one hand, that’s delightfully weird. But on the other hand, Gordon Currie Will Always Be My Nicolae. (Randy LaHaye is a good-looking man, but not really in a young-Robert-Redford way. He’s got more of that soap-opera-handsome vibe — the kind of handsome that gets you cast as the soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend in the first act of one of those Christmas rom-coms on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel.)

Also in the cast is Rachel Hendrix, “best known for playing the female lead, Hannah Lawson, in the family drama October Baby.” (By “family drama,” there IMdB means “cringe-inducing propaganda film considered unwatchable even by those predisposed to agree with its anvilicious Message of criminalizing abortion.”)

EchoLight Studios has some sort of share in the production of this movie, so it will be a little less Nic Cage and a little more Rick Santorum. (I’ve lost track of my former senator since the last kid’s table GOP primary debate. Is he back at the “inspirational” film company? Back at the Ethics & Public Policy Center or some similar misnamed think-tank/storage-facility for the far-end of the Republican bench? Anyone know?)

Will Left Behind TNG be as good as the original(s)? Based just on the name, I’ll wait and see — while holding out for Left Behind Deep Space Nine. Or maybe I’ll just wait until Left Behind IV, which I’m hoping will involve Buck and Rayford traveling back in time to save the whales.

As for the trailer itself, it looks like this flick tries to follow the example of the not-Kirk-Cameron reboot — making a conventional thriller using the Rapture as an arbitrary premise. There doesn’t seem to be any theological or religious commitment to that premise, the Rapture is just the MacGuffin that sets the ball rolling. It might just as easily have been invading Cuban paratroopers, as in the original Red Dawn, which looks like the template here. That makes sense, since Left Behind has always been about the same basic fantasy as Red Dawn — wouldn’t it be, like, really cool if civilization collapsed and we turned out to be brave heroes fighting for righteousness? Wolvereeeeeens!

But it seems like the MacGuffin here could have been almost anything — a deadly epidemic, a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion, natural disaster, etc. Any of those would work just as well to get our lead characters to the point where they say “We can’t stay in the city!” (In this trailer that sounds less like a line from San Andreas and more like a white parent explaining that “I don’t want to sound racist, but I just want the best schools for my little Brody and Lily …”) And once our heroes are out of the city, the hints of plot we find in the trailer don’t seem to have anything much at all to do with the folklore of Rapture and Tribulation — just your basic escape-from-a-rural-cult-compound type scenario.

The trailer ends with the URL for a website: “YMIstillhere.com.” I mistook that for an intriguing evangelistic attempt — guessing that this question for the un-raptured “Why am I still here?” would be answered at that website with a basic bit of gospel-tract message and an invitation to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and get saved before it’s too late and you get left behind.

Nope. It’s just a redirect to thevanishedfilm.com — a URL that could itself be the premise for a much cooler movie than this one. That site hosts the trailer and what it describes as a “synopsis” of the story. I’m not sure what this is, exactly, but it’s not that:

When a billion people around the world suddenly vanish, headstrong 15-year-old Gabby is thrust into adulthood way too soon. The event forces Gabby, along with her younger sister Claire and the two teen boys vying for Gabby’s affection, Josh and Flynn – to try to figure out what has happened and how they fit into this dangerous new world.

Inspired by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ NY Times best selling books, VANISHED is filled with a cast from MTV’s “Teen Wolf”, Nickelodeon’s “Haunted Hathaway’s” and Lifetime’s smash movie, “Flowers in the Attic,” making it a tailor-made adventure for today’s teens, tweens, and other fans of the popular YA genre.

A fresh and modern “coming-of-age-during-the-apocalypse” story for the post “Twilight” generation, VANISHED asks: What would happen if everyone you cared about was suddenly taken away? Girls will relate to Gabby and her struggles to deal with missing parents and big sister responsibilities — while wishing they were in her shoes when she’s forced to choose between the all-American hero Josh, and the dark and mysterious Flynn. Guys will be pulled in by the suspense and cool new twist on the “end of the world adventure,” just like “The Walking Dead” and “the Hunger Games.” VANISHED takes its characters — and the audience — far beyond their own fears and desires. It opens them to the questions of purpose and whether their lives and choices matter.

Who is that written for? It’s about “girls” and “guys” and “today’s teens,” but it’s clearly not addressing them. It reads like it was written for the same kind of people it reads like it was written by — the sort of white evangelical youth minister who uses phrases like “today’s teens.” (The same kind of youth minister who squirms through a semi-annual special talk titled “Dating: How Far Is Too Far?”)

Vanished hits theaters on September 28. I look forward to watching it on Netflix, where I expect it will wind up before the holidays.

 

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